Customer service is the key factor in both recruiting and retaining foster/adoptive families. Customer service is built on the attitude that each participant in the child welfare system − from line staff; to the agency director; to the judge; to the foster, adoptive, or kinship family − must feel like a valued member of the team and be committed to providing good customer service.

First impressions are critical in determining one’s perceptions about a product or service. In child welfare interactions, how people are treated at the first point of contact sets the tone for how the relationship will move forward (Geen, 2004). When your agency responds to inquiries, is the first interaction a welcoming one, or does the caller feel interrogated, unimportant, or ignored? Is the agency employee that answers and returns the calls smiling on their end of the phone? Research has shown that a smile can be felt through the phone and improves customer satisfaction. It is standard advice in sales and customer service to smile while talking on the phone (Customers That Stick, n.d.).

It is also standard advice to use the words “thank you.” Saying “thank you” both engages customers and makes them receptive to the rest of the conversation. Are prospective foster/adoptive parents thanked for their interest? A simple “thank you” in the first conversation tells them that their interest is both wanted and taken seriously.

How timely is a response to a prospective foster/adoptive parent? Best practice suggests that a timely response is within 24 hours. The NRCDR recommends, “Return all phone calls to prospective and current foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers within 24 hours. Even if you are waiting for more information and can’t answer the caller’s questions, call them back to let them know that you’re working on their questions.”

(See Appendix 6-1: Five Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service – Phone Interaction with Families.)

Key Message

Customer service
  • Child welfare agencies should acknowledge foster parents as valuable customers.
  • Foster parents are partners in finding permanent homes for children in their care.
  • Everyone at the agency must buy in to the customer service approach.

All future steps in the process should also be timely and respectful. Retention starts with recruitment, so every piece of the process sets the tone for how the prospective foster/adoptive parent and the agency will engage with one another.

For example, prospective foster/adoptive parents are invited to attend an orientation or information session. Are there current foster parents at the session to answer questions and give advice? While it is not normally considered to be “customer service,” providing opportunities for prospective foster parents to interact with current foster parents sends a strong message that the agency values its foster/adoptive families.

(See: Appendix 6-2 10 Things You Can Do to Improve Customer Service – Prospective Parent Orientation Sessions.)

Streamlining paperwork is another way to respectfully engage prospective foster/adoptive parents. Review your current documentation to identify duplicative paperwork, unnecessary paperwork or hard-to-understand paperwork. Thoughtfulness and consideration in the application process help prospective foster/adoptive parents to fully embrace the process. Some agencies schedule paperwork days, when prospective foster families come to the agency for help in completing documentation.

Supporting prospective foster/adoptive parents throughout the certification process improves the retention of foster/adoptive families over time. It is equally important to provide essential supports to foster/ adoptive families after children are placed in their homes. Research has shown that up to 25% of foster/adoptive families discontinue providing foster care each year. It is estimated that 40% of these families left because they received inadequate support from the certifying entity (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012). These include activities such as: organized peer support; timely responses to concerns; flexible respite care; and relevant, accessible training. Agencies are advised to periodically survey their foster/adoptive families to determine their unique needs and then find ways to best meet those needs. Sample surveys can be found on the National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment site, http://www.nrcdr.org; search on the term “survey”.

24/7 response

Timely and responsive communications between agencies and foster/ adoptive families is critical in keeping and sustaining foster parents. This is never more important than when a situation arises in the middle of the night, and the foster parent needs the agency for support. It is essential that the agency be available 24/7 for its foster/adoptive families.

It is recommended that agencies develop a crisis response protocol and that everyone is aware of how it applies to them and their role and responsibility. Agencies may develop their own 24/7 phone trees of internal contacts or assign this role to a subcontractor. An emergency number can be staffed by agency employees during the day and by a contracted answering service after normal business hours.

Involvement in the process

Foster/adoptive families are members of the treatment team and should have an opportunity to provide input along with other team members throughout the time of the child’s placement. Foster/adoptive families have tremendous responsibility in their role within the foster care system. Having a voice in decision making can lead to successful and positive outcomes for the child in their temporary care.

Peer support and mentoring

Organized support can be used to both engage and retain prospective foster parents while they await the availability of a MAPP class. Peer support is a key factor throughout the entire certification process, which can take up to six months. The negative effects of this lengthy process can be mitigated by facilitating and supporting connections between a prospective foster parent and current foster/adoptive families. These types of initiatives support both recruitment and retention, because the agency is showing prospective foster parents that it values them enough to connect them to the “pulse” of foster parenting. Current foster parents are given the message that their contributions are valued.

Developing a culture of support also enables new foster/adoptive families to adjust to their roles. Mentoring programs match a “seasoned” foster/ adoptive family with new foster parents. The current foster/adoptive family can provide valuable insights and share successful techniques they have used in dealing with difficult situations. A viable mentoring program may decrease the need for agencies to respond to crisis situations in new foster families.

