Earlier this month, the D.C. Council held a markup of a bill that may signal a new direction for the foster care services of the historically scrutinized D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). In February, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would require pre-service training for potential foster parents on how to properly care for children who have special needs, are older, of a different ethnicity, have siblings, and/or identify as LGBTQ+.
As it stands, potential fosters are required to complete a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training, then an additional 30 hours every two years to keep their licenses. Despite these training requirements, which are, in part, intended to educate potential fosters on how to care for different groups of children’s specific needs, the most vulnerable groups listed in the legislation continue to struggle to find homes that can accommodate them.
Dr. Ruby M. Gourdine, Professor at the Howard University School of Social Work, told The Globe Post that finding the perfect fit for these children can be extremely challenging. “There are circumstances that impact families when they foster children. They may have their own children in the home, and there may be a conflict between their own children, and a person is misplaced there. There are so many factors that you have to look at when you’re doing this, and of course, when you’re recruiting foster parents, you have to let them know, and also train them to work with children who have these challenges.”
There are many reasons for poor fit. LGBTQ+ children are at risk of being rejected by their fosters because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign in conjunction with fosterclub, 78 percent of LGBTQ+ youths run away or are given a new foster placement. Foster children with special needs are often not given the social support and services required to treat their disabilities. Sibling relationships can also be challenging for foster parents to navigate, especially because the legal framework there can be complicated. Developing a parent/child relationship with an older foster child is particularly difficult because the child may already have reservations about the parent from having been bounced around foster care throughout his or her childhood. Parents who foster a child of a different ethnicity will face cultural differences and societal reactions.
There is an endless list of factors that can complicate finding an appropriate fit between a foster family and a child. Yet CFSA has a history of hastily placing foster children into homes that turn out to be poor matches.
The Agency has had a long-term goal of “narrowing the door” into foster care, and stabilizing family situations so that children can remain in their homes. Over the past several years, CFSA has reported a reduction in the number of children entering foster care. In early 2015, the Agency found it had a surplus of contracted foster care beds, and chose to terminate contracts with its two major foster-management companies. This is when CFSA’s inefficiencies rapidly unfolded.
The Agency expected the foster parents contracted through those companies to find new operators, but many chose to leave the program instead. Officials then had to relocate 46 children, as well as an unanticipated increase in children entering the system. In October 2016, then Agency Director Raymond Davidson resigned amidst the controversy. Mindy Good, Agency spokeswoman, said the children had been placed, but advocates claimed that the scramble resulted in ill-fitting homes, as well as some children still without long-term homes. Between January and June of 2015, at least 15 children had to spend the night at the CFSA building or hotel rooms because their placements were so unsuitable.
The proposed bill sets a different tone for CFSA, emphasizing the value of the placement process and proper fit. Councilmember Cheh told The Globe Post that the legislation aims to educate foster parents on the particular needs of especially vulnerable children. “A disproportionate number of these children have special needs, including those with mental or physical disabilities, LGBTQ youth, and older youth, which unfortunately means that they are less likely to be adopted. Specifically, this bill will ensure that prospective foster parents are knowledgeable about the unique needs of special needs children, as well as the disproportionate prevalence of these children in the District’s foster care system.”
However, most child welfare advocates believe the legislation is redundant. In June, Brandynicole Brooks, the Program Administrator of the Child Welfare Training Academy, which is the branch of CFSA providing both mandatory and elective training for foster parents, testified before the Council regarding the proposed bill.
“Our current training offerings are robust and already address the topics listed in the proposed legislation. In addition, channels are available for foster parents (and others) to suggest or request additional training topics without the need for a legislative mandate.” Dr. Gourdine, who had a contract with CFSA for training last year, agreed that the curriculum already covered those topics.
Brooks went on to explain that the CWTA’s training curriculum is modified in direct response to foster parents’ feedback
“One example is the recent request from a foster parent who is in the midst of a transracial adoption for training on black skin and hair care. In response, CWTA is developing a training session that discusses the nuances of transracial fostering and adopting.”
Dr. Gourdine supports this communicatory approach. “It speaks to the nature of the relationship, where you have give and take, where the department might want to do a specific training because they’ve identified something that they think is important, but then also it gives some voice to the foster parents so they can also say, this is where we see a need because they are the person who is living with the children with the problem and that they have to address.”
However, Councilmember Cheh believes that additional guidance is needed, and procedures to be established by the proposed legislation would complement those already in place. “Every child needs and deserves the care and security provided by a stable, loving family. It is my hope that this bill will help find more permanent homes for these most vulnerable children and provide foster parents with training that allows them to best care for foster children with special needs.”