Why the System Can’t Keep Foster Parents

dazed face on a woman who's been dealing with poor communication all day

When my husband and I were going through foster parenting training, we heard time and time again what a great need there was for foster parents. We knew it was going to be difficult, which is probably why it was hard to find willing victims, errr, participants. This was not shocking to us.

What we did find shocking to learn was that, in Tallahassee, every foster parent who had been certified the year before didn’t continue with foster parenting for the current year.

What was the reason? We wondered. Was it improper training? Lack of support? Were the kids just THAT difficult?

Having been a foster parent for a little over a month now, it boils down the same thing that causes companies to fail and marriages to fall apart.

I’m talking about communication.

Everything I Needed to Know in Life I learned in the 1st Grade

I distinctly remember my mother teaching my brother, sister and me the 5 W’s when we were homeschool kids growing up in Alaska. As a refresher, they are Who, What, When, Where and Why.

And it makes sense. If you could succinctly answer these 5 questions, you have all the information you need. I know this because when I got to college, guess what they were teaching in my Journalism 101 class? You guessed it – who, what, when, where, why (and how… I guess they save that one for the 20 year olds).

But don’t take MY word for it. Take Hallmark’s. In every birthday and wedding invitation, what information is included? The 5 W’s. Because can you image getting a save-the-date with the date left off?

I can.

Verbatim Email from a Case Manager (Illustrating Poor Communication Skills)

I would bet that it’s not the improper training or the lack of support or the difficulty of dealing with children with severe behavioral issues that causes foster parents to quit the system. It’s emails like the one I received, which I will share below. But first, a quick backstory…

Right after H arrived, we took him to the dentist. We found out he has 8 cavities. As it turns out, his insurance doesn’t include any pediatric dentists in Tallahassee. So, he has to go to either Niceville or Panama City (both 3 hours away) to get his teeth fixed. After a couple of weeks of back-and-forth, I received this email, at 5:22 PM on Monday:

poor communication email from case manager

So, let’s break this down:

H, our foster son, has a dentist appointment in Bay County at 3 PM. Great…ON WHAT DAY?! Tomorrow? In 2022? Who knows! Furthermore, “a transportation worker” will pick him up and someone with a first name will drop him off after the appointment.

Parents, y’all are cool with sending your kids with adults you don’t know, right? Like it’s TOTALLY normal for you to NOT KNOW the first name, last name and phone number of the adult responsible for your kid, right?

Didn’t think so. And neither am I.

The Reason Foster Parents Quit Is Due to Poor Communication

I sent an email response back. I called and left voicemails on the Case Manager and Case Supervisor’s phones, texted them and called the after hours emergency line. Then, I called the nurse practitioner (who answered, God bless her) and she said the appointment was on Thursday.

But wait! There’s more!

At 9:11 PM on Monday I got a text back from the Case Manager saying “Yes it is tomorrow” (meaning Tuesday — not Thursday).

So the fun continues. I get to respond “Are you sure? Because when I didn’t hear from you I called the nurse practitioner and she said it was Thursday (not Tuesday).”

I’m still waiting on a response.

In the foster system, it’s either the lack of communication or the poor communication that will kill you. It sucks up your time, your most precious commodity. It drains you of your energy, it’s a unique form of torture – to know that the solution is so simple yet completely unobtainable and completely out of reach.

This is why foster parents drop of out the system. It’s why they struggle to retain “normal” people. Because something as simple as a dentist appointment or getting the last name and phone number of the adult who’s driving the child in your care requires 2 emails, 3 phone calls and a half dozen text messages.

Want to know how to improve the system? The same way you build strong companies and strong relationships. Improve the communication.

UPDATE: The appointment wasn’t Tuesday OR Thursday, as it turned out. It was Wednesday. The Case Manager and Case Supervisor did call to apologize.

16 thoughts on “Why the System Can’t Keep Foster Parents”

  1. Sad situation Lucy
    I hope your Blog is reaching the right people.
    PS- I have six honest serving men, they taught me all I know,
    their names are What and When and Where and Why And How and Who!

    1. Thanks grandpa, I think it might. Another foster mom shared it and its being sent to some folks in case management, among others. LOVE the poem. So accurate!!!

  2. Oh my word. Thissssss. We are only 13 days into our first placement and I am baffled, straight up baffled on the communication.

  3. It is not an easy task. Lots of things are kept on a need to know basis. And then because of large caseloads they forget that you needed to know. Cest la vie.

  4. May I ask why you could not take your foster son to the dentist? As a foster parent, I feel it is my responsibility to do the transporting, as I do with my biological child. I understand everyone has tight schedules, but so do case managers. Their caseloads are overburdened.