In a survey conducted by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), foster/adoptive families indicated that peer support groups were very helpful to them. They provide opportunities to network and be engaged with others experiencing similar challenges. Peer support groups can help foster parents feel less alone in dealing with a problem, provide helpful information from others who have had similar experiences, discuss ideas for dealing with a problem, allow foster parents to express their feelings, and bring about change. Agencies may assist foster/adoptive families to establish support groups by providing meeting space at convenient hours for foster/ adoptive families and providing contact information. Agencies can also proactively encourage new foster/adoptive families to join existing associations and support groups.

Nonprofit, community-based programs can play a role in supporting foster children and foster/adoptive families.

The Next Door, Inc. in Oregon is a provider of foster care services. To support and enhance services for its foster families, the agency reached out to the local community. As a result, businesses are providing a range of benefits to foster families and children in care, such as free gym time for the children and pro bono medical and dental care.

Fostering Hope in Colorado recruits, trains, and coordinates teams of volunteers from faith communities. The teams provide support to foster families on an as-needed basis, such as minor household maintenance and repairs, babysitting, and tutoring or help with homework. The program reports that it has reduced stress and burnout among foster parents and provided community connections for foster children and youth.

A similar program, Fostering Futures NY, was recently launched in New York’s Capital Region. (See Appendix 6-4, Fostering Futures NY.)

A key component of Roots and Wings in Santa Cruz County, California, is the contract position of Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator. The coordinator supports and guides applicants through the certification process by helping them to access, complete, and submit applications and other required paperwork. Prospective foster families have one consistent person to help them navigate each step to certification. The county also created the role of Resource Family Liaison to augment the work of casework staff within its service delivery system. The liaisons are paraprofessionals hired by and paid by a community-based organization to provide intensive support to foster parents and relative caregivers. Their activities included, but weren’t limited to: maintaining contact through home visits, making referrals to support groups and mentors, identifying training needs, and either providing or referring families for training (County of Santa Cruz Human Services Department, n.d.).

Spotlight on New York State

The Suffolk County Department of Social Services provides guidelines and due dates for paperwork from Week 2 through Week 8 of MAPP training. This breaks the paperwork down into more manageable pieces, with short term due dates to keep prospective foster parents from being overwhelmed. (See Appendix 6-3: Every Month Is Customer Service Month.)


The New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) distributed an informational letter to all local district commissioners and directors of voluntary (private) foster care agencies in May 2005. The letter (05-OCFS-INF-03) summarized OCFS’ recommendations on supporting the needs of foster parents, based on a statewide assessment. Among other recommendations, OCFS encouraged agencies to maximize foster parents’ participation in permanency planning for the foster children in their care. This might involve inviting foster parents to participate in family meetings, case planning meetings, service plan reviews, permanency hearings, and visitation planning. “Foster parents want to be seen as partners and a resource to the child’s family and caseworker.” (New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2005)


Respite care

Respite care provides planned, temporary, periodic relief to foster parents from foster care responsibilities. No single model program or blueprint is preferred – each agency provides this service in a way that best meets the needs of its foster/adoptive families. In general, however, respite care programs meet a specific need, promote teamwork and trust, use trained respite providers, and are flexible to meet changing needs (Office of Inspector General, 1994).

Respite care is especially beneficial for foster parents who are caring for children with special needs. Research indicates that, after receiving respite care, caregivers reported reduced stress levels, improved family relationships, and a more positive attitude about fostering (Owens-Kane, 2006).

Providing effective respite care involves assessing and understanding the needs of foster/kinship families in the community. Families’ needs vary widely. Some families prefer only in-home respite care, while others do not like people coming to stay in their home. Some families like sending children to camp, while others feel uncomfortable sending their children away. It is also important to understand the barriers families may encounter in accessing respite. Are respite services provided by someone they know and trust, conveniently located, and available at needed times of the day or week? Can families trust that the providers are trained and capable of caring for the special needs of their child? Providing high-quality respite care requires taking the pulse of the community of foster and kinship families to understand their true needs (AdoptUSKids, 2013).

Some popular respite options elsewhere include:

  • Camps for the children to attend while the parents stay home and take a break
  • Recurring or regularly scheduled respite, e.g. the last weekend of each month, allowing the parents to count on it and plan for it
  • Drop off events, e.g., free two-hour, supervised programs at the local YWCA, utilizing staff who already meet required background clearances (AdoptUSKids, 2012)

Spotlight on New York State

New York State Social Services regulations specify that respite care must be provided in a foster family boarding home or emergency foster family boarding home. Respite care may also be provided in an agency boarding home, a group home, a group residence, or an institution if the child in care requires additional services. (18 NYCRR 435.4(g)).


