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By Howard Shiffman, MA

Across the country, headlines like these are commonplace. The need for foster homes varies by state and by region, with shortages resulting from a number of different factors. Some of these factors have always been a problem — lengthy application processes and intensive training requirements are a natural deterrent for some. Other factors are the result of new trends that we’re seeing — the opioid epidemic is resulting in both more children being placed in care and fewer appropriate homes being available in some areas; an older generation of foster parents is getting to the point of retirement and some communities are struggling to recruit younger foster parents; many states are working to close residential facilities, which results in a need for more foster care in the community. But the simple problem is that the demand for foster homes for children is increasing, while supply of appropriate foster parents remains in short supply.

This problem becomes more complicated as we take a closer look at what qualifies as “appropriate homes” for foster children and how the field can increase that supply. I recently came across a series of articles that offered one possible solution to this shortage problem — making foster care parenting a salaried position. Currently, foster parents are not paid a “salary” — however, states do generally provide a monthly reimbursement in the form of a subsidy that also goes untaxed (for a look at individual states, check out Family Foster Care Reimbursement Rates in the U.S.: A Report from A 2012 National Survey on Family Foster Care Provider Classifications and Rates). But there has long been criticism in the field that the amount of reimbursement paid to foster parents doesn’t cover the actual costs of raising a child (see Foster Parents Paid Less Than Cost Of Raising Kid).

In two articles in The Chronicle of Social Change, It’s Time to Really Pay Foster Parents and For Love or Money: Increasing the Number of Foster Homes, author and retired psychologist Jim Kenny outlined his belief that the “foster care structure is based on an outdated model: families with one breadwinner and a stay-at-home mom.” He asserts that this model presupposed that families had sufficient income and personal resources to take in foster children. The reality is that family life has changed dramatically over the past generation as women have joined the workforce in large numbers and most households today have two wage-earners, with children in out-of-home care of some kind during the day. Mr. Kenny supports paying the stay-at-home foster parent with reasonable compensation, the equivalent of a second income.

How would paying foster parents a “salary” benefit the system? First, the obvious, recruitment would improve dramatically. The offer of compensation with benefits would attract a larger number and variety of family homes. This system would also allow foster care families to become more “professional” — the home study format could be replaced by standard hiring practices, using references, resumes, background checks, and interviews. And the foster care system could contract for services, rather than using volunteers that are free to drop out as other choices beckon or the task becomes too difficult. Finally, Mr. Kenny asserts that the practice of paying a salary would be a demonstration of the value we have for those persons who have the desire and capacity to nurture and effective discipline to children.

The move to payment for foster care is hampered by the long history of using volunteers as foster caregivers and centers around a volunteer philosophy that, in my opinion, is outdated and not relevant for today’s families. The opposition to providing compensation to foster parents centers around the primary objections that paying foster parents is too costly, complicated, might delay permanence, and change the motivation of foster parents to accept children into their home for economic reasons instead of for “the love of the child.” In response, Mr. Kenny’s suggests a couple interesting solutions, including:

  1. Offering foster parents compensation equivalent to a second family income would make recruiting and retention less costly
  2. Contracting for foster home services that includes compensation would encourage the use of standard business strategies in recruiting, hiring, and quality control
  3. To mitigate the argument that children might stay longer in a foster home that receives compensation, we might use a system of contracts and bonuses to encourage foster families to keep permanency in the forefront of their goals.

Paying foster care parents an actual salary isn’t a step that I’ve seen states take in practice yet. However, occasionally there are programs that come close to this approach — for example, the 2006-2009 pilot project “Wraparound Milwaukee” placed foster children with a professional that was employed by the Child Placement Agency (see Professional Foster Parent Program).

Can the present model survive and thrive without paying foster families? Survive, maybe. Thrive, doubtful. I am a firm believer that providing compensation to foster parents is eventually going to occur throughout our state and county human service systems. How this is going to happen, when, and to what extent, we can’t predict right now. Professionalizing foster homes is an on-going debate that has many advantages and an equal amount of concerns. The children that we expect to be served by foster parents have more complex behavioral and psychological problems, can be medically fragile, and are often older adolescents that are not very attractive choices for foster families. We need to consider other incentives to help us provide these children with the homes they need.

A great first step toward a solution are research-based pilot projects, funded by government grants or waivers, to begin comparing the present volunteer system with a newer version of paid foster parents. Change is often hampered by fear, and results-oriented research is definitely a method to help the industry make informed decisions on best practice. I believe that compensation to foster parents is eventually going to occur throughout state and county human service systems. How and when that happens remains to be seen.

In a best-case scenario, child welfare professionals would have an easier time with recruitment and be able to work with more permanent foster parents. Child welfare professionals should keep in mind that any change to professionalize foster parenting is going to make foster parents feel more valued and definitely part of the team.

For more on the changes in the child welfare space, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:

  1. Child Welfare System Is Changing, But Slowly
  2. The Future Of Child Welfare Services – What The Thoughtleaders Think
  3. Child Welfare’s Moving Target – Towards Community-Based Care
  4. Shifting Preferences In Child Welfare Services – Challenges Ahead For Funders & Provider Organizations
  5. How Are We Spending Child Welfare Dollars?

I find this issue very fascinating and want to hear your opinion on the advantages and challenges involved in paying foster parents a living wage — please email us your comments at or Tweet @openmindseditor. And for more, join me on January 25, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. EST for my webinar, Forecast The Future With Predictive Analytics To Improve Your Child Welfare Outcomes: A Case Study.

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