chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 12, 2016 Articles

Improving Care for Foster Children

By Shannon Hernández

Hi there I'm Jessica* when I was 8 years old I was in foster care and I had a foster mom that had the same name as you and who worked in [xx] and lived there I was hoping I have the right person if I do please email me…

Jessica, my first foster child, whom I last saw 14 years ago, emailed me out of the blue. She was barely nine then, and I was surprised to hear from her as I had never given her my email address.

My husband and I had thought of Jessica and her younger sister Nicole many times since they left our home in 2002 to be reunified with their family. Jessica (8 years old at time of placement) and her sister Nicole (18 months)—their actual names have been changed for this article—were our first foster children, as well as the first children we ever parented (we started fostering as a newly married couple, before having our own biological children). We had thrown ourselves into parenting them, working hard to do all the things for them that we would have done were they our own birth children. Their needs were significant, as would be expected of children who have experienced the neglect, abuse, or other issues leading up to being removed from their family, and the upheaval and uncertainty of multiple foster placements.

Their trauma and sadness revealed themselves in a need to be consoled at all hours of the day and night for griefs they could not articulate, and in some significant oppositional behavior from Jessica. Not yet able to read as a third grader, Jessica also needed extra help at home to close big gaps in her learning, as well as someone to interface with her teacher on a regular basis to maintain a connection between the work being done at school and the additional help needed at home. The girls also needed all the other things that kids need to grow and thrive—including lots of our time and undivided attention. Nicole needed regular time being held and read to, and help with progressing developmentally for her age with everything from learning to count to eventual potty training. Jessica needed opportunities to explore her interests and build her self-confidence by participating in recreational activities in the community (she especially wanted to learn ballet). And both of the girls needed to experience the kinds of everyday things that make childhood special and memorable (going to see Santa Claus at Christmas, doing an Easter egg hunt on Easter, etc.). We knew we were the only ones who could provide these things for them while they were with us, as even the most dedicated birth parent in the reunification process would be unable to fulfill these daily, around-the-clock needs. We made all of these investments in Jessica and Nicole because we believed that what they experienced and learned during their time with us would shape the rest of their lives for the better and that going without fully dedicated, wholehearted parenting for even a short period during this formative time of their lives would be to their detriment in both the short and long term. This was why we had chosen to become foster parents.

While we believed that our role was to step into the shoes of parents for Jessica and Nicole, we were supportive of the reunification process and potential for them to be returned to their family. We did not think that either goal in any way excluded or diminished the other or that fully invested parenting by us in any way undermined the birth parents; rather, we believed that it simply meant that they would receive the best possible care while with us and that it was what they needed regardless of whether they were to be reunified in the short term, in the long term, or not at all—which was at that point a complete unknown. This belief has become core to all of our foster parenting efforts since then.

After a year of fostering/parenting Jessica and Nicole, we received a call from their social worker informing us that it had been decided that they would be returned to their family in a week's time. Though we were happy for the girls, we were heartbroken at the prospect of saying goodbye. We hoped to stay in touch and even be an extended resource for the family, but we knew there was a possibility we would never see them again. As it went, we had frequent contact for the first few months and even continued to drive Nicole to day care in the mornings to assist her mother who didn't have a car, but then one day they moved and the phone number we had for them no longer worked. From that point on, we could only wonder where life had taken them and hope for the best.

In the 14 years since Jessica and Nicole left our care, we have continued to believe that being foster parents could permanently affect the lives of the children we fostered, and we have cared for children in every age group from infant to teenagers, for periods of time ranging from three days to seven years (interrupted by two failed family reunifications). Over the years, we have experienced moments of great personal satisfaction upon seeing a positive impact from our efforts, along with a sense of despair and failure when it has seemed that nothing we did could help bring about the kind of outcome we desired for our foster children.

Despite the moments of doubt, we have chosen to bet on making a difference by fully investing in meeting the physical, emotional, and educational needs of the children who come to us—that is, by fully parenting them. We believe this is in our foster children's best interests and expect this level of commitment from ourselves any time we accept a placement. We also believe that our foster children should be able to expect that of us.

