Quality Parenting Initiative and “Rebranding” Foster Care

This essay first appeared in the Spring newsletter of the Eckerd Family Foundation, and we found it through the Connected by 25 blog. It is an excellent piece on changes that are happening in Florida foster care. The Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) is part of our ongoing commitment to meeting and exceeding standards of excellence for the licensed care of foster youth. Read our previous post on the QPI.

Quality Parenting Initiative and “Rebranding” Foster Care: Carole Shauffer and Youth Law Center

All children need high quality parenting until they are fully mature. Many of us may be surprised to learn, though, that this process extends until the child reaches the mid-twenties, when the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become more fully developed.

“Parenting, as distinct from caring for a child, involves meeting the child’s social, emotional and cognitive developmental needs as well as the physical needs,” says Carole Shauffer, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, an Eckerd Family Foundation grantee. “Although adolescents may be able to meet many of their own physical needs, they still require guidance and support for healthy development.”

This issue, one of great importance for any child, becomes even more significant for children who receive parenting from someone other than biological or adoptive parents, often through a foster parent system. Shauffer notes that over the years, many professionals have failed to recognize that foster children may need better quality, more sophisticated parenting services than other children. “Once damaged, these children must overcome their distorted responses,” she says.

“This can be a heartbreaking situation. Foster kids feel they are second class citizens who never receive their favorite foods, are never asked what they would really like and experience a demoralizing existence,” she says. “We must change practice so that everything we do reflects our mission to provide quality care and a better life for them.”

The Youth Law Center grant sought to tackle these issues by improving services to Florida’s dependent children in the care and custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), with the goal of having a positive effect on up to 20,000 children in two ways:

Assist DCF in improving its quality assurance program to address critical issues for children and assure they are moving toward permanency
Assist DCF in developing a model for foster parent recruitment, retention and support that can be used by local community based care agencies
Other aspects of the project include:

Educate and involve private philanthropy and business in child welfare reform efforts
Develop an effective public/private and nonprofit partnership for local implementation
“We wanted to provide high quality parenting to children in the child welfare system and increase the number of excellent foster families, which means we had to be able to define high quality parenting, as well as how to recruit and retain the best foster families,” says Shauffer.
In an innovative approach that incorporates progressive business concepts, Shauffer has posited this as an external and internal branding issue, whose underlying principles include the following:

The foster parent “brand” is seriously damaged
One cannot create a new brand without reassessing the role of foster families
A new brand is useless without changes in practice
A quality foster parent brand is core to the success or failure of the system
“By external branding, I mean our promise to prospective foster parents and the community in general that foster parents will be respected, well trained, skilled partners in providing high quality parenting,” she says. “The best foster parents are highly skilled, committed people. They can provide a much higher level of aptitude, patience and love than we had ever asked for. This is a huge change in our brand promise.”

As for the internal branding aspect, she is referring to training staff to internalize, articulate and support the brand; understanding their role in the identification, recruitment, training and, most important, support of high quality foster parents who epitomize the brand. “We need to move beyond the minimum level of performance to express real customer service in support of the brand.”

Last year, working with three Community Based Care demonstration sites in the state that agreed to serve as peer mentors to future participants (CBC of Seminole, Hillsborough Kids and Big Bend Community Based Care), the Youth Law Center sought to identify and use relevant data, define and assess quality foster parenting, provide marketing and targeted recruitment guidance, establish proper recruitment and retention processes, improve utilization of homes to serve special populations and apply human resource principles in support and retention.

This year four additional CBCs — Eckerd Community Alternatives, Heartland for Children, Family Services of Metro Orlando and Child and Family Connections — have joined the project.
As a result of this process, all three of the original CBCs have clearly defined expectations of foster parents, modified their recruitment materials to reflect the new vision and identified changes in practice to support the new vision. In summary, they have already begun to achieve systemic change in messaging and behaviors related to the foster parenting process. The next phase will be the continuation of efforts with the seven targeted CBCs, assisting additional CBCs and working with targeted CBCs and DCF to develop a new approach to foster parent training and recognition.

“We are so positive about what we have been able to accomplish to date,” says Shauffer. “The real knowledge comes from the people who are dedicated to being excellent foster parents. We believe people are hungry for meaning in their lives and want to find important volunteerism opportunities. If we can provide the training and necessary resources, as well as the respect to keep their spirits up, we will be unstoppable.”

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