GOODING — Kelsey Peterson and her husband talked about fostering children even before they married in 2011. The young couple was finally licensed to foster in May 2015, allowed to take in two children between newborn and 3 years old.

But the first call was a social worker begging them to take a 15-year-old.

“We had the option to say yes or no, but it was kind of a desperate plea,” Peterson remembered. “Like, ‘We’ve called everywhere else, no one has room, can you guys take her?’”

The couple relented — but soon regretted it.

“It ended up being a lot more than we ever thought,” Peterson said.

The 15-year-old girl had obvious and understandable emotional trauma despite the social worker’s assurances to the contrary. But there were bigger issues, too.

“I was 22 at the time and never had kids of my own before,” Peterson said. “And here I am parenting a 15-year-old? It was definitely an eye-opener.”

It was just the beginning of the Petersons’ fraught relationship with Idaho’s foster care system: In just two years, they’ve been asked to take in seven children at once, have had thriving children taken away for what they consider bureaucratic reasons and have had a social worker give their personal contact information to a foster child’s parents without their permission.

The Petersons’ experience isn’t an exception to the foster-parenting rule.

Rather, it’s a fairly typical example of issues that plague the system and its foster children, foster families and social workers. And the Petersons’ story highlights the four problem areas identified in a February report by the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations:

Idaho doesn’t have enough foster placements. Social workers and safety assessors work more cases than they can handle. A culture of compromise within Child and Family Services excuses poor performance. And the foster care system has no consistent oversight for all stakeholders.

These problems aren’t unique to Idaho, the OPE report pointed out, and as a result 35 states have had class-action lawsuits filed against child welfare agencies.

“I think every state struggles with the same issues,” said Miren Unsworth, Idaho’s deputy administrator over child welfare. “There is nobody who has the magic bullet.”

But while there are no easy answers to the foster system’s problems, ideas are beginning to take shape in Idaho that can help the system improve. Now, it’s up to Child and Family Services to identify specific ways to fix the system, and the Legislature to approve bigger budgets and more staff.

And quickly.

It’s as urgent as an abused child’s need for a safe place to sleep tonight.

Overworked

foster parents

While fostering the 15-year-old girl in their tiny two-bedroom house, Nick and Kelsey Peterson also took in three sisters ages 12, 4 and 2.

The Petersons are still licensed for just two children — even after moving into a larger home, and after their daughter’s birth occupied one of those slots — but are almost always on waivers to take in more. Once they had seven children in the home.

“We’ve had 19 placements in the two years that we’ve had our house open,” Kelsey Peterson said in the office of the Wendell day care she runs. Outside the office, an employee held Peterson’s infant daughter while two of her foster children played with the other kids cooking fake meals in a plastic oven and rolling cars around a toy track.

“Some of them were just one night,” Peterson said. “Some of them were two weeks.”

In April, she had five children at home: Her own infant, three siblings ages 1 to 5 and another young boy. All four of the foster children are long-term placements.

“They called us to just take two of (the siblings),” Peterson said. “They were going to place us with the two boys and put the little girl in a different home because there wasn’t a home that could take them all. You can’t separate three little kids at that age, so we took them all.”

The Petersons’ situation highlights one of the biggest issues with Idaho’s foster care system: There simply aren’t enough foster families to take in all the children without overburdening certain families. This is especially true in the Magic Valley, where available foster beds are in the shortest supply.

Without beds readily available, children are placed farther from their biological parents, making visitation and an eventual reunification more difficult — like the twin baby girls being fostered by Terri Mortensen of Jerome and her husband.

The girls have been with the Mortensens since they were 6 weeks old and will soon celebrate their first birthday, and their mother typically visits twice a week despite living in a different town.

“We want her to see them,” Mortensen said. “Most of the time she can. It’s harder in the winter because she lives 45 minutes to an hour away.”

Part of the solution is straightforward: recruiting new foster families.

The authors of the OPE report recommended that Child and Family services strengthen its recruitment plan by determining how many foster parents are needed in each region and what additional resources will be needed to recruit them.

But just as important, if not more, is retaining foster parents who are already licensed. When the stress gets too great, many foster families quit.

“At its core, this is about relationships and communication,” Unsworth said.

Strengthening bonds between foster families and social workers would ensure more families stay in the program. This will require the department to give them better support and resources, Unsworth said, particularly for children with special needs.

The OPE report recommended Child and Family Services develop a robust retention plan that includes improving communication and relationships between foster families and social workers, and identifying ways to provide improved, consistent support for foster parents.

One factor that will help is giving families more money; when the OPE study was conducted, maintenance payments to families covered just 50 to 60 percent of room and board expenses per child.