Even with a firm commitment to provide the best possible parenting to our foster children, certain aspects of the foster care system, though doubtless well intended, can make it difficult for caregivers to fulfill this goal. The following are some of the areas that pose the biggest challenges to us as caregivers and corresponding suggestions for improvement:

Standards and process for sharing relevant, timely information with caregivers. Lack of in-depth information about a foster child's background, experiences, psychological and emotional issues, behaviors (past and current), and case status and issues (especially as they relate to the potential length of the foster placement) creates barriers to providing the best parenting, which requires knowledge and understanding of these factors. However, confidentiality rules protecting sensitive information about the child or birth family from being disclosed other than to certain parties involved in the case—typically, the social worker, birth parents, attorneys, court-appointed special advocates, therapists, and other service providers—often prevent this essential information from being shared with caregivers, who are generally not included in this group. Or sometimes when such information is deemed by the social worker or another party to be relevant to the caregiver's job, there is a lengthy process to secure approval by the other parties and the court, at which point timeliness has been lost.

While it is certainly important to protect the birth family's and child's privacy, the threshold for providing information to caregivers should be redefined. The standard for what is considered "relevant" should be calibrated to what information a parent—any parent—needs to provide the most thorough and informed care and parenting to his or her child. The fact that the children in question are foster children should not result in a different standard because it ultimately affects the quality of parenting these children receive. If a therapist working with a child for 50 minutes once a week needs particular information to facilitate that work, then it is likely that the care provided by the caregiver on a daily basis and spanning all areas of the child's life would be improved by having that same information. For example, if a child has disclosed suicidal thoughts in the past, even if not considered to be a current risk, being aware of that fact will enable the caregiver to be on the lookout for signs of concern in this area and take precautionary steps to help ensure the safety of that child as well as other children in the home. Caregivers who have been entrusted with the full-time care of a child can also be entrusted with all of the information relevant to that care. If this is not the case, then we are bringing in the wrong people to be foster parents or not training them adequately.

In addition to redefining the standard of relevance for sharing information with caregivers, implementation guidelines that include detailed examples of the types of information and materials that qualify under the standard are needed in order to reduce the propensity for varying interpretations by social workers or other parties based on individual predisposition or fear of liability for potential over-disclosure. All parties involved in the foster care system should then be trained on the standards and guidelines in order to become familiar with the rules and their correct application.

Providing the relevant information on a timely basis should also be an essential part of the standards. An additional legal process should not be necessary to obtain clearance to share information that meets the criteria for disclosure to the caregiver. All parties concerned about the best interests of the child should share a sense of urgency to getting relevant information into the hands of the caregiver responsible for the day-to-day care of the child. Days that become weeks or months of delay in providing information to the caregiver mean that during that time the child may not be receiving the same quality of parenting he or she would receive from a fully informed caregiver and, in some cases, results in the development of new or exacerbated needs.

Finally, if there is information the caregiver reasonably believes is necessary or helpful, but that doesn't clearly fall into the identified categories for sharing (or if there is disagreement on the interpretation of the rules), there should be an established process for the caregiver to escalate the issue and seek quick resolution, if need be through an information requesting process from the court, so that these issues do not go unaddressed.

Greater ease for caregivers to share information with the court and engage in the legal process for the benefit of the child. Although caregivers are not parties to the legal case, their participation in the legal process can benefit the foster child and help facilitate more informed decisions by the court. As the day-to-day caregivers, foster parents are aware of key information and details about the child and the child's behaviors and needs, and in some cases, foster parents may see issues or patterns that others who are not with the child on a daily basis don't see. This information is important for other players and especially the court to be aware of when making decisions about the child. Yet, the legal requirements and process for caregivers to participate and provide information can be difficult to navigate—ironically (and sometimes humorously), even with two law degrees between my husband and me, we often find it difficult to overcome these obstacles. Sometimes these obstacles come in the form of unwritten local court rules or interpretation regarding filing requirements that have resulted in being turned away from filing caregiver information forms (or in some cases nearly turned away until escalating to a superior to request compliance with the written rules). On more than one occasion, our caregiver information form, although filed, did not reach the judge before the hearing and would have been missed if we had not attended the hearing and noted that we had submitted information. Barriers that deter or prevent caregiver information or concerns about the child from being part of the decision-making process should be entirely removed as they provide no benefit to foster children. More complex issues than information sharing, such as requesting de facto parent status, are even more difficult to navigate due to lack of accessible information and resources for caregivers on the applicable rules and processes, which deters that type of participation by caregivers.

