Workers and foster families have not traditionally seen themselves as team members and sometimes their agendas have been at cross purposes. For example, the foster family recruited to rescue a child from a bad situation will have a difficult time returning the child to the family when the family can meet the minimum degree of care requirement. This conflicts with the purpose of the worker’s involvement with the child and family. At the same time, workers have not been trained to empower foster families to become partners in permanency planning. They continue to ask the question, “How much information about the child and family should be given to the foster family?”
Foster families, agency workers, trainers, and “the system” all must accept some of the responsibility for these problems. However, they must also, each in a special way, lead in the search for solutions. Trainers must write and deliver training materials to reflect team building procedures within agencies and foster care teams. “The system” must support permanency planning teamwork both by its attitude and with its money. Financial incentives to permanency planning are in place, but the work of foster families does not receive direct financial support corresponding to the value of the work. ”The system” must support a recruitment and certification process for foster families directed to teamwork by agencies, children and families and continuing education for foster families.
However, a generous portion of leadership in addressing these problems must come from the foster families and the agency workers. Ideally this will be a shared leadership in which foster families and workers will recognize each other’s talents and abilities and support each other in their efforts to improve the delivery of services to children and families.
What do foster families need to do, in cooperation with workers, to become better leaders? Many individual foster parents have the necessary talents and abilities already and use them in other areas of their lives, such as on the job, but they have not traditionally called upon these talents in their work as foster parents. Some have pointed out that parenting itself is a leadership task, and all good foster parents certainly have parenting skills and use them constantly. The following are some of the characteristics often attributed to influential people. Foster families need to develop these characteristics to be effective leaders.
- Know what they want. Foster families must have training and educational goals for themselves in their role on the permanency planning team. They must understand permanency planning, their own agenda, and teamwork.
- Know they have right to try to get what they want. Foster families must be assertive to function as good team members but they must also recognize that others have the same right. No one has the right to impose their will on another team member.
- Are articulate. Foster families must be able to express themselves in a way so that others will listen to them.
- Are sensitive. Foster families must be able to hear all levels of messages from other team members. They must be cognizant of the grief process, factors of time and place, and competition.
- Are credible. Foster families must be seen as trustworthy and worthy of respect. They will behave consistently in a manner in which people will recognize that they do not violate the rights of others while looking out for their own interests.
- Know how to deal with opposition. Foster families must practice the skills required to work with the resistance of others, especially when wanting them to change. Opposition does indicate that the other is engaged in the process. Good leaders keep an ear to the ground and a door open.
- Know how to close a deal. Foster families must know how to ask for the order. This must be part of their interactions when working with agency administrators and others in authority. They are sales persons for their product.
- Are politically wise. Foster families do not function in a vacuum. They must know the extent of their influence within the agency, the team, and with outsiders. They must also understand the interaction of other personnel and systems with whom they interface.
- Are willing to work hard and sacrifice to bring about change. Foster families must be willing to invest extra effort in the short term to make long term gains.
Foster families wishing to grow and to take on a leadership role will recognize how far advanced they are in the possession of these characteristics. Some of these characteristics will be stronger in some individuals than in others. However, we all possess each of them to some degree. Effective leaders have learned to recognize their own strengths and to build on these. Foster family leaders have a challenging opportunity available to them right now to define and implement their role and function on the foster care team. Other team members will profit by the rise of good leaders from the ranks of the foster families.
Adapted from: “Foster Families and Leadership,” Foster Care Journal, #92, November 1988. Al Stumph, Child Welfare Training Specialist, SUNY Buffalo Center for Development of Human Services, Albany, New York.