The shortage of foster families in every state and county in the U.S. is a truism verging on a cliché. Utah recently announced that it had 2,700 children in foster care, with only about 1,400 foster families. A recent survey in Virginia found that “79 percent of respondents (local [child welfare] department staff) identified a shortage of foster families in their localities.” It concluded that “despite the known shortage of foster families in Virginia, and the fact that the shortage has been documented for years, [the Virginia Department of Social Services] currently has no plan, dedicated funding, or staff to systematically recruit non-relative foster families.”
Though the federal government spent almost $10 billion last year on child welfare, Washington’s ability to fix this problem is limited. Still, the Trump administration is trying. Last week, the president signed an executive order requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to “develop a more rigorous and systematic approach to collecting State administrative data,” including “the number of currently available foster families and their demographic information; the average foster parent retention rate and average length of time foster parents remain certified; a target number of foster homes needed to meet the needs of children in foster care; and the average length of time it takes to complete foster and adoptive home certification.”
“Foster families are a critical resource in supporting family reunification and to assist children to safely stay connected to parents, siblings and friends in their communities during foster care placement,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, told me. “It is imperative that we are able to assess how well states are recruiting and retaining those families. . . . We can utilize the data states collect on foster parents to give us a more robust picture of strengths and needs.”
It’s hard to believe that states don’t already do this. Child-welfare agencies are looking for safe, stable, and loving homes for tens of thousands of kids, yet they don’t have basic information about the kinds of families willing to do this vital work. Somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of foster parents quit within the first year, but states don’t seem interested in finding out why. A 2019 Boston Globe investigation found that 2,000 Massachusetts foster families had “stopped accepting foster children in the past five years—almost as many as the total number of foster families currently in the system.” These families’ only “exit interview” was with the Globe.
The new demand for data about foster families must be sourced aggressively and made public so that local groups can use it. Organizations like FaithBridge, a Georgia-based nonprofit that recruits, trains, and supports foster families through churches, have used that state’s data to understand which families they should be targeting with their efforts. They found, for instance, that middle-income people with some college education made effective foster parents, as did parents whose biological children were at least ten years old. Parents of mixed ethnicities did well, as did older couples. As Bob Bruder-Mattson, president and CEO of FaithBridge, told me: “We’ve experienced double digit increases in our recruitment since having this data [from Georgia]. . . . We need this type of data for every community in the USA.”
Imagine if you could target these groups directly instead of just paying for billboards or public-service announcements. The limited resources available should be spent encouraging the adults most likely to be successful at fostering—and to stay in it for the long term. This is Marketing 101—finding your core customer base. Yet most child-welfare agencies lack the technology, the budget, and the motivation to use these kinds of data to their advantage. With the right private-sector partners, they could.
Trump’s executive order, like all such proclamations, is subject to being revoked by a successor. More importantly, though, the enforcement mechanism for the order is unclear. It contains no penalty—like taking away federal funds—for state child-welfare agencies failing to comply. Even if the feds couldn’t wield sticks, they should have found a way to include a few carrots, such as offering financial or technological resources for those that collected the data more quickly or who partnered with private-sector organizations sooner. Still, the president has taken a step in the right direction for foster kids.