Training

Providing training opportunities for foster parents confirms their value in the child welfare system. Training that helps caregivers deal with the realities of foster parenting, especially equipping them to manage the behavior of children they are caring for, is highly sought after in many jurisdictions, both during the pre-certification period and as an ongoing support. Today’s foster parents are juggling multiple responsibilities and have hectic schedules. Agencies need to bring relevant training to the foster parents by making it accessible through a variety of formats: in-person education, online courses, live webinars and other distance learning modalities.

Pre-certification training

Prospective foster/adoptive families are required to complete training before certification or approval. In New York State, local districts frequently use GPSII/MAPP or Deciding Together for prospective foster parents and Deciding Together or Caring for Our Own for kinship families. The success of the pre-certification training experience depends on training being provided fairly soon after orientation, at a time and location convenient for prospective foster parents, and in a training environment conducive to engagement and openness. Each participant should have an opportunity to complete an evaluation after each training session and at the end of the entire training.

In-service education

While the education of foster parents starts with MAPP and may include recertification trainings, it does not have to end there. In the business world, when a company offers professional development opportunities to its employees, it is demonstrating their importance to the organization by investing in them. Providing similar opportunities to prospective and current foster parents shows them that the agency recognizes their importance to the work of the organization and wants to invest time and money in their growth. Training in topics such as communication, parenting, and stress management, as well as attendance at conferences and other large-scale educational events, can be useful to foster parents. It can also be an opportunity for foster parents to develop as trainers. For example, if they attend a conference, they can be asked to share what they learned in a staff or support group meeting. It is another reminder that they are part of a larger team and their contributions are critical to overall success.

Most agencies are able to use local community experts for in-service training. For example, agency staff may conduct a training on permanency; Child Protective Services supervisors may do an overview of reporting procedures, the investigation process, rights of the subject and child, and standards of proof; a Family Court Judge may summarize the Family Court process; the fire department could provide home safety training; or the local police department could conduct a session on home safety or avoiding cyber crimes.

Distance learning

In addition to traditional classroom training, other training modalities such as webinars and live-streaming learning sessions are becoming more available. In New York State, free online training is delivered to the home computers of foster and adoptive parents by iLinc, a service created by the Center for Development of Human Services (CDHS) at Buffalo State College in partnership with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Other online educational programs are available, but it is suggested that trainings not conducted by CDHS or OCFS should be previewed by the agency before recommending them to foster parents.

Cross-training

Cross-training between agency staff and foster/adoptive families is also becoming more common. For example, some states conduct joint training for foster/adoptive families and the child welfare staff. This approach enhances communication opportunities, helps both groups to have the same knowledge base, and encourages mutual respect. In New York State, the mini-MAPP curriculum can be accessed by child welfare staff through CDHS, and offers a condensed curriculum that introduces child welfare staff to the philosophy, concepts, activities, terminology, and tools provided to foster parents during the full MAPP training.

Key Message

Ongoing support for foster/adoptive families
  • Surveys of staff and foster parent satisfaction can be useful in determining service gaps.
  • Develop and provide new supports in small, easy-to-implement steps.
  • A child’s well-being is inextricably tied to the supports provided to the foster/adoptive caregiver.

Families caring for children with special needs often require higher levels of support. While training and support groups are important, other systems should be in place to adequately engage families around challenging situations that may disrupt a foster home.

Trauma-informed care
As the needs of children in foster care become more complex, supports for foster/adoptive families must expand. For example, foster parents need additional resources when caring for children and youth who have been affected by trauma. Trauma-informed care is part of MAPP training for foster parents, and is an approach for managing behavioral issues and other needs stemming from trauma. In some cases, additional support and resources may be needed beyond MAPP training. Complex trauma involves the repeated or long-term exposure to traumatic events. It is widely accepted that the majority of youth placed in care have been in some way traumatized by direct abuse, witnessing the abuse of other family members, long-term neglect, and/or being removed from family and community due to placement in foster care. Foster parents should be well-equipped to recognize behaviors resulting from trauma, to make the connection between the behaviors and trauma, and to adequately address the behaviors without further traumatizing the children in care by having them removed from the foster home.

There is no expectation that foster/adoptive parents should become trauma experts, but they should be trauma-informed. According to the Trauma Informed Care Project, “becoming ‘trauma-informed’ means recognizing that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. Trauma survivors can be re-traumatized by wellmeaning caregivers and community service providers. Understanding the impact of trauma is an important first step in becoming a compassionate and supportive community.” (Trauma Informed Care Project, n.d.)

Youth need to be engaged and educated about the trauma in their lives and about how it may affect their behavior. At the same time, the foster/ adoptive parents need the training and skills to recognize the connections between current behaviors and past events in children’s lives. This requires varied types of agency and community support.

