|An ad calling for more New York City foster parents|
Increasing numbers of child welfare organizations and state child protection agencies have begun to look to the private sector for lessons on how to market foster parenting.
Why? Because the number of children in foster care – now estimated at over 500,000 nationwide – keeps getting larger while the supply of foster parents gets smaller. According to a 2002 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of children in care increased 68 percent between 1984 and 1995, while the number of foster parents decreased by 4 percent.
It’s not easy to convince people to become foster parents, and keeping parents in the system is proving even more difficult. It’s challenging and it’s not lucrative, although foster parents are paid to help cover the costs of opening their homes to children. Foster parents need to deal with their local child welfare agency, accept uncertainty about how long a child will remain, and be prepared for problems the child might be struggling with.
Retention is also a problem. The National Conference of State Legislatures found that the principal cause of foster parent shortages is the inability of child welfare agencies to hold on to the foster parents they have recruited. Some agencies lose from 30 percent to 50 percent of their caregivers every year.
“To me, retention is recruitment…helping foster parents advocate for themselves as well as for the children in their care is going to help change the system,” says Karen Jorgensen, Administrator of the National Foster Parent Association, a national nonprofit organization that supports foster parents. “How are you going to fix the system if you haven’t got anybody to take care of the kids?
How It’s Been Done
Many foster care agencies have long relied on a kind of grassroots “word of mouth” advertising to bring new potential foster parents into the system. Interested people might hear that providing a foster home can be a rewarding experience from others who have had a positive experience with foster care – perhaps as parents, perhaps as children in care themselves.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Utah Foster Care Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on finding and educating foster families, the top three reasons foster parents report for getting involved are to help a child in need, to adopt, and to care for a relative.
Social workers are often expected to find potential foster parents for the children whose cases they handle. But with everything else that’s on their plates, they have a hard time making recruitment a priority. “Case management is time consuming and the recruitment gets shoved to the side, to the back burner,” says Jorgenson. “That’s what people tell me all over the country.”
Moving Towards Marketing…
Recently, there’s been a move by some foster care organizations toward more deliberate and comprehensive efforts to market the idea of becoming a foster parent. The Utah Foster Care Foundation, for example, has been working with the marketing firm boede & partners for three years. The firm offers its work pro bono.
According to the foundation, TV, radio and billboard advertisements created by the firm increased the number of new foster parents successfully recruited in Utah by 32 percent in 2003 as compared to 2002.
The foundation will share some recent successful foster care parent recruitment and retention marketing efforts at an upcoming National Foster Parent Association conference.
“We have presented some of our marketing ideas in the past there,” says Deborah Lindner, the foundation’s community relations coordinator. “We are hoping that some of the groups from other states will choose to use the TV spots in their own recruitment efforts.”
…and Market Research
In the early 2000s, Ohio Families for Kids, a nine-county adoption and foster care reform initiative in northeast Ohio, conducted a lot of market research to try to find some best practices for “selling” foster parenting. The program was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The initiative’s consultant, Mary Brooks, who now runs her own marketing consulting firm, studied census and aggregate consumer demand data, which classifies every household in the U.S. into one of 50 unique market segments. Each segment consists of households with similar demographics, interests, purchasing patterns, financial behavior, and demand for products and services.
The research identified current Ohio adoptive and foster families, recorded their interests and behaviors, and told where they live. From that information, Ohio Families for Kids determined that people in certain geographic areas were more likely than others to become adoptive or foster parents.
As a result of this information, the initiative began a targeted direct mail advertising campaign in those areas. Brooks says that the campaign resulted in a substantial increase in foster care parents in the region. The marketing lessons are still being utilized by the Northeast Ohio Adoption Services, an agency that provides adoption and foster care services for children with special needs.
The Ohio Families for Children research also indicated that people who respond to children’s needs often do not distinguish between foster care and adoption.
Later this year, the Advertising Council – in partnership with the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services – will begin a new campaign to encourage adults to adopt children who are currently in the foster care system. Because people who are likely to be interested in adopting these children are also likely to be good candidates for foster parenting, planners believe that the campaign may also increase the pool of first-time foster parents.
The campaign will include television, radio, print and Internet public service announcements and is scheduled to launch in late May or early June 2004. Audiences who see the ads will be directed to visit www.adoptuskids.org or to call a campaign-designated toll-free number to obtain the necessary information and support they will need to adopt a foster child.
It’s being created pro bono by the ad agency kirshenbaum bond & partners.
In New York City, efforts to increase the pool of foster parents using the types of marketing efforts more common in the private sector have been underway for a year, and are beginning to show results.
Last April, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services invested $850,000 in a three-year contract with the New York-based True Insight Marketing. The goal is to increase the number of foster care parents in four communities with large numbers of children in care: Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; Jamaica, Queens; Harlem, Manhattan; and Concourse Highbridge, Bronx.
Before the True Insight campaign began, foster parents were in particularly short supply in neighborhoods where children needed the most support, according to Elysia Carnevale, a press associate with the New York City Administration for Children's Services.
“As of January 2003, there were approximately 25,400 children living in foster care and 17,000 foster parents,” she says. “Because approximately 16 of the city’s 59 community districts represent 60 percent of the children coming into care each year, the primary objective of the foster care campaign was to increase the pool of prospective foster parent candidates in targeted community districts, where there was the greatest need.”
True Insight focused on advertising, marketing and communications programs to raise awareness of the need for foster parents, and improve attitudes about foster parenting.
Community-based foster parent support groups called “Circles of Support” were also established, as a way to support new foster parents so they would be more likely to continue with the program.
To date, 15 “Circle of Support” groups have begun in the New York City region. Members of each group meet monthly to discuss topics that are on foster and adoptive parents’ minds. Approximately 500 new foster parents have become involved with the system since the project launched in 2002. And in 2003, almost 75 percent of the children who came into care were placed with foster parents within their own boroughs, up from approximately 50 percent in the previous year. That means that many foster kids are closer to the homes they grew up in.
In addition, after the campaign launched, from May 5 through December 1, 2003, a total of 6,268 inquiries came into the Administration’s Parent Recruitment Hotline, representing a 35 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
While Jorgensen believes it’s important to retain and recruit more parents, she also hopes that prospective new parents understand that they would be entering a system that needs a lot of improvement.
A Cautionary Tale
In an emailed statement to Connect for Kids, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said marketing foster care is the wrong direction for child welfare advocates to be heading.
“You want to know what kind of recruiting campaign works. That presumes such campaigns are needed,” wrote Wexler. “In fact, we contend that if all the children needlessly taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help were returned to those homes, there would be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children in real danger.”
Jorgensen’s response? “You don’t just say, ‘let’s just overhaul the whole system’—you have to go forward to fix a part of the problem. In the recruitment and retention process, you are building relationships. That’s the whole message.”
“We could get the system to change,” she adds. “Somebody has suggested that the foster parents should form a union, and what they should do is nationwide, they should take their kids to the state capitals and say, ‘I’m on strike for today, you take care of these kids until you meet our demands.’ Then we could affect change.”
Rob Capriccioso is a staff writer for Connect for Kids.