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Foster Parent Recruitment

Understanding challenges and barriers to recruiting and retaining foster parents from underrepresented groups

Client: New America

Role: Social Impact Designer (Lead Researcher)

Year: 2021


About 400,000 kids are currently in foster care in the United States. The foster care system was created to provide a safe and loving home for children while their birth family, or primary caretakers, are unable to do so.

This research project was conducted in partnership with the New America Foundation and a working group of child welfare experts across 18 states. We interviewed staff members at various child welfare organizations to understand the main challenges and successes that they face when recruiting resource parents, especially those underrepresented in the system. We also reached out to prospective resource parents to better understand the barriers that they face during the process of becoming a resource parent.

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Initial Interviews with Child Welfare and NonProfit Staff 

We spoke with staff from 11 child welfare agencies to understand their particular challenges and successes with recruiting prospective resource parents. Additionally we wanted to understand their perception of why they believed certain groups were underrepresented as foster parents and what they have tried to combat this. From this first round of research and synthesis we had six primary learnings:

  1. A relational approach is the best approach: people (potential foster families) need to feel supported and valued, beginning from the time they express interest. Social service has a reputation in many places for being mean or unhelpful. They are stressed and always dealing with crisis. Nonprofits and local agencies may be able to give people to more one on one time and attention they need- relational approach of helping people figure out what path is best for them. 

  2. Training helps people feel supported at every stage of process. Trainings are with lived experience who can field questions and concerns w/ empathy. 

  3. Trust is central to the process and is currently broken at many levels. Fostering is a very uncertain process- people need to be able to at least trust that they will be supported as they do this. Currently trust between social services and the Black community and Indigenous community is broken because of negative relationship, high removals, lack of support, violation of indigenous laws etc. 

  4. Recruiting a more diverse set of families requires coming to terms with history & past harm. People may not see themselves as potential foster families for a variety of reasons, some that are culture specific, location specific, or because of historical harm from the system. Historically, and currently in some states, certain families were not accepted as foster parents because of their identity which continues to prevent people from trying. 

  5. Many Child Welfare agencies do not have a formal system to track and retain inquires and interest prior to a formal application. This makes it difficult to foster the relationships as mentioned in learning one.

Participatory Research With Potential Foster Families

We had connections to current foster parents but felt it we would not get a complete picture of the challenges people face if we only spoke to people who have over come the challenges. We wanted to understand general perspectives about becoming a foster parent as well as the challenges people who desire to become foster parents face. To do this I created a survey that was publicly shared in order to recruit people at varying stages of the process. Whether they were only vaguely familiar with foster care or if they are in the process of applying. Additionally we talked to existing foster parents. When choosing participants we prioritized those who self identified as being part of a marginalized group.

I hoped to do workshops with the participants whoever due to Covid we ended up doing on on one participatory research interviews. I created two activities to walk through with participants after an initial round of interview questions. 

The first activity was an exercise where participants can draw their journey from when they first became interested to where they are now. Many people drop off in the process or take a long time to complete it so the goal of this activity was to understand what challenges people were facing that prevented them from moving on to the next step as well as what (if anything) has helped them progress. They drew their journey and then I asked follow up questions such as  how they were feeling at each stage, what resources they were looking into, who supported them, what were their main frustrations, and what was their wishlist to make this process easier. 

The second activity was a spin on the love letter/breakup letter exercise frequently used in design but as a madlibs. This gave people an opportunity to share their thoughts in a more structured yet fun way. 

Both can be seen below:

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The deliverables for the research were personas and journey map which I created after doing a synthesis of the interviews and participatory exercises.

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Journey Map

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Challenges and Outcomes 

This project began as an extremely large request and undertaking. The main challenge was narrowing the research in order to get deep enough for an intervention. Part of the project was the creation of an inquiry management tool. While this tool is vital and necessary, the research revealed many other promising opportunity areas that hopefully can be explored in the future. 

Positive Feedback

"We have never had such thorough research share outs before. It has helped us to all be on the same page" 

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