Lourdes Alvarez was proud of the fact that in nearly two decades of being a foster parent she had turned away only three children. Those three had been acting up so much, she remembers, stealing, fighting, getting suspended from school, Alvarez felt they were causing the other kids in her home to suffer, and after a few months she asked the agency that supervises her home to place them elsewhere. But recently, Alvarez says, the job of being a foster parent has gotten even more difficult. In the last six months, she turned away one teen because he constantly argued with her about house rules, and requested to have another boy moved as well, although she has since decided to try again with that boy.
Like many foster parents, Alvarez finds teens especially challenging. But she also believes the younger kids she looks after today have more emotional and behavioral problems than those she cared for in the past.
"I think the kids now are wilder and they respect a lot less, and these teens are off the hook," says Alvarez, who leads the Downtown Brooklyn chapter of Circle of Support, a support group for foster parents. "I see it with me and I see it with other foster parents."
Today, not only are foster parents taking care of children who in the past may have lived in group homes or residential treatment centers; they are also expected to devote more time to this work, say directors of some of the 36 nonprofit agencies that run the foster care system under contract with the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS). Changes over the last few years have significantly increased the demands placed on foster parents, altering the very nature of what it means to take in children whose parents have been accused of abuse and neglect.
"That shift is dramatic. It's a huge commitment one must make to being a foster parent today," says Richard Altman, CEO of Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), which provides foster care for about 825 children. Many children in the system today, he adds, "are really suffering from behavioral and mental health issues that we've never seen before. Those of us on the provider end see, live and feel the difference."
Helping these children adjust to family life has proven challenging for foster parents, says Stephen McCall, a foster parent who also provides support for more than 100 others as a consultant for several nonprofit agencies, including The Children's Village. He says that many of the teens currently living with families were once in congregate programs.
"A lot of these kids have been institutionalized and they don't know how to live with a family," he says. "In residential care, everything is structured, and when they step down to a family they go wild because the structure is not there anymore."
In 2005, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an association of the city's privately-run foster care agencies, assessed the behavioral and emotional challenges of 213 adolescents at six agencies who were sent to live with foster families. During the three-month study, they found that 44 percent of the teens had previously lived in foster care, 26 percent had mental health issues, 33 percent had problems with truancy and 16 percent had exhibited violent behavior.
"Foster care is no longer the idealized vision of taking the infant in the home and becoming a mother to that kid," says Altman. "It's now an angry, turned-off adolescent who has been abused for years until someone made an intervention."
The numbers systemwide don't entirely confirm Altman's grim picture, as nearly two-thirds of the children placed in foster care in 2007 were 10 years old or younger. But even so, many leaders in the foster care field say they do see the system changing. It is much smaller than in years past, more targeted to helping children and families with extremely complicated issues in their lives, and intensely reliant on foster parents' creativity, skillful parenting and commitment of time and goodwill.
One reason for these changes is the firm belief among ACS leadership that whenever possible, children should live with families rather than in institutions. As the city moves more rapidly away from institutional care, a growing percentage of foster children now live with foster families and relatives compared to even just a few years ago.
But that is not the only factor. Since early 2006, the city's network of preventive family support services has been increasingly devoted to working with families referred directly from child protective services, in an intensifying effort to keep families together while making sure parents participate in programs that can help address problems ranging from poor housing to mental illness, domestic violence and substance abuse. The city has increased funding for these preventive services by more than $70 million since 2005.
At the same time, the Bloomberg administration has increased the use of court-ordered supervision, allowing city caseworkers to keep closer track of parents suspected of abuse and neglect, even as their children stay in the home.
Observers say this intensification of family support and oversight means those children who enter foster care today may represent a higher concentration of more complicated cases than in the past, as many are from families that have not responded well to services.
"Preventive services don't operate at random," explains Fred Wulczyn, research fellow at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, who has done extensive evaluation research on New York City's child welfare system. "Preventive services are designed to target certain kids and families. If they have their intended effect, we should expect to see the caseloads of both preventive and foster care agencies begin to change. "It's a possibility that difficult kids make up a larger proportion of the kids coming into the foster care system because of what happens when you put in preventive services and those services work," Wulczyn adds.
