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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 3
June 1999

Retention and Recruitment of Foster and Adoptive Families

Turnover among foster parents poses a serious threat to our child welfare system. As the people we ask to look after kids in need, they play a critical role in our efforts to protect and nurture children.

In North Carolina foster parents are an essential part of two of the five goals for children's services: one stable foster care placement for every child and a permanent home for every child within one year. Without a pool of dedicated, qualified, loving foster parents, we will never reach these goals.

Yet many of our foster parents are choosing not to foster any more. Nationally, between 1983 and 1992, the number of children in foster care increased about 74 percent, while the number of available foster care placements decreased by 11 percent (OIG, 1994).

Why They Stop Fostering

Ask any adoption and foster care worker to explain the difficulty of recruiting and retaining foster and adoptive parents and they will probably give some of these reasons:

  • more children with complex problems entering the system
  • more households have two working parents
  • parents need more support, training, and respite care
  • financial reimbursement to parents is low relative to the cost of living
  • the "system" gets lots of negative publicity and parents do not want to get involved (Chamberlain & Moreland, 1992).

Ask foster parents themselves, and you'll get a similar—but slightly different—answer. For example, when the Federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF) surveyed current and former foster parents, most of those who left the system said they did so either because of various agency policies and practices or problems with the behavior of foster children (J. Bell Assoc. & Westat, 1994). Foster parents also tend to drop out when they fail to get the support and positive recognition they deserve for caring for their foster children (GAO, 1989).

The extent to which foster parents are treated as respected, valuable members of the team helping the child also affects their willingness to continue their work. To quote one foster parent, "The relationship between myself as a foster parent and my social worker (licensing worker) and my foster child's social worker can be the determining factor in whether or not I choose to be a foster parent on an ongoing basis" (Hoffman, 1998).

One study of the impact of money and support services on foster parent retention bears out what foster parents are telling us. In Oregon, the State Children's Services Division conducted a study of 72 foster families in order to determine the effects of enhanced support and training of foster parents on retention and outcomes for children. They divided the participating families into three groups: Group 1 received enhanced support and training plus an increased payment of $70/month; Group 2 received the $70 but did not receive the increase in services; and Group 3 received no extra support.

The results were not surprising. Of participating families, 9.6 percent of Group 1, 14.3 percent of Group 2, and 25.9 percent of Group 3 discontinued care. Compared to the state average of 40 percent discontinuation of care, the results reflect the positive effect of additional support (training, money, and other services) on foster parent retention.

Action Steps

Once parents have been recruited, the issue becomes retention. How do we keep families in the system when providing quality care is so challenging? Here are several steps you can take in your agency:

  1. Clarify foster/adoptive parents' role and recognize their importance to the child, agency, and community. Parents need to understand how they fit into a complex system that includes their own family, your agency, and the larger community.

  2. Ensure all foster/adoptive parents complete a competency-based preservice training, including a "development plan" that addresses strengths and needs. You can assist parents with the "development plan" by facilitating a strengths-based assessment.

  3. Match the needs of a child in care with the skills and qualifications of the foster/adoptive parents. A thorough assessment of the strengths and needs of the child and family is critical if we are to make a successful, lasting match.

  4. Create a mentoring program for new parents by asking participating parents to make themselves available to new ones.

  5. Through collaboration, include foster/adoptive parents in agency decisions, including policy development. If parents are involved in the decision-making process, they will feel more connected to the program and more invested in its success.

  6. Reimburse foster parents for the full cost of fostering. You may control the finances in your organization, but you can advocate for an increase in funding with your supervisor and state legislators.

  7. Provide liability insurance to foster parents. Again, advocating for parents' needs is the best way to increase services to them.

  8. Give foster/adoptive parents ongoing supervision, monitoring, and consultation. Make sure all foster/adoptive parents are aware of community health and mental health services.

  9. Provide foster parents with respite care and child day care services. Making sure that parents have built in "relief" will help them cope with the stress of foster parenting and increase retention rates.

  10. Provide foster/adoptive parents with recognition for their accomplishments. Honor the parents in some way, such as through a newsletter or during a group activity.

  11. Give foster/adoptive parents access to their own files.

  12. Conduct exit meetings to learn why foster/adoptive parents quit. If you know specifically why parents are leaving you can make improvements for the future (Pasztor & Wynne, 1995).

New Statewide Recruitment Partnership

In addition to the steps mentioned above, consider consulting the N.C. Division of Social Services, which has established new partnership with the General Baptist State Convention and University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G) and North Carolina A & T University to facilitate the process of recruiting and licensing foster and adoptive parents.

Under the new partnership, 4,000 Baptist pastors will recruit parents in their congregations to adopt children from foster care, and the universitites will help prospective parents through the sometimes difficult adoption process.

Over the course of the next year the Division will hold meetings to plan recruitment efforts in the North Carolina's 10, 10-county areas, making full use of the resources these new partners have to offer.


Chamberlain, P., & Moreland, S. (1992). Enhanced services and stipends for foster parents: Effects on retention rates and outcomes for children. Child Welfare, Sept/Oct92, Vol. 71, 387-401.

General Accounting Office. (1989). Foster parents: Recruiting and preservice training practices need evaluation. Technical Report (to order call 202/512-6000).

Hoffman, P. (1998). What I would like social workers to know: Expectations and desires of a foster parent. Fostering Perspectives, 2(2), 14.

James Bell Associates, Inc. & Westat, Inc. (1994). National survey of current and former foster parents. Technical Report for DHHS/ACYF. Prepared under contract number 105-89-1602.

Office of the Inspector General (DHHS). (1994). Respite care services for foster parents. Technical Report.

Pasztor, E. & Wynne, S. (1995). Foster parent retention and recruitment. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

1999 Jordan Institute for Families