If you've ever considered becoming a foster parent, did doubts hold you back? Maybe raising a traumatized youngster sounded daunting. Maybe you'd heard that DSHS Children's Administration (CA), which oversees and supports foster care in Washington, is hampered by inadequate funding, big-bureaucracy delays and overworked staff. Maybe parenting without a nearby surrogate grandparent, aunt or uncle for the youngster sounded like a fast track to burnout.
In short, you didn't want to fail a vulnerable child.
But the current shortage of foster homes means we're collectively failing thousands of children. According to Beth Canfield, who is co-president of Foster Parents Association of Washington State (FPAWS) with her husband, Mike, the number of state-licensed foster homes held fairly steady at about 9,000 for most of their 30 years as foster parents. Now it has shrunk to 5,100 — for the 10,000 children whose parents can't take care of them. It's a crisis.
The crisis can’t be remedied by the system in its present form, says The Mockingbird Society's executive director, Jim Theofelis. The number of foster parents is unlikely to rise unless interested adults can be reasonably confident they won’t end up struggling alone and ill-supported.
But what if people knew that several foster caregivers who lived near them would be available to listen, empathize, share parenting tips? And what if this constellation of foster households was linked to a “hub” home staffed by an experienced foster parent, a deft system navigator who knows about resources that a frazzled caseworker forgot to tell a client about? This is the Mockingbird Family Model (MFM).
In an MFM constellation of foster homes, kids can stay at the hub home when a foster caregiver wants an occasional weekend off. A teenager, instead of running away when he's fed up with mom or dad (as many foster teens do), can chill for a few nights at the hub home, where every child keeps an extra toothbrush and the veteran foster parent knows that teenager's needs.
Theofilis views the Mockingbird model as a retention and recruitment tool that will increase the number of foster homes. “The better we hold on to caregivers, the better recruitment they can be for families and friends,” he says. “Billboards don’t work. Of the band of folks considering [foster parenting], more are likely to come in when they hear, at their kid's baseball game or swimming meet, about support from the MFM.” Solid caregiver backup is a magnet, and supporting the adults who care for kids is good for the kids.
Just ask Degale Cooper, the hub parent in the Columbia City constellation. She hosts informal dinners and monthly meetings where families deal with issues big and small, from engaging the children in discussions about bullying and how to stop it, to finding an affordable summer camp. If the children aren’t participating in the conversation, they go play together in the hub home yard or rec room. On weekends a group of the families might go camping or boating.
Credit: Jack Hunter
It’s like an extended family. “My house is 'Auntie's house,'” says Cooper (above). “The kids are comfortable coming and going. Maybe a parent will call me in the middle of the night: 'I'm tearing my hair out! She's trashing her room. Can you come get her?'” At such times Cooper's home becomes a refuge for the child, a place where he or she can get some coaching about healthier behavior by an adult who's familiar, trusted and skilled at resolving conflicts and cooling tempers.
Yossi and Gitit Banai, MSM foster parents in an Eastside constellation, are also raising three biological children. When their 12-year-old foster son heard that his biological parents had made him legally eligible for adoption by giving up their parental rights, he announced that he wanted to move out immediately — even though no adoptive parents had yet been found — and started acting out in ways that disturbed and disrupted the whole family.
Fortunately, the hub home felt familiar to the boy. He had enjoyed birthday parties and lunches there, and had attended meetings with his parents. “We just called and arranged for him to stay there for a time, kind of like a sleepover,” said Yossi. Their foster son agreed.
Mockingbird Family Model creates extended foster families. Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr
At the Banais' he had been refusing to do his chores or limit his time on the computer. The hub home rules were the same, but the boy peacefully followed them. He stayed ten days, and the hub parents called the Banais regularly to catch them up. “When he came back he was more mellow, and we had more energy and patience to deal with him,” said Yossi.
He and Gitit didn't have to put their family through weeks of an emotionally wounded kid's fierce eruptions. And the hub home alternative was far better than having to call the social worker and possibly initiate a painful series of temporary placements for the youngster — or, worse, placement in a group home because of the critical shortage of foster families.
Learning to see the patterns in foster children's emotional responses is a topic of trainings regularly held at the hub home and of ongoing discussions among the families. Understanding that emotional landscape helps caregivers like Gitit and Yossi stick with their foster kids even through the difficult times. “All these kids come through very similar trauma,” said Yossi, who serves on Mockingbird’s board. “They need affection, somebody to hug them, to let them feel they have a home. Not among strangers, but with people who really care about them.”
One perennial challenge of foster parenting is familiar to everyone who has been involved in the foster care system: Even seriously abused children long to go back to their biological parents. “The kids start idealizing them, and very often will tell us they hate us,” Yossi said. “It's very natural. If I love my parents, I hate anyone setting up to displace them. It's jarring the first time. But we learned to expect the honeymoon, three or four weeks of best behavior, and then, when they feel a little more comfortable, they become more difficult. Patterns we can anticipate are easier to deal with.”