Over a plate of rice and chicken at Alvarez' Downtown Brooklyn foster parent support group, one foster mom speaks matter-of-factly about a child in her home who molested another child. The moms swap tips for how to "cover your ass" when a teen goes missing. Alvarez herself laments that most fire insurance policies will not cover fires set by foster children. This worries her, as one child in her home has a penchant for playing with lighters. "You have to be more responsible for those kids than you are for your own, because all eyes are on you," Alvarez advises.
The parents in the support group also discuss the delicate dance of managing relationships with their children's birth parents. No longer is adoption considered a natural offshoot of foster care; in theory, at least, helping birth parents get their children back home is now part of a foster parent's job description.
This is not a new idea. For more than a decade, ACS has encouraged its foster care agencies to prepare foster parents for this kind of supportive role. But as the number of children in foster care has declined, this role has become increasingly central.
"Before, foster parenting was seen as almost, 'This child is going to come into your home and we want you to be a parent,'" explains Jeremy Kohomban, chief executive officer of The Children's Village, which runs a residential campus and provides foster care and aftercare services. "Today we say, 'This child is coming in to your home, and we want you to be a parent, but we also want you to be aggressively working with us to make sure this child remains connected to his family.'
"What I'm looking for is foster parents that see themselves as part of an intervention," he adds. "That they buy into this notion that they are very temporary and that they're part of the treatment, and that we'll be working very, very hard together to give this child permanency, ideally with the biological family. We want foster parents to understand that if we do good work that they could have three children in one year, not one child for three years."
Keeping children connected to their families and getting them back home faster generally means more appointments for foster parents to attend. Under state regulations, foster care agencies must plan and facilitate at least one visit between a child and his or her parents every two weeks, unless visiting is prohibited by court order. Agency directors say that some foster parents are expected to bring children to visit their birth parents once or twice a week.
"When you reduce the length of stay, it's not an accident that it's also a higher intensity of services, and so the demands on foster parents are pretty great," says Kohomban. "It's our job to facilitate as many visits as possible. If it's every other day, so be it."
These demands are expected to increase. An internal ACS evaluation obtained by Child Welfare Watch found that visitation goals are still not being achieved. Cases analyzed in the study reflected visitation with mothers taking place not even once a month, on average. Visits with fathers were even less frequent. Advocates and ACS are pressing agencies to increase visitation rates for children who are expected to return home.
The city is also fielding a highly regarded initiative that, so far, involves more than one-third of all foster children. It requires agencies to organize regular family team conferences that bring together foster parents, birth parents and caseworkers every three months.
Craig Longley, associate executive director of programs and support services at Catholic Guardian Society, finds these meetings help foster parents become more involved in planning for a child's future, and give them a regular venue to ask for services and support they might not otherwise get. But, he adds, the conferences also require much more time of foster parents. In the past, these types of meetings happened about twice a year. Now they're quarterly, and each conference lasts at least two hours, often longer. An initial ACS evaluation of its recent Improved Outcomes for Children reforms found that during the first several months these conferences were put into place, between 30 and 60 percent had to be canceled and rescheduled. Sometimes cancellations happen at the last minute, forcing foster parents to rework their schedules and return once again at another date and time.
Foster parents interviewed by Child Welfare Watch say they routinely left their jobs early or shirked other responsibilities to show up for agency visits, too often only to be told the meeting had been cancelled. One agency executive director cited two foster parents who lost their jobs due to scheduling conflicts with visits and therapy appointments.
One woman in Alvarez' support group who had five foster children told her caseworker that, on Mondays and Fridays, she couldn't bring the children to their therapy appointments or visits with their birth parents because of her own children's after school activities. She says the social worker threatened to place the children in a different home if she did not rearrange her schedule.
When Jasmine Jensen, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of exacerbating conflicts with her agency, took in a newborn from SCO Family of Services, the child's caseworker scheduled her to bring the baby to the agency for four visits in the first week alone. Two of those days the baby's mother didn't show up. One day she showed up an hour late, and Jensen says she sat in the waiting room for four hours that day. When she complained that her son was missing his guitar lesson, the caseworker told her not to arrange anything for herself or her son in the evenings, that evenings were to be reserved for the baby's visits. Frustrated, after only three and a half weeks, Jensen asked that the infant be placed in a different home.