When a child’s behavior is indicative of trauma, agencies should provide timely, strategic, and appropriately balanced support to keep foster/ adoptive families intact, encourage relationship building, and limit further victimization of the youth in care.

Multidimensional treatment foster care
Multidimensional treatment is designed to be an alternative to group or residential treatment, incarceration, or hospitalization for adolescents who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Treatment Foster Care Oregon (TFCO), formerly Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, is a widely used model of support for troubled youth, their birth parents, and foster parents. Foster parents are an integral part of the treatment team, which also includes program supervisors, the birth family, individual therapists, and behavioral skill trainers. With the support of the team, the foster/adoptive family implements a structured, individualized program for the youth in care. TFCO program supervisors are available to foster/adoptive families around the clock for consultation, support and supervision. See the practice model TFCO.

Key Message

Higher levels of support
  • Trauma ranges from the impact of separation from the parent, to witnessing verbal or physical abuse, to being the victim of abuse or chronic neglect.
  • An angry outburst is often a symptom of trauma. Foster/adoptive parents must have the necessary tools to support children through such disturbances.

Mockingbird Family Model

The Mockingbird Society in Seattle, WA, has implemented the Mockingbird Family Model, a unique model that includes Hub Home providers. The Hub Home is the lead home for six to 10 foster homes that make up a “constellation.” The Hub Homes are experienced foster parents who help families in their constellation navigate resources in the community and create an extended network of support. Constellation members share experiences and actually become an extended family. This model provides a resource that allows families to solve problems before crises occur.

Download the practice model Mockingbird Family Model.

Keeping Foster and Kin parents Trained and Supported (KEEP)

KEEP was developed by the Oregon Social Learning Center and has been effective in increasing foster parent retention and preventing placement breakdowns. It functions as both a training and a support group for foster and kinship families with children in care between the ages of 4 and 12. KEEP groups typically include seven to ten foster parents who attend 16 weekly 90-minute sessions that focus on practical, researchbased parenting techniques. While the facilitators draw from an established protocol manual, they tailor each session to the specific needs, circumstances, and priorities of participating parents and their children. Each week, the facilitators gather specific information about the children’s current behaviors by telephone. This information is then incorporated into the weekly sessions to make sure the group is both current and relevant.

Download the practice model KEEP.

Customer service

  • Using Customer Service Concepts to Enhance Recruitment and Retention Practices. Using Customer Service Concepts to Enhance Recruitment and Retention Practices. An overview of customer service concepts that can help with recruitment and retention of foster, adoptive, and kinship families. It also serves as a guide for agency leaders in assessing, developing, and implementing relevant policies and practices to support good customer service (NRCDR). (http://www.nrcdr.org/_assets/files/using-customerservice-concepts-to-enhance-recuitment-and-retention-practices.pdf)
  • Support Matters: Lessons from the Field on Services for Adoptive, Foster, and Kinship Care Families. This AdoptUSKids publication highlights successful family support services, provides data about the value of support services, offers tools and guidance for assessing the needs of adoptive, foster, and kinship care families, and discusses research findings about implementing support services, including forming public/private partnerships, accessing funding, and conducting program and service assessment and evaluation.

Support groups

Training

Trauma-informed care

  • AdoptUSKids. (2012). Creating and Sustaining Effective Respite Services. Linthicum, MD: AdoptUSKids.
  • AdoptUSKids. (2013). Taking a Break: Creating Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Respite Care in Your Community. Linthicum, MD: AdoptUSKids
  • Geen, R., Malm, K., Katz, J. (2004). A Study to Inform the Recruitment and Retention of General Applicant Adoptive Parents, Adoption Quarterly, Vol. 7(4).
  • Goodman, D. & Steinfield, F. (2012). Building Successful Resource Families Practice Guide. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • County of Santa Cruz Human Services Department. (n.d.). Supportive Services. Retrieved March 18, 2015, from Santa Cruz Human Services Department: http://www.santacruzhumanservices.org/FamilyChildren/FosterCareandAdoptions/SupportiveServices.aspx
  • Customers That Stick. (n.d.). Smiling on the Phone: Does It Really Work? Retrieved Feb. 6, 2015, from customersthatstick.com: http://customersthatstick.com/blog/customer-service-training/smiling-on-the-phone-does-it-really-work/ (Retrieved September 20, 2012)
  • New York State Office of Children and Family Services. (2005). Supporting the Needs of Foster Parents: Recommendations. Rensselaer, NY: OCFS.
  • Office of Inspector General. (1994). Respite Care Services for Foster Parents — Six Case Studies. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Owens-Kane, S. (2006). Respite care: Outcomes for kinship and non-kinship caregivers. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 22(3/4), 85-99.
  • Trauma Informed Care Project. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://www.traumainformedcareproject.org/index.php