Opening foster homes

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: changes to foster care guidelines.

Today there are nearly 450,000 children in foster care nationwide. That number is up 10 percent over the last five years—mostly because of the opioid crisis. More kids means more need for foster homes.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But the problem is fewer foster homes. In 2017, the number of foster families had declined over the previous year in more than half the states. The next year, another 15 states experienced a decline in foster homes. That forced children into group homes.

EICHER: The Trump administration issued a new set of guidelines this spring to make licensing foster families easier.

The public comment period has ended, and the guidelines are almost final. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has this report on what the changes could mean.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The proposed guidelines are a part of the Family First Prevention Services Act or FFPSA. Congress and President Trump signed the act into law last February as a part of the Bipartisan Budget Act.

Part of the act charged the Department of Health and Human Services with changing licensing standards to encourage more families to foster.

Chuck Johnson is president of the National Council for Adoption. He says many times families interested in fostering quit during the licensing process. Families complain about the usefulness of the training, the redundancy of assessments, and the amount of time it takes to become licensed.

JOHNSON: There are just hundreds of thousands of families who are interested in being foster parents. The problem though is that those families, when they express that interest are, are, uh, you know, really not served very well. And many of them are discouraged and quit too soon.

The federal government’s new licensing rules make foster care standards more flexible so it’s easier for urban families to become caregivers. Traditional guidelines favored suburban, middle-class homes.

The new rules don’t include a square-footage requirement or a minimum number of bedrooms. Instead, they only require a foster child have his or her own bed, allowing families living in apartments to become eligible.

The guidelines also relax standards around transportation—proposing foster families don’t need to have a car as long as they have other means of public transportation.

National Council for Adoption’s Chuck Johnson says the increased flexibility should make it easier for a child’s extended family members to become licensed caregivers. Without a license, family members don’t qualify for foster care payments.

JOHNSON: This also does recognize, um, that many foster families are also related to the child there, there their kinship foster homes and that there should be an expedited, um, and maybe even a slightly different process of assessing but still supporting these families because children really belong with family, if that’s at all possible.

States get about half their foster-care dollars from the federal government, so they are responsive to its requirements.

But while many adoption advocates have praised the new standards, they’ve also expressed concern over certain provisions. For instance, in the public comments many took issue with the requirement that foster families must be immunized. Critics also voiced concern that applicants must be able to communicate with the child in the child’s own language.

Chuck Johnson says the proposed guidelines also didn’t emphasize the importance of offering foster families ongoing support after they get a child.

JOHNSON: If you’re quickly rushing these families through the certification process and you’re not properly preparing them and educating them for the task then you’re going to have the same discouragement of families leaving and quitting.

Daniel Nehrbass is the president of Nightlight Christian Adoptions. He predicts the new standards won’t solve the foster family shortage because too many potential foster parents find the process unbearable.

NEHRBASS: They can’t envision having their heart broken by having a child in their home for three years and then losing custody. People don’t have any faith that children are going to be treated justly by either having a permanent placement with their biological family or permanent placement with an adoptive family. There’s people who just don’t want to have a part in that.

Nehrbass says many states need to speed up the amount of time it takes to determine a child’s permanency plan: adoption or reunification. In many states cases can drag on for three years or more.

NEHRBASS: So the families wise up to this. They see what’s happening and the quicker the path to permanency, the easier it is to recruit foster families.

But Nehrbass concedes cutting more red tape is also a good start to solving the foster care crisis.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Melanie K Reed Photography, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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