Recognizing and supporting that the greatest asset foster families have to offer is that they are families, not institutions or paid employees. While we are deeply committed to being foster parents, we are also the parents of three biological children to whom we have a responsibility to provide the best possible childhood and family life. Our biological children have grown up with foster care as a norm, learning from an early age to share everything, from their toys, bedrooms, and even their parents, with our foster children. They open their hearts to every child who enters our home—usually with little more than a few hours' notice—and are often more successful than we are at making them feel comfortable in the initial days after placement as they connect in ways that only children can and welcome them into our family. They quickly become playmates, and with the longer placements, they have become like siblings. This experience of family is one of the greatest assets we can offer to children who have been removed from their own families.

Enabling caregivers to do the things that build and maintain a positive family life, and fully include their foster children in that experience, needs to be recognized and integrated into the foster care system's values and priorities. Without this, foster children will not benefit from the best family experiences while in care, and many caregivers will not remain involved or will feel the need to take breaks from being foster parents to pursue family life.

One significant example of foster care system rules that can hinder caregivers' ability to engage in family life and fully include their foster children is the highly restrictive rules that apply to caregivers traveling away from home with their foster children. In some locations, "travel" means spending even one night out of county—even for an overnight camping trip as little as 30 miles away or a weekend trip out of town, both common things for families to do and positive experiences for children. The rules governing this type of activity by caregivers may require the approvals of the social worker, the biological parents, the parents' attorneys, and the child's attorney. If the caregiver has more than one foster child from different families, approval from all these parties is required for each child. If any one party is unavailable or unresponsive to the request for approval, or if the social worker is busy or away and unable to pursue the approvals, the travel plans are disallowed under the rules. This extremely high hurdle results in foster families being greatly limited in their ability to engage in normal family activities that involve being out of county for short periods of time or in the foster children being excluded from these plans and being left in respite care. Either result is a loss for foster children, and it is unclear how the rules provide any benefit to them. Requiring approvals from as many as six individual parties and giving biological parents what may amount to a veto right over caregivers' incidental family travel do not benefit foster children or make them safer. These kinds of rules also result in caregivers taking breaks from accepting placements near holidays and summer vacations, when families typically want to make these kinds of plans, which results in fewer quality placement options during certain times of year.

These kinds of rules should be rewritten to focus on addressing specific needs (e.g., for short-term travel that doesn't interfere with court-ordered visits, perhaps all that is needed is for the social worker to be made aware of the plans) and should provide a balance that allows foster families the latitude to engage in normal family activities and include their foster children without having to jump through extraordinary hoops. The result of foster children being able to participate in these types of positive family activities more frequently, and preserving the asset of quality caregivers willing and able to accept placements when needed, will benefit both foster children and the foster care system.

On the day that I received the email from Jessica, the lawyer side of me urged caution in responding as I couldn't be certain who the email was from or what she might want. Nevertheless, I wrote back right away:

Hi Jessica - Yes, you have the right person. It's a nice surprise to hear from you - we've thought of you and Nicole many times over the years. I was even looking at some photos of you from back then recently. I hope you're doing well, and would love to hear how life is going and what you're up to now.

Her response came almost immediately:

Oh yeah I'm soo happy I found the right person I'm in tears. Here's my phone number if you wanna catch up . . .

After exchanging a few more emails and texts, we made plans to talk on the phone a few days later. I didn't know what to expect, but she seemed to want to talk on the phone and I was curious to hear her voice after all these years—when I last spoke with her she was a child and I was in a parental role to her, and now she was an adult about whom I knew very little.

Not long after giving me a brief update on her life, she launched into telling me that she had always remembered us—even referring to me as "Mama Shannon," a name she used to differentiate me from her biological mom when she lived with us. She mentioned that she had tried to remember where our house was anytime she was near landmarks she remembered from when she lived with us. She reminisced about a family trip we had taken, on which she had some "first" and "only once" life experiences, and said she remembered us as being very nice to her. She concluded by saying she had wondered, through the years, what it would have been like if we had still been involved in her life.

In one short conversation that I never expected to have, my very first foster daughter confirmed what we have blindly hoped and believed for her and our other foster children since then: that what we did, even though it was for only a relatively short period in her life, made a lasting impact on her. Although she had gone on to be reunified with her family, the investments we made in parenting her and the life experiences she had with us during that time remained with her and created a lasting impact and memories that have become a positive part of her life story.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, foster care

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

Shannon Hernández – April 12, 2016