"It was an overwhelming situation," she says. "I wanted to keep the baby until they turned her over to her mother. I didn't want her to go from home to home to home. But they left me no alternative. When I do something, I want to do a good job."
Agency directors respond that when it comes to visitation, their primary responsibility is to the children, and that means accommodating birth families, even if it might inconvenience foster parents. But Kohomban says that when there's an irreconcilable scheduling conflict with a foster parent, his agency will send staff to pick up the kids and bring them to their visit, even if they need to do so every week. Even then, he points out, foster parents must be around to coordinate the pickup.
"They expect a lot more from us," says Alvarez about the foster care system. "Sometimes we feel that they don't think we have a personal life and we don't have family. Our lives have to revolve around the kids and the parents."
Despite the system's greater reliance on foster parents, the stipend they receive from the city to cover the cost of caring for each child has increased only slightly in recent years. This stipend starts at $17.52 per day and can sometimes range as high as $57.60 a day depending on a child's age and level of need, though most children fall at the lower end of the spectrum. This money includes a child's allowance (at Children's Village this is about $40 a week for teens) as well as money to be spent on clothing, food and other necessities such as haircuts.
For most foster parents it's simply not enough to cover the cost of looking after a child, says Stephen McCall. "It's ridiculous," he adds. "They're going into their own pockets, and then we're asking them to take days off work for training refreshers and meetings and appointments."
ACS Commissioner John Mattingly has often acknowledged that his vision for New York City's child welfare system hinges on building a stronger, more sophisticated foster care base that can rise to the demands posed by recent reforms. But observers say this would be a difficult time for the city and state to raise the stipend to a level that would help agencies find and hold onto stronger foster homes. A $15-per-day increase for all foster parents would cost the government about $65 million annually.
"In these times, when things are getting tougher [economically], they're going to say, 'I'm sorry, we have better things to spend it on,'" says John Courtney, co-director of the Partnership for Family Supports and Justice at the Fund for Social Change.
Mattingly and his administration have, however, invested resources to help agencies better support their foster parents. In 2006, ACS slated $11.5 million for agencies to help recruit and support foster parents of children aged 10 and older. It renewed this funding in 2007.
Some foster care agencies, including Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, used the money to reduce caseloads so each foster family could receive more attention. That agency also began offering optional training for all its foster parents on how to work with children with special needs, something that used to be available only to those families licensed as therapeutic foster homes.
Other agencies, including Little Flower Children's Services, The Children's Village, Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families and Forestdale, Inc., have used those funds to hire foster parent advocates who give foster families the support that caseworkers are often too busy to provide. The advocates also give foster parents a safe space to vent.
"A lot of foster parents are afraid to tell what's going on [to a caseworker] because they think the agency is going to look at them like they aren't a good parent," explains McCall.
In her nearly 20 years of foster parenting, Renee Francis, who herself lived in foster homes, has made a point to take in children with serious emotional and behavioral issues. "I'd rather take a 'special needs,' because they're the ones who need us," she says.
Francis has adopted seven children and takes vicarious pleasures in their successes, like the girl who overcame severe personality disorders and is now studying to be a teacher. Or the girl who arrived thinking she was "no good" and refused to speak, but who is now thriving in college.
"You study them and see what works with them," says Francis. "I stayed in therapy with them and I found out that each child works different."
Forestdale, Inc. Executive Director Anstiss Agnew has seen this heartfelt commitment from many foster parents at her agency. But she does not believe they are all equipped to deal with the children in their homes. At a recent meeting with Forestdale's foster parents, Agnew heard from those looking after children whose level of need was on a par with children Agnew had worked with years ago at a residential treatment center.
That center had psychiatrists on staff, she recalls, but these foster parents were going it alone. Two teenagers in one foster home had been arrested for gang-related violence. A 16-year-old had beaten up his mother before going into another foster home. One woman talked about a foster daughter who had ripped off her prosthetic limb and shook it at her, saying, "What makes you think I'm not a mass murderer and I won't kill you with this?" Despite all this, says Agnew, these foster parents wanted to find a way to make it work. "They're well-meaning people but not trained," says Agnew. To be a foster parent today, she sighs, "you need a direct pipeline to God."