MIAMI -- For decades, it was common for officials around the country to approve foster parents by room and board criteria: Did they pass a background check? Is their home clean? Are their dogs safe and vaccinated?
Now several states including Florida, California and Wisconsin are trying to find ones who they know upfront will help with homework, sew Halloween costumes and accompany kids to doctor appointments. Complicating the efforts is the longtime problem of finding enough adults to house children in need.
"Most jurisdictions end up being in a reactive mode because they don't have enough fosters parents so they're just focused on getting people into the fold instead of making sure standards for parents are elevated," said David Sanders, an executive vice president at Casey Family Programs, an advocacy organization in Seattle.
In Florida, the demand for foster homes was so dire that children were sleeping in child welfare offices as recently as a few years ago. And there were recurring problems for the parents that it could recruit: unreturned phone calls, condescending caseworkers and an inability to get the records they needed. They also weren't invited to staff meetings where the child welfare professionals were making decisions about the foster child's case.
Former Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth worked with Carole Shauffer, executive director of Youth Law Center and an attorney who often sued the state, to make sweeping changes to the system in 2007.
Through a far-reaching Quality Parenting Initiative program, Shauffer worked with foster parents and child welfare workers in Florida to address those issues during a 90-day program. Meetings were designed to bring foster parents and caseworkers together to open the lines of communication. Florida changed the way it trains staff and recruits foster parents, even offering online training to make it more convenient to get certified. Overall, the changes led to a distinct cultural change in how the two view each other.
The program also encourages small improvements, like returning foster parents' phone calls or writing a thank-you note to them. Shauffer's team heads the initial effort and stresses the program is not a marketing campaign, but rather an ongoing effort to change stereotypes, increase communication and cut through barriers between foster parents and state agencies. Shauffer's organization spent more than $150,000 in 15 regions across Florida this past year. The tab was picked up by an advocacy group. Several counties in California began using the program in 2009 after seeing Florida's success.
"The cost is minimal. It's the commitment that's hard," said Shauffer, who said child welfare agencies in both states have made the changes a priority.
Foster parent groups say the changes are sorely needed.
"We can use overhauling," said David Sharp, public policy chairman for National Foster Parent Association.
Sharp says that while conditions vary by state and county, foster parents often don't get to comment in court on how the child is doing on a daily basis. Instead, volunteers representing the children and attorneys for the state typically give their opinions about where they think a judge should place a child.
"Agencies don't take us seriously. No matter how upset or concerned we might get for children's wellbeing, there's really nothing we can do," said Sharp, who is also a former Alabama foster parent of 27 children. "(Foster parents)...see they don't have any effect on the child's life long term and they quit."
Around the country, smaller-scale efforts are springing up to address problems.
Connecticut's new child welfare Commissioner Joette Katz has pushed for massive foster care reform, saying the agency needs to respect foster parents, include them in decision making and provide better support services.
Her changes come in the aftermath of a class-action lawsuit in 1989 alleging Connecticut's child welfare system was failing to find quality permanent families for foster children. At one point, 30 to 35 percent of foster kids were being housed in group homes and institutions – a costly but generally inferior alternative to foster homes, said Ira Lustbader, lead attorney for the lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Children's Rights.
The state was so short on foster homes they were sometimes keeping unqualified foster parents, he said.
An independent federal court that is monitoring reform efforts has repeatedly said the state overuses group homes and institutions instead of recruiting more foster parents. In 2008, the state agreed to add 850 foster family homes by July 2010, yet had a net loss of 84 foster homes as of July 2011.
Tennessee and New Jersey have had success launching efforts to recruit homes specifically for teenagers and children with disabilities and other special needs – populations that often end up in group homes or institutions.
In 2006, Wisconsin launched a four-year marketing campaign where child welfare officials assessed the motivations of their best foster parents. They realized the majority did it for personal fulfillment or spiritual desires. They crafted a marketing campaign, trying to attract foster families akin to Peace Corps recruits – an honest way to balance tough work and poor pay with a priceless human reward.
The website didn't just include rosy stories from foster parents. Officials were up front that "this is painful, this is hard work. There are no rewards sometimes," said Colleen Ellingson, CEO of Adoption Resources of Wisconsin, who coordinated the effort.
Some foster care agencies initially felt it was a waste of money.
"Within a year they all said this was the most effective help we've ever had. It was driving families to them," she said. One area had 25 potential foster families contact them in one month. In the past they'd never had more than five.
Some states are also cutting foster parents who don't meet expectations.
Miami foster parent Maritza Moreno says she's frustrated when she hears of fellow foster parents relying on medical transport provided by the state to take their child to the doctor.
"A parent would never do that," said Moreno, an insurance adjuster, who has fostered eight children, mostly babies, in the past four years.
She says foster children "really need a parent, not a caregiver."