Should Foster Parents Unionize?
Foster care reform rarely makes it into dinner-table discussions of hot political happenings, but Massachusetts State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of the Berkshires may change that with two bills she introduced this session: one creates a Foster Parent Bill of Rights, and the other allows foster parents to collectively bargain– raising the specter of a foster parent union.
The legislation addresses widespread problems in how the Department of Children and Families (DCF) deals with foster parents. “If there was a totem pole of regard and respect, when in the child welfare agency, [foster parents] are at the very bottom of that totem pole,” explained Representative Farley-Bouvier. The most egregious area of concern is DCF’s failure to communicate essential information like reimbursement rates, court dates, behavioral issues and even a child’s allergies and medications, a potentially dangerous omission that Farley-Bouvier says “happens more often than you would imagine.” Consider the alarming experience of one parent, Rachel, who told DCF she could not manage a child with severe behavioral problems. DCF nevertheless placed a child with her who had a history of a “violent temper,” including throwing chairs at school and threatening other children. DCF had concealed these behavioral issues from Rachel, flagging only that the child had hygiene issues. While “it’s true that in the months [the child] lived in Rachel’s home she smeared feces on the wall, that was one of the less frightening incidents.” In another troubling case, DCF failed to share with a parent that a twelve-year-old boy placed with her had a history of sexual predation; he abused her four-year-old daughter.
The Foster Parent Bill of Rights aims to address communication failures and other issues, and while DCF did not publicly comment on the legislation it “collaborated with the legislature on and supports” it. Under the bill DCF must:
- Not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age or physical ability
- Keep foster parent information confidential
- Develop a standardized training, as the current thirty-hour course parents are given is criticized for leaving them “ill-prepared to handle the complexity and severity” of emotional, physical, and psychological they see
- Share information to “the greatest extent possible” on the physical and behavioral health of the child, their educational needs, and daily routine
- Inform foster parents of all payments and sources of financial suport they may be entitled to, to address the common issue of families not being told what expenses they will be reimbursed for
- Consult with foster parents in planning visitation
- Provide no less than ten days of paid respite care per year
- Establish a 24 hour emergency hotline
- Not retaliate against parents who file complaints against DCF, and
- Provide foster parents the opportunity to leave helpful notes for the next parent (for example “She’s afraid of the dark, but a night light comforts her. Her brother loves chicken nuggets.”).
What the bill does not do is set specific standards or allow for foster parent input on critical items like training or reimbursement rates. Foster parents would still need to advocate for their needs on an individual basis with DCF.
Farley-Bouvier’s other bill addresses this power imbalance by giving foster parents the right to collective bargaining. The bill classifies foster parents as public employees, but solely for this purpose—they would not receive a salary, be eligible for benefits, retirement contributions, or worker’s comp, and would not be permitted to strike. The bill directs DCF and a foster parent union to bargain on:
- The responsibilities of DCF to foster parents
- Education and training opportunities
- Recruitment and retention of foster parents
- Payment rates and other reimbursement issues, including for property losses caused by children, and extracurricular or social costs
- Access to special education, respite care, and behavioral health services (which are sorely needed but currently take months to access)
- Inclusion of foster parents in developing service plans for children
Retention of qualified foster parents is especially important, as too many children are placed in unsafe, abusive foster homes. In 2016, thirty-five foster children in Massachusetts died, and hundreds were neglected or abused. Two thousand families stopped participating in the foster system in the last five years, which is almost as many as the number currently participating. DCF does not track why parents stop participating, but research shows that lack of respect, insufficient training, and reimbursement rates that are far below actual costs contribute to a national turnover rate of fifty percent.
Unsurprisingly, the bill faces pushback. Dispute within the foster care advocacy group Massachusetts Alliance for Families (MAFF) illustrates both sides of the debate: former president Cheryl Haddad supports a union because it is “very unreasonable to ask these volunteers who help take care of children to go to the legislature to ask them for services. It’s crazy,” while current president Catherine Twiraga says “I didn’t become a foster parent to get a job, I became a foster parent to help children. So I don’t see how it can be one in the same. I’ve had jobs where I was an employee and that’s not how I approach being a foster parent.”
Conservative groups traditionally opposed to unions have seized on Twiraga’s argument, as demonstrated in a WSJ opinion cleverly titled “Clean Your Room or I’ll Call my Union Rep”. Twiraga is quoted within, saying a union “will only reinforce the stereotype that we are doing it for money,” and that she is “baffled by the idea that the union will be negotiating for more vacation time for foster parents,” asking whether that means she can take Christmas off. Her comparison of respite care to vacation is disingenuous. Foster care is not a 9-5 job but a 24/7 endeavor replete with stresses not found in an office job, and parents are reimbursed only for costs, not paid a wage for their work. As a foster parent herself, Twiraga must know that respite care is a critical service that allows foster parents to deal with family emergencies, their own illness, or the emotional burnout that contributes to high turnover rates. But Twiraga’s arguments display a belief deeply held by many: foster parents should be selfless volunteers motivated only by altruism, and negotiating for better conditions means they are money-grubbers.
Even—perhaps especially—foster parents motivated by altruism should be fairly reimbursed for costs incurred, given plentiful training, and be able to hold DCF accountable for its responsibilities. While a desire to help children may be necessary to succeed as a foster parent, on its own, “altruism is no longer enough to recruit and retain foster parents.” Unions and care work are not mutually exclusive—helping professions like home health aides and childcare workers have successfully unionized. Improving conditions for care workers, paid or volunteer, can only result in benefits for the people in their charge. Those foster parents with good motives are precisely the ones the system needs most to retain. A union could equalize the power imbalance between foster parents and DCF to bargain for much-needed changes that could keep parents from leaving the system. If foster parents are given the resources they need to succeed in the system, children in foster care in Massachusetts stand to benefit a great deal.
Brianna Isaacson graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2021.