    1. Hi Vivian, thanks for taking the time to comment. I don’t mind your question at all!

      I took H to 2 dentist appointments prior to this one. They said because he had so many cavities, he needed to see a pediatric dentist. His insurance doesn’t cover any of the pediatric dentists in our town. In fact, the nearest pediatric dentist that takes his insurance 3 hours away.

      Both my husband and I work and have missed a day of work every week since we became foster parents, running him to dentist appointments, therapist appointments, counseling sessions etc. Not complaining, just letting you know that we have jobs that pay our bills and many of our foster son’s costs that aren’t covered by the foster care system.

      Additionally, one of my employees is out on vacation this week so we are already short staffed and it’s my husband’s busy season, so neither of us could take another day off work to drive 3 hours to the dentist and 3 hours back.

      I called a pediatric dentist here in town and asked if they could do it pro bono so he wouldn’t have to go 3 hours away to get the work done. They were not able to take him.

      So, while I can and do take my foster son to his weekly appointments here in town, this was different because it wouldn’t just mean missing a couple hours, it would be an entire day when my boss and team have already been incredibly generous and understanding of the massive amounts of time I have missed from the office the past month and a half.

      I agree that for bio children, you would take them to all their appointments. With bio children, you’d also have insurance that would be accepted locally, and it’s highly unlikely you would let their teeth get so bad they had 8 cavities at one time.

    2. Vivian, I’m not sure if you intended to come across this way, but your comment seems rather rude (although from the tone of the comment, I have a feeling you intended it just as it reads). My viewpoint below is as someone who worked for YEARS in the child welfare field, including years as a full-time houseparent for teenage girls.

      Foster children are not foster parents’ biological children. If your biological child’s insurance had zero providers in your area, you would probably choose to change insurance providers. Foster parents aren’t allowed to do that for their foster children (they can call the case manager and request it, but it doesn’t mean it will happen).

      As a foster parent, you must know how difficult it is. You must know how much foster parents sacrifice to help care for someone else’s biological child to ensure that they are safe, loved, and well-cared for. You must know what a struggle it is to be a first-time foster parent trying to learn “the system”. You must know how discouraging it can be to try so hard sometimes and feel like you are getting nowhere.

      What I can’t figure out is why one foster parent would try to shame another foster parent for asking for help with transportation for a dentist appointment requiring a 6-hour round trip because they can’t miss even more work than they already have.

      Lucille – You are doing an amazing job as a foster parent. You will never receive the thanks or praise you deserve, but it’s ok, because I know that’s not why you chose this journey.

    3. Vivian, I understand your question and I believe Lucille and Victoria answered clearly. I understand that caseworkers have tough and demanding jobs but it is a VERY IMPORTANT part of their JOB to communicate clearly and precisely for the safety and well being of the child. They in many cases are not doing this and the system is losing good, qualified foster families. Very frustrating…

  5. And it’s not even a government agency you’re dealing with, although it may be contracted by DCF.

  6. Just wait until they stop telling you about staffings and or scheduling them on days you work so you cant go. We has a placement for 15 months we got him at 6 weeks old and he was removed to be with his siblings at 16 months he never knew so he might bond with them after being fully binded with us. So they might put the siblings with a family member in ny that says he might want them. Then being told you are only the foster parents your opinions dont matter. I agree there is no communication between foster parents and childrens network

    1. David, we are going through something very similar with our foster daughter. She came to us at 18 months – she’s almost 4 now. TPR happened 1 year ago. We signed an open adoption agreement. All’s good, right? Wrong. I’ve been told the odds that she’ll be staying with us are slim to non. There is a bio sibling that she has a zero bond with that they want her to move to.
      Lack of communication is a huge issue.

  7. One thing that I like about this conversation is that it identifies a central barrier to services and it also proposes a solution. What is sad to me is that a simple technological program would solve a lot of the problems.

    There should be an automated response system between case managers and foster parents. The system should be available on mobile phones. The interface would look like a fill in the blanks. Who, what, when, where, how ( including contact info.). If everyone was using the same form of communication, the every day hassles would disappear. This would only work for standardized communications and would have to be encrypted for security, safety, and confidentiality reasons.

    If all communications for the child are posted with the child’s identification number, everyone would know the status of the child at the same time. (Basically this would be an online communication/case management system.)

    Foster parents would only have access to part of the information based on a need to know. This is not rocket science. The medical field is using it already. It is called portals.

    I’d like to point out that portals also offer an opportunity of “just in time” training and problem-solving. In other words, The technology is also a resource center for specific issues and community resources.

    Just st my two cents…I encourage you to keep communicating- with positively upbeat and specific suggestions for change.

    1. Excellent idea Carol! In fact, one of the Foster Parent supervisors called me yesterday and told me some folks in the system had read my post and now she has a meeting next week to discuss an app very similar to what you’re describing! As I learn more I will share on the blog.

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