Is your agency able to place your teens within your county? Do your resource families have the capacity to foster high needs youth? In all regions of Wisconsin, Coordinators report a need for more foster homes for teens, and for foster parents who can manage older youth with significant challenges. When counties are without viable placement options, agencies often resort to placing children outside of the county or in congregate care.
Three neighboring Wisconsin counties have Specialized Youth Foster Home programs to develop and support foster parents so that youth can be placed in-county. Wood, Marathon, and Portage Counties have been using the Specialized Youth Foster Home model successfully for over 20 years. According to David Johns, Social Worker in Marathon County, these are homes with foster parents who have an interest in or passion for trying to make a difference with older kids.
Placing youth in their home counties has many benefits: higher home visit frequency, increased birth parent involvement in youth's lives, and seamless continuation of treatment, because kids are near their service providers. Amanda Rochon, Social Worker in Portage County, reports that programs like in-home coaching for birth parents are more effective when youth are placed close to their homes of origin. The accessibility of the home means in-home coaches can more easily schedule family sessions.
The following are some of the many advantages to foster parents who are ready to take the next step in their fostering journey:
- A Specialized Social Worker assigned to all the youth/children placed in the specialized home, meaning consistency and a single go-to person for the foster parents.
- Increased support for the foster parents and youth from the worker and the agency. Social worker calls, visits, and crisis planning are more frequent than in a typical foster home.
- Enhanced stability of the youth placed in these homes, due to a higher level of structure, consistency, and accountability for the youth.
The workers have smaller caseloads, making them more available for frequent home and school visits. This translates into increased communication and face-to-face contact between the worker, the foster parents, the youth, and the birth families. There's also a high responsiveness to crisis situations, detailed day-to-day case planning, and excellent monitoring of the youth's progress.
Workers help reduce the burden on foster parents by coordinating appointments, arranging transportation, making referrals, and providing input to service providers. The expertise of the social workers is utilized to provide exceptional support to the youth in care. For example, Amanda Meta's background working with youth on delinquency orders lead to the offering of a social skills group for youth in Marathon County specialized homes. Amanda Rochon provided an Independent Living Skills course to Portage County youth in the specialized program. This was possible due to the youth living in-county, and therefore being easy to transport to the course site.
Birth parents also benefit from the program. By keeping kids local, birth parents are more able to participate in visitation, team meetings, therapy sessions, and school events, such as I.E.P. reviews. There's also greater shared parenting between birth and foster parents. Co-parenting tends to increase the chances of reunification. Ms. Rochon reports that in the case of one of her youth, reunification was expected to take six - nine months. Due to the close proximity of the teen to his home, and greater involvement by the birth parents in his treatment, the youth was able to be reunified in three months.
The foster parents in these programs tend to be experienced, having fostered for many years, and for children and youth with a variety of needs. They seem to enjoy the challenge of learning new skills in order to be the best foster parents they can be. For example, two specialized foster families in Portage and Marathon Counties received training at a pediatric endocrinology center in order to manage the Type I Diabetes of youth placed in their homes.
These counties report they are able to keep more youth placed in their counties. Mr. Johns reports that eight out of 10 youth placed in out-of-home care are able to remain in Marathon County. Moreover, the specialized foster parents are willing to take high needs youth. Teens who might otherwise go directly to group or residential care are often able to remain in a home setting. The foster parents in the specialized programs seem to feel skilled and supported enough to accept challenging youth. Social workers report that youth are sometimes even stepped down from group or residential care to the specialized homes, due to the high level of care they receive in these homes.
The Specialized Youth Foster Home programs in Wood, Marathon, and Portage Counties are evidence that having a responsive, supportive foster parent program works. These agencies have a higher capacity to place youth, even high needs teens, into homes that can provide an exceptional level of care. Everyone -- the kids, their families, the foster parents, the agency, and the community -- benefits when kids stay in or near their home communities.