In honor of National Foster Care Month, we wanted to do a deep dive into the foster care structure by answering some questions about what part foster care plays within the greater child welfare system and how it intersects with our work at CASA.
To help us delve into this, we sat down with two of our senior staff members: Catherine Jones, Senior Director of Community Engagement; and Greg Trottie, Director of Quality and Safety.
What is the difference between the terms “child welfare system” and “foster care”?
Catherine: “To me, the child welfare system is the entire system of services and supports that are meant to help families be safe, investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, remove kids when it’s absolutely necessary, and either work to reunify families or find the best permanent homes for kids who can’t be safely reunited with their parents. Foster care is narrower and usually refers to the system whereby individuals and families can become licensed to be substitute caregivers for children in the CWS. Foster care is just one small component of the child welfare system, but there are a lot of kids in the child welfare system who don’t experience foster care.”
Greg: “For example, there are times when children and their families are engaged in the ‘child welfare system’ but the state hasn’t technically intervened yet and doesn’t have custody of the children. There are times when DFPS (The Department of Family and Protective Services) is contacted because of a concern of abuse or neglect, but once investigated that concern doesn’t lead to the child being removed from the home and placed somewhere else. The families and children may instead be engaged in services to address the concern, such as therapy, etc. But since the children were not removed, foster care is not part of the equation at this time.”
What are some of the reasons children are in foster care?
Catherine: “Well, kids become involved in the CWS for a whole variety of reasons; from abuse (physical, sexual) to neglect (physical, educational, medical). Neglect is a lot more common and can be due to parental substance abuse, mental health needs, and many other factors. The first step of child welfare system involvement should be to prevent removal by offering services and support wherever possible, but if it’s not possible for kids to remain safely in the home with parents, then the next step should be to engage relatives or fictive kin (close family friends) to care for the kids while the parents address the concerns. And if that’s not possible, then non-relative foster care is generally the next choice.”
Greg: “There are also children who come into care because a parent/caretaker has refused to continue to care for them and eventually relinquish their rights. We see these types of situations result from both biological and adoptive parents refusing to continue care.”
What are the different types of placements available for a child in the child welfare system? In what scenarios are these placements used?
Catherine: “If kids can’t safely live with their parents, then they may be placed in substitute care with another family member, with fictive kin, or in a non-relative foster home. Family members are always our first choice for kids, so they can remain connected with their families, communities, and cultures while they are involved with the child welfare system. When that’s not possible, we look for fictive kin options, which could mean a family friend, a neighbor, or even someone like a former teacher. Non-relative foster care is when individuals or families work with a child placing agency (CPA) to become licensed to care for non-relative children involved in CPS cases. Foster homes can be licensed to care for different ages and numbers of kids with differing levels of needs, based on their training and experience.”
Greg: “Other placements include ‘Congregate Care Facilities’ which consist of Residential Treatment Centers (RTC), shelters, and group homes. RTC’s may be utilized if a child needs a level of care that is not able to be met in a foster home or kinship placement. But there are times a child may be placed in a RTC because there are no viable foster or relative options. Shelters are typically for emergency placement situations. Group homes are typically utilized for similar reasons, as they offer some of the structure of an RTC but can be less restrictive. It’s also important to note that there are young adults who turn 18 and decide to remain in foster care in ‘Extended Care’ until they gain more stability.”
What are some of the qualifications a placement must meet to be considered a foster care placement?
Catherine: “Standards can differ slightly between relative or kinship caregivers and licensed foster homes. Relative placements must pass background checks (though in the past, depending on the history, we have successfully advocated for relatives with some criminal history to be ordered as placement when we think it’s safe), have a home study of their home/household members conducted by a CPS contractor, and agree to work with the child advocates to allow regular visits while the CPS case is open. Licensed Foster Homes usually have more requirements, including a series of training classes, more extensive background and reference checks, an approved home study, and more. It’s also worth noting that relatives/fictive kin can become licensed foster homes through CPAs to receive added support (including financial) in caring for their child relatives.”
