Saturday, April 22, 2017

Child Abuse Prevention (Part IV): Foster parent shortage in rural areas

As discussed in Part I, Part II, and Part III of this series, child abuse affects all communities, but the state's involvement can impact rural communities differently than urban ones. For more on one community's approach to this shortage, check out this earlier blog post.

A shortage of foster parents
Unfortunately, federal laws (such as the Fostering Connections to Success and Adoptions Act, Child and Family Services Improvement Act, etc.) do not address the fact that rural communities may have different needs than more urban communities. Rural areas are in desperate need of more foster and adoptive parents. All foster parents must be licensed and approved, must receive background checks and TB tests. Because all these processes need to be done and training usually spans over several days, maybe weeks, it is difficult for state workers to travel to a rural area to recruit and train just one or two prospective parents at a time. This leaves it to prospective foster parents in rural communities to step up and drive outside their communities, sometimes several times, to become approved as foster parents. For them to do that, they must first be aware of the opportunity to become foster parents, and state agencies are unable to recruit in rural communities effectively due to travel time and lack of resources. Some states have laws or funds established to address these challenges, but not all.

Rurality can create challenges for rural foster parents
This dynamic can create especially demanding circumstances for foster parents who are located in rural areas, or who are caring for a child who came from a rural or remote area. These volunteer caregivers are often asked to drive many hours and miles in order to help transport the child to family visits, court hearings, or doctor's appointments. Consider all the challenges that many rural families face: lack of connection with larger systems, lack of services, and a general lack of accessibility. Day-to-day caregiving activities may become more onerous. For example, one long-time foster parent living in rural Wisconsin said that the biggest issue that he faced was finding a dentist. Foster children are often covered under Medicaid, and it can be extremely challenging to find a dentist who will take Medicaid within a reasonable distance of the rural community where the child lives, so foster parents, or even social workers can end up driving hours to bring a child to see a dentist or other care provider. A social worker will always have to report to the dependency court about the child's health, which usually includes mandatory dental visits.

Children are impacted the most 
Foster parent scarcity heavily impacts children in foster care. One child welfare worker reported that in absence of enough high-quality foster placements in rural areas, and out of desparation a worker might place the child in a 'marginal' home that is available, possibly sacrificing things like consistent supervision or cleanliness. Additionally, while many other areas have "receiving homes" or emergency placements, many rural areas do not. (A 'receiving home' is a safe place where children who have just been removed from their families can stay until the social worker finds a more stable, sometimes long term foster placement. In many places places, such as San Francisco, this 'home' is staffed with people who are trained in crisis counseling for children.)

The shortage of foster homes in rural communities also means that children who are removed from their homes are much more likely to be moved from their communities and into different ones. Children who are already facing the trauma and fear that comes with being removed from their homes will be in a new place with a new school, likely far away from friends and relatives.

Kinship care
In recent years, federal and state lawmakers have facilitated a move toward kinship care: placing a child in the home of a relative caregiver in order to utilize the organic support systems that exist within families and minimize the trauma to a child by placing him or her in the care of a known caregiver. Federal law has kept up with this trend by enacting a law that requires "relative notification." Within 30 days after removal of a child, the social worker must conduct "due diligence" by identifying and notifying as many relatives as possible that the child has entered foster care. The hope is that a relative may want to offer a home to the child (or offer a permanent, safe, loving relationship in a different capacity).

This "due diligence" could be more difficult in rural communities if a  social worker is unable to access family members by phone, but I see it as a hopeful concept. Certainly, it comes with its own complications, mainly the lack of anonymity in rural areas. Depending on the type of abuse, a relative in the same community might not be able to protect a child from an abuser. Social workers might have less control and oversight in a community that tightly functions on its own if a child is placed in a nearby home and a social worker is stationed  somewhere else. Overall, increasing stability and familiarity where possible and minimizing the trauma of moving could make a big difference to a child. Though a commitment to kinship care may not relieve some of the challenges of the foster parent shortage and rural isolation, it might broaden the net of safe families where children can stay while caregivers work toward reunification.


EAG said...

I enjoyed reading your seies on Child Abuse Prevention! However, I do not think that only rural areas are experiencing foster parent shortages. For instance, Los Angeles County also has a foster home shortage.( This is not to say that rural areas do not have their own unique challenges when dealing with foster care, like as you pointed out children will be moved out of their communities to find foster homes. There are a myriad of different reasons why counties and states have foster home shortages including, high influxes of children from drug epidemics and problems with recruitment and retention. I think this is an important issue that deserves more research and funding to address the unique challengs to solving the foster home shortage in both rural and urban areas.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's a piece from today's NYTimes California report on a foster family in Redding, California (Shasta County, north end of Central Valley) who have taken in more than 600 foster kids over the course of four decades. It's quite an extraordinary story about an extraordinary couple.