Skip to main content

UNC School of Social Work helps strengthen foster care services

Note: President Obama has proclaimed May National Foster Care Month

By Susan White

Although the number of U.S. children in foster care has declined over the last several years, UNC School of Social Work faculty continue to work closely with public and private partners to move even more of the nation’s 423,000 foster youth into permanent homes.

Mark Testa, Ph.D., the School’s Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor, and the Jordan Institute’s Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP) are assisting with federal and state efforts to improve interventions for reducing the number of children in foster care and to strengthen services to foster care families.

For years, improvements within the foster care system have been largely driven by federal policy initiatives, such as financial subsidies that help relative caregivers provide children with safe and permanent homes. However, many of the youth who remain in the foster-care system today are older and have special needs that require clinical services and social supports to help them find permanent placements and successfully transition to adulthood, said Testa, a national child welfare expert who joined the School in 2010.

“We’re at a stage where we have reduced the population, but the children who remain are often stuck in long-term foster care, which is less amenable to broad-scale policy solutions than in the past,” Testa said. “We have to develop empirically-supported interventions to work with these children and their families.”

A significant part of Testa’s work over the next several years will focus on whether many of these new interventions really are effective. The School professor is the principal investigator for the evaluation-design phase of the federal government’s “Permanency Innovations Initiative (PII).” The five-year, $100 million project is the single largest investment in child welfare demonstrations and evaluation that the federal government has made in recent decades, Testa said. The initiative began last year and is aimed at improving outcomes for children who face the most serious barriers to being placed in permanent homes.

Testa and the project’s evaluation team, headquartered at Westat in Rockville, Md., are working closely with public and private agencies in Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, and Nevada, all grantee-states chosen to participate in the federally-supported initiative. Each will test evidence-based interventions for reducing the number of children in long-term foster care, particularly severely emotionally disturbed children and older youth who are more difficult to place, to adopt and to return home, Testa said.

During the project’s first year, Testa and research consultant, Natalie Conner (Ph.D. ‘05) worked with the participating agencies to determine the specific population of children to target, to identify promising interventions, and to ensure that their evaluations are “rigorously designed.” For example, in Kansas, private agencies that offer family preservation and family reunification services are partnering with the University of Kansas Center for Research, Inc., to help foster parents learn the necessary skills for parenting children with severe emotional behavioral issues.

In California, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center is creating a countywide system of care to address the barriers to permanent homes and the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning children and youth who are at-risk of placement in foster care.

“One of the goals is to come up with a good system of identification and an intervention that will enable workers to deal with the issues that led, in some cases, to LGBTQ children being expelled from or rejected by their families,” Testa said.

In North Carolina, state officials are also beginning to explore ways to offer more services and training to foster care families after children are placed within their homes. A recent state evaluation found that county government and private agencies need to strengthen ongoing support for foster parents, said Mellicent O’Brien Blythe, a clinical instructor and education specialist with FCRP, which assessed the state’s foster parent training system earlier this year. Additional services and support are especially needed for parents taking care of North Carolina’s most vulnerable children, Blythe said.

“The biggest unmet need is in behavioral training,” she said. “You’re talking about parents who have children in their homes, and they’re traumatized. There are behavioral issues, and there may even be untreated mental health issues, and they don’t know what to do. And not surprisingly, behavioral problems are a significant factor in placement disruptions.”

Following a national trend, the number of children in foster care in North Carolina has steadily declined over the past several years from around 11,000 youth in 2007 to about 8,800 today. Federal policies that support placing children in permanent homes have contributed to this drop, Blythe said.

Although many of the state’s local departments of social services already cooperate with private agencies that recruit and serve foster care families, there is interest in strengthening these partnerships, Blythe said. The N.C. Division of Social Services is contracting with FCRP to develop a guide to assist the state’s 100 counties on how to work more effectively together and with the private sector.

Efforts will also continue to move more children into permanent homes more quickly, she added. Federal and state policies encourage foster care agencies to place children within permanent homes within one year. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, of the estimated 276,266 children who exited foster care across the country during fiscal year 2009, the median amount of time spent in care was 13.7 months; in North Carolina, the median length of stay for children was 13.9 months.

“I think for some counties, that’s an OK place to be because ultimately, we’d rather keep kids a little bit longer if it means they’re going to be more stable when they go home,” Blythe said.