What the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) found from a state-wide survey it conducted in 2003 of foster parent needs and wants is that (more so than not) the information agencies provide foster parents about the background and developmental and health history of foster children is minimal at best. They permit foster parents little say and marginalize their input in planning a foster child’s future, and offer foster parents little if any support; practices that undervalue the unique contributions foster parents make in achieving positive outcomes for foster children and reflect a conventional view of foster parenting as little more than sheltering and care-taking or care-giving.
Challenging this view OCFS formulated and operationalized several recommendations to local Departments of Social Service and private agencies for supporting and soliciting input from foster parents. Together they stake out a pathway toward re-conceptualizing the role of foster parents and recognizing foster parents as professional parents.
Major OCFS recommendations to local districts and agencies included:
- Provide information and opportunities for clarifying and achieving mutual understanding of caseworker/foster parent roles and responsibilities
- Demonstrate partnerships between caseworkers and foster parents by responding promptly to telephone calls and requests for information and by scheduling meetings on days and times that are mutually convenient
- Include foster parents as full members of each foster child’s team and in key aspects of decision-making by soliciting their input and considering their opinions
- Maximize foster parent participation in permanency planning by using teleconferencing when foster parents cannot attend plan reviews
- Provide and regularly update information for foster parents regarding the child’s health care needs and availability of resources and service providers
- Encourage networking among foster parents by providing a list of names and numbers
- Facilitate foster parent access to peer support
- Involve foster parents in planning and evaluating trainings
Defining Professionalism – Foster parents rarely, if ever, think of themselves or are thought of as professionals. Moreover, what professionalism means in the context of foster parenting has received scant attention in the foster care literature. When “professionalism” is used it is mostly for effect to convey prestige and status. What learning there is derives mainly from medicine, law and education. But there is a cross-discipline consensus that professionalism is not simply a matter of knowledge, or mastery of a body of knowledge; or a matter of skill or proficiency in skill sets. It is a matter of values, attitudes and behaviors. While more than 90 elements or components of professionalism have been identified, there is near unanimity on professionalism’s core characteristics:
- Professionals must qualify as professionals by meeting qualification requirements and admission standards and be come professionals only by being licensed
- Licensure gives professionals access to, membership in, and association with a community of shared interests and a community of support
- Professionals are altruistic. They put service before self-interest and demonstrate unselfish regard for the welfare of others
- Professionals have caring, covenantal relationships and relationships of promise with the people they serve
- Professionals observe rules of confidentiality, adhere to standards of conduct and guide themselves by principals of ethics
- Professionals work autonomously but also collegially in partnership with others
- Professionals are responsible. They self-start and commit to completing a job. They are a standard for accountability. They keep their word and hold others to theirs. Professionals profess. They communicate their opinion
- Professionals strive to improve themselves by taking advantage of opportunities for development and betterment
Recognizing Foster Parents as Professionals – Review the core characteristics of professionalism and consider the following:
- Foster parents become foster parents only after being trained (MAPP), qualified (Home-study) and licensed (Certificate to Board Child)
- Once licensed, they are eligible for membership in the New York State Foster and Adoptive Parent Association and may participate with other foster parents in Circles of Support
- Foster parents serve. When asked why they do what they do, the two most frequently answers foster parents give are “healing they hurt” and “doing God’s work”
- The relationship between foster parents and foster children are caring, covenantal and promissory: ” You can count on me to help you get through this”
- Foster parents observe rules limiting the information about foster children they may disseminated and to whom, adhere to standards of conduct, the vase array of prescriptions and proscriptions derived from law and State regulations, and are guided by principals of ethics promulgated by the National Foster Parent Association in its Foster Parent Code of Ethics
- Foster Parents work autonomously 24/7 week after week attending to the needs of foster children and also work in partnership with caseworkers in planning for their future
- Foster parents are not passive. They self-start and communicate their opinions. They must earn but are not limited to a pre-set number of credits of continuing education per year through participation in conferences, trainings, workshops and courses
Thinking about, and appreciating foster parents, as professional parents is not only descriptively accurate; it is also aspirational, and therein lies its value. Professionalism is a goal to strive for, to measure oneself against. Its value lies in what it demands foster parents demand of themselves.
Other advantages derive from practices followed by professionals day by day. They keep records. It behooves foster parents also to keep records such as a Foster Child’s Portfolio containing clinical reports, individualized education plans, photographs, certificates and so on. A conference Journal recording the dates, participants and agreements made at conferences, meeting and teleconferences between foster parents, clinicians, caseworkers, teachers and others; and a Master Notebook of events, observations and concerns.
Professionals Prepare – They rarely “wing it’. It behooves foster parents to see each interaction or encounter however routine as purposeful, formulating a purpose in advance and preparing how to achieve it. Professionals anticipate. They consider what could arise to derail, sidetrack or stymie what they want to accomplish, and rehearse what to say or do in response to focus attention of the decision-maker on the decision they want the decision-maker to make. It also behooves foster parents to anticipate; to consider possible opposing or alternative points of view, opinions or recommendations; and rehearse what to say or do so as to avoid surprise and maintain presence. Preparing and anticipating build confidence and is vital to foster parents being heard in positive and memorable ways.
Source: “Taking Your Place at the Table” by Micheal Neff, Esq., Developed for the Coalition Spring 2006 Link Family Gathering and Permanency Planning Seminar