May 2021 once again has been proclaimed by the President as National Foster Care Month, a tradition that dates back to 1988 with the first Presidential proclamation.  These statements of recognition provide an opportunity to acknowledge the essential role of foster families in our country’s service to children and parents who cannot safely stay together. 

This year, the National Foster Parent Association is requesting that public and private child welfare agencies and organizations nationwide go a step further by proclaiming National Family Foster Care Month.  Focusing on a family perspective recognizes how essential it is to consider the strengths and needs of every member of a foster family.  Adding the word family recognizes an exceptional population of parents and any children born to or adopted by them. Together, they use their many strengths and special skills to support infants, children, and adolescents they don’t know who come to join their families. This reframing provides additional recognition of the round-the-clock service that is the focus of family foster care. This attention to the needs of foster families is especially timely because of the increasing stresses on the foster care system due to the pandemic, migrant children needing safety, and other social and economic pressures. 

In many locales, foster families also are known as resource families.  The May/June issue of Fostering Families Today magazine features an article, “What’s in a Name?” which provides a brief history of the many “labels” attributed to those of us who protect and nurture children born to other parents, including kinship caregiving and adoptive families.  It is expected that the loss and trauma that precipitated the separation of children and parents – either through child protective services or by crossing the border – can be addressed by being cared for by foster families able to provide safety, well-being, and opportunities for permanence.  While the needs of children and their birth families cross communities as well as borders, we also must be mindful that foster families have boundaries of our own which must be respected and supported.

To begin, one way to step up support for foster families — requiring no funding, just strength-based language — is to stop using the word “placement” to describe children and foster families, and the process of connecting them. Foster families are doing more than opening their homes and hearts.  As NFPA and our partners have advocated, referring to foster families as “placements” or “homes” makes it easy to forget we are comprised of parents and often other children.

Further, referring to children as being “placed” glosses over the reality that they are, indeed, actually “joining” new families.  Integrating children with trauma histories profoundly impacts each parent and child, individually and collectively. As well-meaning as foster families are, it is essential to recognize that disruptions often occur because agency staff and families do not always address in advance issues that can emerge when integrating children with diverse backgrounds. There must be candid conversations with all children – those joining and already there – to help ensure that everyone feels comfortable and safe.   

When children join families new to them, lifestyles are unfamiliar and often overwhelming.  There naturally are differences in the tasks of daily living regarding sleeping arrangements, hygiene, food, money, individual family values, and sometimes language. It is difficult enough for adults to discuss feelings and fears, so what happens when someone six, 12, or 16 years of age doesn’t know who to trust?    

After all, far too many children in foster care today are not able to achieve reunification or an alternative plan intended to be permanent and, instead, experience one disruption after another. Many end up on the streets when their “independent living” alarm clock rings, resulting in their becoming homeless, trafficked, or incarcerated – especially young people who are black and brown.  Foster families who have children by birth do not expect our children to “age out.”  We don’t want this for any children. Therefore, prospective and current foster or resource families must be able to identify not only the strengths, skills, and supports they can offer to these children, but the services available to them as a family.  Agency staff who recruit and approve, certify, or license them must also specify the strengths, skills, and supports the agency will provide for the families.  This includes having preservice and in-service trainings that are tied to clearly defined competencies. 

The National Foster Parent Association appreciates the President’s 2021 proclamation that “shares the country’s gratitude for those who support youth and families by being a resource to children in need and supporting birth parents.” For decades, there have been national, state, and local discussions on how to provide family foster care services as part of an interdisciplinary effort involving neighborhoods, faith-based communities, the courts, health and mental health professionals, educational institutions, and business groups.  Efforts to integrate these services need to be fully realized. Now is the time to recommit to those principles. 

Making “families” the centerpiece of a National Family Foster Care Month is a big step toward reaching those goals.

Here are five smaller steps that each of us can take if we are reading this message either as a foster or resource family or staff of a public or private agency providing family foster care services:   

  1. Ask the public or private agency you are affiliated with what strengths, skills, and supports are expected from you and, in turn, what they are providing for every member of your family.    
  2. Be certain one of those supports includes connecting foster families and agency staff with any local foster parent associations.
  3. Contact our National Foster Parent Association for how to become a member of your State Foster Parent Association and our National Foster Parent Association.  While at our friendly, welcoming website, learn about the NFPA and our extensive resources.  These include Coffee with Caregivers and our Training Institute for the most up-to-date and helpful strengths, skills, and supports you could ever want.  Don’t hesitate to reach out for help!
  4. Consider that the mission statement of the NFPA focuses on networking, education, and advocacy.  We can connect you with other caring families and professionals, give you lots of skills, and go to bat for you with policies aimed at providing supports for children and all their families.
  5. Remember we are not placements and we are not homes; we are families as in National Family Foster Care Month.

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