Recently the Washington State Legislature designated funds for CA to build five new hub sites between Kent and the Canadian border, the state's so-called Region 2, which includes King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. CA will use $250,000 of that money to work with Mockingbird on training CA staff in each location.
"We're looking forward to expanding a program that works," says Mindy Chambers, outreach and response manager at DSHS division of public affairs. The Mockingbird model allows experienced foster parents to provide much-needed support for those with less experience, she says. It also eases some of the workload carried by CA social workers. If the five new sites in Region 2 are successful, staff will be trained to build five more. “We do plan on statewide expansion,” says Chambers, though it will take time and money.
The Mockingbird model may not work everywhere. “It's difficult to run in a rural area,” says Mike Fitzpatrick, director of adoption services at Children's Home Society of Washington. Most of CHS-WA’s foster homes are located around Wenatchee, where the distances between the homes makes finding a cluster of families anchored by a hub house unlikely.
And there's the added expense. According to Jon Brumbach, Mockingbird public policy and communications coordinator, hub home operations that offer basic care typically cost $30,000-$35,000 annually; the yearly cost is $55,000 for sites that accommodate children who require behavioral and mental health resources. However, adds Brumbach, hub homes reduce state expenditures on a variety of line items such as training and respite for foster parents, because hub home staff are equipped to provide some of those services.
Seeing the value of the Mockingbird model, Ryther pays for hub home operations out of program funds. “We chose ... the model even though it’s an expense because we have seen it be the number one, best way to retain families and also recruit families for therapeutic foster care,” says Heather Perry, Ryther's therapeutic family care licensor. “Foster homes that offer behavioral rehab services to kids require a lot more support and are hard to recruit for. The average number of placements [for our kids] is nine before they arrive here, so there's lots of trauma. The Mockingbird model works wonderfully for kids who have been bounced around so much.”
The vast majority of foster caregivers must still seek connections with their peers in the old way. The nonprofits Fostering Together and FPAWS, as well as the state's Aging and Long-Term Support Administration sponsor support groups around the state. They also host special events, like picnics, that can bring foster families together. FPAWS, says co-president Mike Canfield, successfully pushed for a new law that requires CA staff to meet quarterly with foster parents to discuss systemic issues, after which the parents send reports to the Legislature.
The system itself creates isolation, says Mockingbird's Jim Theofilis. Partially alleviating that isolation by a good-faith effort at convening people involved in foster care “is not a reform or game-changer.” When he worked in mental health care at King County juvenile detention, says Theofilis, he couldn’t tell whether a foster child’s attachment disorder was “a result of abuse before entering the system, or of being bounced around in the system and unable to make contact with a social worker.”
Theofilis recalls a young girl who ran away from a foster care placement where she was the only female in a houseful of adolescent males. “It was actually a smart move," he says, "but the system viewed her as a chronic runaway with an attachment disorder. The social worker said, in front of me, ‘If you do this one more time I won't give you any of our good foster homes.’ Do we have a list of bad homes?”
The MFM constellations have received no substantiated Child Protective Services complaints, says Theofilis. He believes it's because no family is working in lonely isolation with “the kid who had 15 foster mamas before he met you.” Hub homes routinely check in: “‘I hear you got a new kid, hear you need diapers for him. Come over for tea.’” And the adults hold each other accountable. “Too often we hear about a kid who has been bruised by foster parents who keep him home from school for a week. You can't do that in the MFM.”
At a recent Storm game, Degale Cooper recognized the young woman behind the snack counter. She had been a foster kid in the first constellation Cooper worked in, ten years ago. At the time the girl was 13 or 14, a surly adolescent — “one of those young people who was always ‘I'm not talking to you.’” Now, says Cooper, she’s smiling, confident and doing well.
“People should consider becoming foster parents,” says Cooper, “especially because there are MFMs now. If they can’t [foster a child], they can be respite providers, or help support a constellation” — maybe in the way a building contractor in her neighborhood did a few years ago.
“He mentored a girl who was in my MFM from age 18 to 21,” says Cooper. “Before that, she was always getting into fights and blowing out of other foster homes. She was a thug, basically. He built a tree house with her and let her do other projects. She’s 23 now, and went through a construction management program, and is on her way to doing what she dreams. That man turned her life around for her.”
Being a parent is often stressful. Being a foster parent is often really stressful, because the children in one's care arrive with issues. What parents and kids, foster or otherwise, need is a break now and then — from each other — and face-to-face help they can count on. As Theofelis says, “Systems don’t raise healthy children. Families and communities do.”