Greg: “Foster homes go through a licensing process in which a foster parent(s) is vetted by the child placement agency, trained by that agency, and their homes may have to meet certain criteria based on how many children they may be able to care for at one time.”
Does foster care always lead to adoption?
Catherine: “Definitely not! I think the best foster parents are those who are really committed to reunification of kids with their bio parents as Plan A, since that’s almost always the goal that we start with at the beginning of a CPS case. That said, when kids can’t be safely reunified with parents and there aren’t relatives or fictive kin that can act as permanent caregivers, then we’d hope to seek adoption with a licensed foster-adopt home as our permanency plan.”
Greg: Not necessarily – typically the initial goal is to return children to their parents or guardian they were removed from if conditions are met, and any services are satisfactorily completed. Sometimes the reunification is successful; but sometimes, a parent/guardian may agree to the child being placed with family or fictive kin under a legal agreement which specifies what their remaining rights to the child are. And sometimes, parents relinquish all rights to their child because they are aware that they are not in a place to safely care for them. This can open the door to adoption by the foster placement.”
How can volunteering CASA be good stepping-stone for foster care?
Catherine: “I’ve often said that being a CASA volunteer is as about as close as someone can get to fostering without having the child come to their home. CASA volunteers are a part of almost every step of the CPS case process, from the time of removal all the way until legal permanency is reached and the case closes. And since the requirements of a CASA volunteer include regular contact with kids, regular interaction with caregivers and service providers (doctors, therapists, teachers, etc.), as well as constant re-evaluation of what is in kids’ best interest; they play a critical role in determining the child’s trajectory while in care. CASA volunteers advocate for best interest as it relates to placements, services, family engagement and visitation, education, trauma-informed care, and permanency—that’s a huge scope that encompasses just about every aspect of a child’s life!
Greg:” If you are considering fostering, I think volunteering with CASA could give great insight into the child welfare system as a whole; what types of trauma children have experienced; and the types of services, support, and other available tools that caregivers need.”
What are some resources to learn more about foster care or that provide support for foster placements?
Catherine: There are so many now! A couple of legislative sessions ago, a bill was passed that increased financial assistance for many relative/fictive kin caregivers, which was wonderful. Relative caregivers also have access to Kinship Caseworkers through CPS whose job is to support kinship caregivers and make sure they are connected to any supports available to them. Non-relative foster homes receive monthly stipends based on the number and levels of care of the kids placed in their home to help them cover the cost of food, clothing, etc. There are also many agencies around Austin that exist to support foster and relative caregivers, including:
- Casey Family Programs: can provide their own social workers to support caregivers with more intensive case management than CPS caseworkers have bandwidth for (I once worked on a case where a Casey social worker assisted a grandma in navigating the complex process of having a very old CPS investigation removed from her CPS administrative record so she could be formally approved to adopt her 4 grandchildren)
- Foster Angels: covers some costs for extracurriculars or other needs of kids that wouldn’t otherwise be covered by CPS (e.g. band camp, gymnastics class, supplies for art class)
- Foster Community helps families involved in the child welfare system and connects partner organizations with the community to better support the total foster community
- Foster Village: provides clothing and other supplies for kids as well as trainings for caregivers including trauma-informed caregiving techniques
- Fostering Hope: provides support and training to caregivers and churches with an emphasis on foster care ministry
- Pop-Up Birthday: creates individualized birthday boxes for kids based on their age, gender and interests
Greg: Foster parents can also engage the placement agency they were licensed through for resources and support specific to their needs and situation.
Thank you, Catherine and Greg, for your insight and expertise!
If you are interested in learning more about foster care in general or would like answers to other frequently asked questions, you can check out the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or Texas Foster Care.
To learn more about becoming a foster parent yourself, check out this helpful PDF from Tex Protects.
And to learn more about volunteering with CASA, sign up for our next info session!