The 2017 Idaho Legislature approved a 20 percent payment increase for each child in a family’s care. But Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, who co-chairs the interim legislative committee on foster care, said that will mean little to prospective foster families.

“Not one foster parent has ever said it’s about the money,” said Lee, who became a foster parent herself when her niece from another state needed care.

Other ideas are in the works that could improve the fostering experience. One is a pilot program set to begin this summer in the Treasure Valley that will make a liaison available to foster families by phone.

Child and Family Services hired two new employees the first week of May who will act in a customer-service role “to triage for foster families to get immediate needs met,” Unsworth said.

Social workers there can now focus on bigger tasks without worrying about basic chores.

“So when a parent calls and says, ‘I need a voucher for diapers,’ that doesn’t need to go to a social worker,” Unsworth said. “Or if they say, ‘I need Johnny’s immunization records,’ that liaison can chase that down instead of a social worker.”

Tasks like those — simple but time-consuming, and often requiring immediate attention — can free up social workers, Unsworth said, to better communicate with foster families on the important things like “a child, his needs and working a case plan.”

The newly hired liaisons will be asked to track data — such as what types of calls they receive — and Child and Family Services plans to assess the program for about six months before deciding if it’s helpful and can be expanded statewide.

Overworked case managers

Safety assessors and social workers are handling more cases than they can manage, the authors of the OPE report found after interviewing about a third of Child and Family Services employees and surveying all of them.

Safety assessors, the survey found, estimated they could handle 11 cases but instead are handling about 15 each. Social workers also estimated they could handle 11 but are tasked with about 14 each. The report called these unmanageable workloads.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by foster parents.

“Turnover is huge,” said Kate Allred of Jerome, who quit fostering in July. “When we were there, there were social workers going through revolving doors. Their workload is too heavy. They are stretched too thin, and it makes them cranky and fuzzy thinkers. It’s not the social workers’ fault. They are overworked.”

An unnamed chief of social work told an OPE interviewer that social workers must “settle for C-grade work … because of resource constraints.”

“The problem,” the chief said, “is that there is an expectation for A-grade results.”

A judge interviewed for the OPE report also said Idaho foster-care social workers would get a C grade.

“I believe that most health and welfare workers want to do a good job and are good people,” the judge said. “I also believe that their caseloads are too big and their resources are too small. Because they are overwhelmed, they are only capable of doing an average job.”

An obvious solution is adding more staff. A workload analysis conducted by Child and Family Services in 2007 found a need for 36 percent more staff, but it has been able to add just 10 percent more caseworkers since then. The 2017 Legislature added six support staff and two social worker positions, but the state knows it needs more.

Hiring more caseworkers, though, is just one element of addressing the workload problem, Unsworth said. “We have to figure out: What other efficiencies can we create to help support workload management?”

The liaison program could help shift menial responsibilities away from caseworkers. Another solution in the works is overhauling the cumbersome data management system.

“Our staff is working for the system rather than the system working for them,” Unsworth said.

Child and Family Services requested money from the Legislature this winter to help fix the system, and the Legislature came through, allocating just over a million dollars for the project.

“Things like this on the technology and business side can help improve efficiency,” Unsworth said. “We need to improve and ensure folks are only doing necessary tasks.”

Another contribution to streamlining efficiency among caseworkers is a pilot program that began last fall in Ada County; it allows social workers to attend certain court hearings via video. This cuts down on travel time and precious work time that’s wasted outside courtroom doors while waiting for oft-delayed hearings to start.

“It’s still in an assessment period,” Unsworth said. “There have been conversations among some of the judges who have piloted it that there might be potential to implement it in other parts of the state.”

The program would be especially beneficial in rural areas, Unsworth said. The next step, though, is figuring out the technology — likely to be the most difficult in rural areas where it’s needed the most.

Organizational culture

Addressing the issues of overworked foster families and case managers is relatively simple compared with the issue of organizational culture. More families willing to foster, more money and more staff can alleviate placement shortages and workload problems — but how do you change the mindset and work culture of overworked and often criticized case managers and safety assessors?

The OPE report authors found that on one hand, Child and Family Services employees are committed to improving the lives of the children and families they work with; on the other hand, difficult demands, limited resources and strained relationships with foster families and other stakeholders has created “a culture of compromise with a conflicted sense of efficacy.”

“There is a permeating belief among staff that more is demanded of them than they can do,” the evaluators found. “Because of this belief, each aspect of the organizational culture is undercut by a need to address the constant feeling of crisis.”

The OPE report also exposed a growing rift between social workers and the foster families they work with.

Fifty-five percent of foster parents surveyed said they disagreed that Child and Family Services “deeply understands” their wants and needs. Only 17 percent said they agreed, while 28 percent were neutral.

