How to Honor Foster Parents

We need a culture change to encourage and support foster families to give children the stability — and love — they need.

The opioid crisis has made for a foster-care crisis, too, and the child-welfare systems in many states are not conducive to recruiting and retaining foster families. What can be done to attract “the right families” to foster care and keep them? “What would really motivate these foster parents? More money? Or, a modicum of respect from the child welfare system?”

These are questions Naomi Schaefer Riley explores in a new report published by the American Enterprise Institute, “Honor Your (Foster) Mothers and Fathers.” She talks about the paper and her research on foster care and adoption in this interview.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Whenever the topic of foster parenting comes up, one tends to hear responses like, “It takes a special kind of person” and “Too many people abuse the system.” Is “Honor Your (Foster) Mothers and Fathers” more than a policy paper? Perhaps a plea to nurture a culture that is more conducive to helping children in foster care to get the loving care that they need?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: It is not uncommon to hear people refer to foster parents as “saints.” And why not? These are people who take total strangers, often with clear emotional and behavioral problems, into their homes and treat them as if they were family. But in truth there are tens of thousands of Americans who do foster care every year.

Why are there not more? One reason is certainly the culture. We live in a culture where everyone is trying to raise the perfect child. We live in a culture where everyone is responsible for their own nuclear family. The kind of support network that’s necessary to care for a child with greater needs is often not there.

Despite all that, I think more people would do foster care if our government agencies didn’t treat them so badly. What is it like to do foster care? The people I interview say it has brought them the greatest joy and the deepest sadness. It’s also like spending seven hours a week at the DMV. Between child-welfare workers and family court, foster parents report that they are treated like glorified babysitters. And frankly, most people treat their babysitters better.

Lopez: You begin your report: “The number of kids in foster care has risen nationwide for five consecutive years to almost 443,000 in 2017. These kids need responsible adults — sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently — to care for them.” What does a responsible adult look like, and are they being driven away?

Riley: There are many different types of responsible adults. Some are older couples who are empty-nesters. Some are younger couples who haven’t had any children yet. Some have a number of children in the house already. And some are single parents. What successful foster parents typically have in common is that their own situation is stable. They have a steady source of income and are not worried about money each month. They have a strong support network. And they have a great deal of patience for dealing with bureaucracy.

Lopez: You talk about how adults who spent time in foster homes often talk about the money. How tender are their hearts about this subject, even years later?

Riley: I remember talking to a young man who had aged out of foster care in Arkansas. He had bounced from home to home — sometimes with relatives, some foster parents, some group homes — for almost a decade and had remembered exactly how much each residence was allotted to care for him and how much they actually spent on him. It seemed to him like a very transactional relationship — in part because everyone who took him in really needed the money. Ideally, we want foster care to feel as much like a normal family as possible.

Lopez: “Many observers are shocked to find out how little assistance the government provides foster parents,” you write. At the same time, you don’t really think money helps. Is providing money more trouble than it’s worth? Can money ever help?

Riley: On the one hand, giving money to foster families seems like the decent thing to do. They are covering the costs of food, clothing, and any activities for kids. It’s a significant expense. But we also don’t want people to do it for the money. One option is to give vouchers — for child care or for education, for instance — that would ensure the money is being spent on children, not on other expenses.

Lopez: In the report, you say, “When I asked a foster mother outside Denver, Colorado, the most difficult thing about fostering young kids who had experienced severe trauma, she told me, ‘It’s the adults, not the kids.’” While your paper’s focus is helping to get the systems working better, since you’ve talked to so many foster parents, how do they get over the fear of not having what it takes to love a child who might have some severe history of trauma?

Riley: The short answer is faith. There are certainly foster parents who are not religious, but often the people I interview say they would not be able to care for the child, take that child to visits with a family that has not treated the child well, and then deal with the fallout after the visit were it not for their belief that God will protect that child. How do you take a child into your home and love them completely, knowing that at any time a judge could say it is time for that child to return home. It is the faith of those foster parents, knowing that it is their role to love the child completely, no matter what may happen next.

Lopez: How have you come to focus so much of your research on foster care and adoption?

Riley: Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of time writing about religious communities, and I have been privileged to see how foster care and adoption have become such high priorities, particularly for evangelical churches in recent years. It’s been inspiring. But I also wrote a book about American Indians a few years ago. They have the worst rates of child abuse of any group in this country. It was painful to see how bad our government is at protecting children in these communities. Finally, my time as a columnist at the New York Post forced me to look more closely at how big cities are often failing to protect vulnerable children.

Lopez: What has surprised you the most?

Riley: I think the biggest surprise is how little attention conservatives have given to this issue. More than a decade ago, in the wake of the fatality of a child who was already the subject of multiple abuse investigations, I asked some fellow conservatives, “What is the ‘broken windows’ solution to child welfare? We have done so much to change educational outcomes and reduce crime. What are we doing about child welfare? The answer all too often is that this is the inevitable result of the breakdown of the American family. This answer is true, but insufficient. There are half a million children in foster care now. What are we going to do about them?

Lopez: What’s your advice to someone reading this who feels they are among those “responsible adults” who should step up to the plate?

Riley: I think the great part of what’s happening in so many churches now is that there are opportunities for supporting foster families, doing respite care or providing other kinds of help. Many foster recruitment organizations now require that families who want to volunteer to bring a team of others who promise to help them. It gives families who are considering foster care an opportunity to see up close what’s involved. It serves as a way to demystify foster care and to show people who don’t think of themselves as saints that this may be a role they want to play.


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