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Fostering Facts #1                                                                
A lot of people get a glazed over look when I launch on an explanation of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it with. I say things like: “The respite provider wasn’t TFC certified so they didn’t know how to de-escalate in a therapeutic way…” and they look at me like I just broke out into song.
I’m going to spend the next few posts explaining foster care. It’s a system that most people are unfamiliar with, many people are intimidated by and a very few understand. I don’t really understand it. But I do have a working knowledge of what’s going on.
This is long. If you just want to read an update about our family, I’ll do that tomorrow. 
The way it works in PA is relatively similar to how it works in the rest of the country. Different states have different names for the processes or procedures, but for the most part it’s all similar.
System-wide management structure
Currently, each state manages their own child welfare system. They may call it Child Protective Services, or Department of Human Services, or Family Services or any number of other similar titles. I’ll just call it “The State”. This is a state and federally funded agency that is tasked with caring for the children who are identified as being “in the system”. Depending on how well or how poorly your state runs its agencies, your particular agency will work efficiently or not. In our case, we’re in PA so it runs very inefficiently.
Because the day to day management of something like this is time consuming and very costly, that aspect is distributed out to different agencies. Many of these agencies have some religious affiliation. All of them are non-profits. They may be state-wide, they may operate only in a certain geographical area, they may have alliances with agencies in near-by states. They may be well run or poorly run. If you are looking to become a foster parent, it will be up to you to figure out the best agency. It’s best to ask around and find out what experiences other families have had with different agencies.
Role of the Agency
Because these agencies are not run by The State, they get to do whatever they want to within the parameters that the state system sets. These parameters are by necessity kind of loose. The agencies basically need to make sure that the families they certify are a) stable (financially and emotionally) and b) willing and c) haven’t been charged with child endangerment in the past. These guidelines are VERY LOOSE. That is how you get foster families that are really just in it for the money. If your agency is no good, they’re not going to follow up with the families to make sure that what’s going on is in the best interest of the child placed there.
The agencies manage all aspects of the day to day of the child. They will coordinate with the foster family to get school registrations done, medical visits scheduled, getting emotional support or therapeutic services taken care of, etc. As a foster parent, you don’t have the right to change their doctor, change their school or do anything that has a long term effect on the child’s life. The social worker from the agency can, with the express permission of the DHS worker assigned to the case.
Generally you will have this team of people:
Agency social worker
That social worker’s supervisor
Department social worker
That social worker’s supervisor
Therapeutic/psychological services staff
Any of these people need to be able to have access to your child at any time they need it. That means that if you have multiple children who are not on the same “case” (generally those who are not coming from the same home) or if you have children who have higher levels of need, you may have a different worker in your home every day of the week.
Role of the foster family
Your primary responsibility as a foster parent is to keep the children in your care safe. This includes keeping them fed, clothed, in school, going to appointments and keeping them away from dangerous situations. For that purpose, anyone in your house may be subjected to a criminal background check.  In PA that goes by age, so anyone over the age of 14 who will spend more than a cumulative 2 weeks sleeping in your home needs to be checked. That includes State and Federal background checks. The agency should pay for those, and if they don’t, that’s a sign you need to get a different agency.
Medical insurance is paid by the state. In PA, foster children are totally covered at 100%.
Levels of foster care
There are different levels of care. Most children are just “regular” foster care. They may have some issues, and the agency will either have a therapy team on staff or will help you get them into therapy. Anything more than that, and you may be dealing with a “Therapeutic Foster Care” situation. The acronym TFC is used in a lot of states and may have different words attached to them, but basically means the same thing. TFC placement homes require more training and are expected to do more. A child may be TFC for medical reasons or emotional/behavior reasons. It generally means that you have to do considerably more work, and do more one on one work. In PA, they don’t put more than 2 TFC children in a home together, and that’s only if they are siblings or otherwise emotionally connected. It is nearly impossible to be an effective TFC home if all adults are working full time or if you have multiple children in the house.
A very common kind of care is called “Kinship” care. This means that the child has a previous connection to the family. You don’t have to be biologically related, though they do look for a family placement first. In the last 10 years or so there has been a huge push to keep children in their biological families and in their home environments. In the past, many foster situations ended up putting children in homes that were dramatically different than what they were used to, which caused certain kinds of trauma. With kinship, many of the rules get bent. You can have more TFC children in the home if there is kinship. You can have the child placed before you finish your training in kinship care. The rules about what kinds of sleeping arrangements are needed can be waived or bent for kinship care. That is up to each state, and can even be different from worker to worker.
A respite care provider is actually (in my opinion) a great place to start on the foster care journey. Respite providers have homes available for foster children while their foster families go on vacation or just need a break. It can be tricky bringing children out of state, so respite providers are like pure gold. It is also a great way for new foster families to give it a whirl because you can work out some of the kinks, like chore expectations, travel coordination, socializing the rest of your family, etc. It can also be fun because if you have a kid for the weekend, you get a chance to spoil them a little bit. Take ‘em to the zoo. Go get their hair done. It’s all good. As a respite provider, you still get paid the daily rate for their care.
Next installment will talk more about what you as a foster parent can expect right off the bat.