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Published in Economic Development
Lena Scoby (center) with her husband and children. Lena Scoby (center) with her husband and children. COURTESY PHOTO

Foster parents face significant barriers to work-child care balance

BY Sunday, June 05, 2022 06:00pm

Lena Scoby considered her inability to have biological children as a sign to take her call to motherhood in a new direction. She accepted her first foster care placement, a young girl named Summer, in 2018. At the time, Scoby was single and working full time. 

Working while fostering isn’t rare, but it is challenging. Nearly 90 percent of the foster households licensed by nonprofit social services provider Samaritas, which  also licensed Scoby, are single- or two-parent homes where the caregivers work outside the home. Making it work requires employer buy-in and flexibility, while worries about striking a balance keep potential families from stepping up to foster. 

Meanwhile, organizations like Samaritas struggling to recruit and retain foster families are watching carefully as other states experiment with models of foster care that could make full-time fostering financially feasible for more families.

“When I accepted the placement of Summer, I was so scared,” Scoby said. “There’s a lot to do — there’s finding day care, signing them up for school, busing, transportation. Being single, I’m doing this on my own and it’s only my income, so I need to be at work. That was really stressful.” 

As Summer adjusted to living with her and to a new school, Scoby often had to leave work early and take time off. 

Counseling, psychiatrist appointments, doctor appointments, medication reviews, dental cleanings, Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings, parent visits, court visits and other commitments add up to many lost hours of work for working foster parents. In addition, behavioral struggles mean some foster children are often sent home from school.

COVID-19 added another layer of complexity for parents like Scoby when any sign of a COVID-19-like symptom could keep a student home from school. 

On top of that, Samaritas Foster Care Director Trisha Sverns said she’s seeing more children enter the foster care system with high medical, emotional and behavioral needs. High-needs children often require a full-time caregiver — in some cases, employed foster parents simply can’t take them.

Monique Zantop has been a foster parent since 2016 and has cared for several medically fragile children. 

“For the placements that we were taking, for medically fragile kids … there needed to be a constant caregiver in the home,” said Zantop, who did not work outside the home while fostering. “I’m not going to say it would be impossible, but for some of the placements I had, the children really weren’t able to be in a daycare setting, so they really required a person that was going to be available for them 24/7.”

Like her sister Monique, Tia Zantop also did not work while fostering. 

“Sometimes you take on placements that literally do require 24-hour care,” Tia Zantop said. Daily care of the child who was placed with her included checking monitors around the clock and traveling to medical appointments on top of the usual demands of parenting. 

“Had I been working, I couldn’t have taken that placement. That just would not have worked out,” Tia Zantop said.

Professional fostering

Close to 14,000 children remain in foster care in Michigan, and more than 3,000 are waiting for adoption. As of 2019, Michigan had roughly 6,000 licensed foster homes. About 1,600 children age out of the system every year, and one in five face homelessness. According to Sverns, more Michigan foster homes have closed in the last year than have opened.

Across the country, agencies are experimenting with closing gaps in foster care systems by professionalizing foster parenting. In 2007, Milwaukee County Professional Foster Parent Services launched in Wisconsin started offering more intensive training and pay for experienced foster parents willing to commit to full-time caregiving. Most foster parents only receive a stipend for the child’s care. 

In the years since, similar programs in Texas, Washington, Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere have aimed to combat the shortage of foster parents for children with high medical, emotional or behavioral needs with more training and pay.

According to Sverns, professional foster homes would be ideal for many high-needs children, and it’s an idea gaining traction in Michigan. 

In some cases, the state already relies on specialized foster parents who receive higher reimbursement rates based on the elevated needs of their foster children. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is seeking ways to mirror some of the benefits of a professionalized model while dodging some of the challenges, agency officials told MiBiz. Those challenges include concerns about loss of trust between biological and foster families as well as financially motivated foster parents.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal released in February includes an MDHHS request for an increased foster parent reimbursement rate. MDHHS has also created an enhanced caregiver training curriculum in an effort to better support foster parents.

Training and funding increases could be a salve for foster parents whose children need them full-time. According to Sverns, the current reimbursement rates are not high enough to cover the cost of a parent not working.

“For medically complex children, definitely if foster parents had some additional training and they were kind of being more treated and seen and recognized as an employee, that might be beneficial,” Monique Zantop said. “It does become kind of a full-time caregiver job and you really are limited on resources and the things you can do.” 

Even for placements with fewer medical needs, fostering is a full-time commitment. 

“Foster kids in general need the full-time support of a full-time parent,” said Scoby. “I think that it would help them a lot for a foster parent to be able to have that be their full-time job. And I think kiddos would get more support … there’d be more time to let them be a part of services, to be able to help them.”

Employers’ roles

Worry about inflexible work schedules is a “major deterrent” to becoming a foster parent, according to FosterMore, a national coalition that operates a Foster Care Friendly Workplace Certification program for employers. 

“When the kids transition to your home, they are struggling and they’re in crisis and they need a lot of one-to-one support from their caregiver,” Monique Zantop said. “That’s kind of difficult to do if you’ve got to be somewhere at a certain time every day of the week.” 

Both Zantop sisters said more remote work options could make a big difference for foster parents in transition times.

Scoby’s employer was supportive when she took her first placement and helped her find ways to minimize lost hours. But she could have worked more if work-from-home had been an option. The children in her care often needed to be picked up early from school, but they usually settled once at home, giving her time to work. 

“Having that work-from-home option when needed would be really, really nice and helpful,” Scoby said.

The FosterMore certification recognizes employers who agree to offer up to three weeks of paid leave during transition periods for new placements and up to 12 weeks of time off during the first year of a placement.

Meanwhile, rigid hours are incompatible with the often-unplanned life of a foster parent. 

“You don’t necessarily know you’re going to get a placement, you might get a call at 8 at night for somebody to come to your home,” Tia Zantop said. “You might need a couple of days to kind of get things in place to make sure that the proper accommodations for the child are set up, which might be very difficult to do if you truly can’t take any time off because it’s not a maternity leave.” 

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