Over the past several weeks, we’ve featured a three-part series on Idaho’s ailing foster-care system. It probably comes as no surprise to readers that Idaho’s system is in trouble – that’s the case in states across the country. But it’s the depth of Idaho’s problems that’s truly stunning.
There are far too few families willing to take in foster kids. Caseworkers are responsible for more children than they can handle. That’s lead to a “culture of compromise,” where children are shuffled through the system, corners are cut and rules are bent. And most important, there is virtually no statewide oversight of the system, which has allowed these problems to go unchecked for years.
Our series was sparked by a February report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations that suggested deep flaws in the system. We set out to show readers a first-hand look at these flaws. Our reporters spent dozens of hours inside Magic Valley foster homes. We talked to parents of children in the system, foster families, caseworkers and bureaucrats.
It’s one thing to expose the problems. It’s another to find fixes.
They may be challenging, but the solutions aren’t insurmountable. Here are four suggestions that emerged from our series:
Nick and Kelsey Peterson lived in a tiny two-bedroom home in Gooding, where they were licensed to shelter two foster children younger than 3 at a time. But in the two years they’ve been fostering kids, the Petersons have sometimes had up to five kids in their home at any one time. Once, they had seven. And many of the 19 children they’ve fostered have been older than 3 — a violation of their license for which the system continually issued waivers. There simply was no other place for those kids to go.
Their story is typical: Families who sign up to foster children often have to bite off more than they can chew. Not surprisingly, families often quit when they’re overburdened.
The foster system must step up its recruitment efforts, first by surveying each region of the state to determine how many families are really needed. Next, officials must do better to strengthen the bonds between foster families and their caseworkers. The OPE report suggested new retention plans that bolster communication with caseworkers and families.
And more money wouldn’t hurt, either. It was clear from our reporting that no foster family was in this for the money — foster parents typically receive about just 50 to 60 percent of room and board expenses per child. Upping the incentive may be enough to retain more families.
Hire more caseworkers
Our reporting also showed that caseworkers are grossly overworked. On average, they’re handling four more cases than is manageable.
As our reporting showed: “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.”
Child and Family Services is also working to find efficiencies, such as considering a plan to hire support staffers to take menial tasks off of caseworkers. The agency is also overhauling its cumbersome data-management system, a move that could save time and money.
Change the ‘culture
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Hiring more caseworkers and recruiting more foster families seem like easy fixes compared with addressing the deep and underlying sense of defeat that plagues the foster-care system.
“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.”
Foster families say they don’t get enough guidelines; caseworkers say families and judges complain too much; and nearly everyone says there isn’t enough accountability.
Put simply, the system has deep organizational flaws that perpetuate a culture of distrust. Individuals in the system – the foster families, the caseworkers – nearly all have good intentions, but the system isn’t organized to support these intentions. Instead, it’s leading to disillusionment.
A conference this summer for managers and supervisors may offer solutions. It aims to identify the organizational limitations and how to address the shortfalls.
Above all, foster families and caseworkers told us, there’s no one really steering this ship. Child and Family Services plays the biggest role, but others are involved, too, such as lawmakers, the court system, community partners.
Idaho has no oversight board to police these partnerships. One is badly needed.
The OPE report reached a similar conclusion: “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 report suggested a permanent legislative committee, a suggestion that could be difficult to implement because of separation of powers within the government.
But this much is clear: Without a stable oversight board, none of the other solutions will amount to much. As our reporting suggested, what good is it to recruit more foster families if caseworkers are still overburdened?
Idaho desperately needs top-down reform.
The question now is: Does the Legislature realize it, and what will they do?