“There is no set standard for cases,” an unnamed parent told the OPE report authors. “The biggest thing said to foster parents, when we ask about how things go, is ‘It’s a case-by-case basis.’ This removes all liability and accountability of the department.”

Social workers, on the other hand, feel like they face constant criticism from foster parents, judges and Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteers.

“It is hard to feel like you are always being scrutinized or criticized from every angle,” a chief of social work told the OPE. “The workers here feel like they are constantly having to defend themselves to everyone.”

This belief among Child and Family Services workers — that they can’t meet requirements and expectations of quality — has led to a “culture of compromise.” Poor performance is “explainable, excusable and expected,” the OPE report found, resulting in a severe lack of accountability.

This type of culture is unacceptable, Unsworth said, and “folks need to be held accountable.” Addressing workload will help, she said, though the problem runs deeper than just overworked case managers.

“This is tough, it’s not easy,” Unsworth said. “I think we acknowledge it and see it as an ongoing process.”

Any issues with organizational cultural must be addressed at the leadership level, Unsworth said.

To begin fixing this problem, Child and Family Services will hold a conference this summer for managers and supervisors. Its aim: help the department figure out how to address its poor organizational culture.

Lee, the state senator from Fruitland who fostered her niece, said she doesn’t believe any Child and Family Services employees approach their jobs “with anything but the best intentions.” But the system has become bogged down in part by poor policies that are not controlled by state statutes.

“I think we’re looking through the lens of what’s in the best interest for (biological) parents,” Lee said. “We have to consider family first, which is our policy in Idaho.”

But this sometimes stands in the way of making decisions that are in the best interest of children, she said — such as when a child who is with a foster family since birth is taken away and placed with a family member of her biological parents.

“What does that do to a child?” Lee asked. “We’re hearing from a lot of foster parents that this is traumatic for children.”

But this policy of always favoring a placement with biological family or fictive kin is just that — a policy created by Child and Family Services, not by state statute, and a policy that’s adhered to even when it goes against the best interests of a child.

“That’s why we need the interim committee,” Lee said of the legislative committee she co-chairs.

In June, that committee will meet with representatives from Child and Family Services to determine how they’re addressing certain policies. The biggest questions will be: How can the department start acting in the best interest of the children, what does that mean, and how does Idaho compare with other states?

But looking past this summer, the committee could have an even bigger role in helping to fix Idaho’s broken foster system.

Systemwide oversight

Child and Family Services plays the biggest role in the state’s broken foster care system, but many stakeholders play critical roles: other agencies, community partners, lawmakers, law enforcement and the court system.

Each entity has built-in mechanisms of oversight, but who polices and holds the entire system accountable?

Right now, the answer is nobody. There is no formal oversight body, and the OPE report made it clear this is one of the biggest problems with the system.

“We recommend the formation of a formal, system-wide oversight entity with authority to ensure ongoing accountability, visibility, and accessibility for all child welfare partners and stakeholders,” the OPE authors wrote.

Lee said it’s unheard of for the state’s performance evaluators to make such a recommendation.

“That’s the strongest language ever,” the state senator said. “They have never made a recommendation to create a completely new oversight committee.”

The recommendation speaks to the foster care system’s dire situation.

The report suggested creating a permanent legislative committee dedicated to overseeing the foster care system, though already there are skeptics of that solution. Lee said the Legislature might balk at adding another standing committee, while the administrative director from the Idaho Supreme Court questioned whether the Legislature could oversee the judiciary without violating the state Constitution.

“There is always that tension — the separation of government,” Lee said. “But other states have done this. We need to figure out if we need a top-down oversight or a more collaborative approach.”

For now, the interim legislative committee created last year and approved to continue this year will provide the oversight. Beyond that, there is only uncertainty.

Failure to address oversight could render all other changes moot.

What good is recruiting more foster families if overworked social workers are unable to build relationships and retain those families? What good is hiring more social workers if they’ll be burdened with too many cases and accept their own poor performance? What good is fixing a culture of excuses and compromise among social workers if the department’s poor policies aren’t changed?

Whatever the solution — whether a permanent legislative committee or something else — the state must take action. Without that oversight, Idaho’s broken system will continue to hemorrhage foster families — even solid ones like Nick and Kelsey Peterson, the young couple who planned to foster before their marriage and even moved to a bigger house so they could take in more children.

It’s hard to imagine a couple being more proactive about wanting to foster, about creating an environment in which they can help children and help families. Yet their poor experience with the system has pushed them to the brink of quitting.

“My husband is definitely at that point; his leading phrase anymore is, ‘We’re not taking any more kids,’” Kelsey Peterson said. “He’s pretty much fed up … and it’s not the kids at all, it’s the system. He hates the system.”

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