Every foster parent remembers their first placement call. The anxiety. The excitement. Today on #FosterFridayLive, Martha, a Placement Coordinator for SC DSS Upstate Foster Family and Licensing Support Unit, discusses the foster care placement process from start to finish when a child first comes into care. She addresses some common questions and misconceptions regarding initial placement of children for both DSS foster families and privately licensed foster families. This is an important conversation because it is such an integral part of the foster family experience.
You can always contact your Family Support Coordinator (from your agency) to update your family’s preferences, availability, or with any questions regarding the children in your home. They are there to support you throughout this journey.
Martha is one of four placement coordinators for the upstate region. She has been in the role for about four and a half years- starting when licensing was just transferring back to DSS. Prior to that she was licensing foster families with the South Carolina Youth Advocate Program in Oconee County. A lot of her families are still licensed to this day. She has been in the world of child welfare for quite some time, her heart for children keeps her going. She is honored to be a part of the work of foster care, opening eyes to what is happening in our own backyards.
The Placement Unit was started in the Upstate. Martha was one of the first placement coordinators in South Carolina. Each region now has a placement team modeled after the original. They follow the same protocols. Some minor details may vary from one region to another, but the general process is the same. Martha’s role as a placement coordinator means that she does the “dirty work” of finding children a home quickly.
The placement team receives a referral (phone call or email) for a child in need of a home- they’ve just entered care or they’re already in care. The team scrounges and works very quickly to stabilize the child and find them a home or a group home setting. This is very fast-paced because we need this child stable and they need to know that someone wants them and they have some place to go. This is no easy job! It’s one of the more stressful jobs.
For each child, placement receives a Universal Application which is supposed to be a screenshot of the child as a whole. It tells the good, bad, and ugly- the situation, what the child’s needs look like, what environment would be best for them. It’s the placement coordinator’s job to find an appropriate family based on that child’s needs. So when the referral comes in, our placement team reads over all the information and asks as many questions as possible until they feel confident enough to present that child to someone else and be able to advocate for that child. The team very much advocates for children- even when they don’t look pretty on paper. They will do their best to understand where they’re coming from and encourage others to look at the positives. “Yes, this happened once, but let’s try again.”
The Universal Application is not always robust- especially when a child is brought into emergency protective custody overnight due to imminent danger. The team may not know a lot – if the parent is not cooperating, the child is found alone, or the child cannot talk. At that point, the team will ask the investigator or whoever is out with the child to just kind of describe what they’re seeing, “tell me what you know. Use your heart.” The investigator may ask the child questions even as simple as “what’s your favorite color.” When the team is talking to a family, they can then say, “we don’t really know anything about this child, but we know their favorite color is pink.” I think you can do something with that. Make them comfortable. If we don’t know a lot about a child, we’ll let you know. It should be at least a name, an age, race, and the situation in which they were found. If they are potty trained, if they are speaking, are they developmentally delayed in any way. What can we see?
Some children we have known for awhile if they have open treatment cases. So we can ask that caseworker to tell us as much information as they have because they’ve worked with this child, interviewed them, visited them at school. Sometimes there has been a report of concern made but there is no imminent danger. Open treatment cases are to preserve the family, the concern can be remedied. Services are put in place and there is a different type of case worker that works with that family to try to keep their children out of foster care. Even when children leave care there may be a family preservation case; we will follow that family. For those children there should be lots of information so we can tell you lots about them.
I know my unit and I pride ourselves on doing some digging in the system to see if there is anything we can find out about the child. We pride ourselves on letting you know as much as possible. Even if that means you have to tell us no. We’d rather tell you too much than have there be a surprise. And if there is a surprise, we probably didn’t know about it. We really really try to tell you everything from the beginning. It can be scary at initial placement. The child is scared to death. You’re scared to death – especially if it is your first time.
Once we’ve gathered all the information we possibly can, we go to the master bed list. In my unit, it is a spreadsheet of every family in the 10 counties of the upstate that we serve. We start assessing all our families to find an appropriate match for that child. We take the age and your preferences that you’ve given on the Child Factors Checklist which you complete during the licensing process- what you will and will not accept in your home. Sometimes we may still call you because we have to. We make sure to disclose what is going on and if that is one of your factors out of respect. But we do have to call you because you have an open bed.
We have a worksheet that we work off of so I write down all the names. I have the whole list memorized and so do my co-workers. We know who is available. So we start assessing our bed list in county.
At the same time we do a concurrent search. We reach out to our privately licensed child placing agencies. It is a misconception that privately licensed families are called last. We always try our best to send most referrals to private agencies. With private agencies, we will send them the referral, the Universal Application. We have a point of contact for each agency. They assess their own bed list and start calling families. DSS cannot call privately licensed families. It is against protocol unless they have requested through their liaison to speak with us directly.
Private agencies call their families with open beds or they will let us know they do not have any families on the open bed list. Sometimes we are on time constraint. We are working at the same time on the DSS open bed list – so we may find a family quickly in county and we will place with that family. Sometimes we’ve had a conversation with another agency and they’ve let us know what they have available in advance; we’ll reach out to them immediately. We’ll say, “we see you have a family that could take this age.” Before we move out of county for a child, we exhaust ALL families on the standard bed list – this includes reaching out to private agencies to access their available families. We reach out to privately licensed agencies to try to keep kids in county. Our children are across the state right now. There is a huge need. So we reach out to them and ask, “do you have anyone?” And they may say, “I don’t have anyone in county, but I have someone in Spartanburg.” And I’ll say, yes! Absolutely. We’ll work side-by-side together calling our families that are available on our bed list until we have options. It’s key that we know the families that are available. You need to let your agency know that you have an open bed. Always let your family support worker know if you’re updating your preferences. We don’t know in placement when a child leaves your home. Let your Family Support Coordinator know as soon as things change in your family. We will respect your decision if you tell us no. Take care of you and yours first. We don’t want to cause a disruption. Don’t be afraid to say no.
If there are multiple options for a child, I do not make that decision and neither does the partner agency. We present the options to the case worker and let their staff decide which family they feel is in the best interest of the child. Most of the time it is due to location or if they have a relationship with one or two of the families.
Once a family is identified, we send all the information to the case worker and all of the people involved in the county. We will ask you what you need for placement. Once you’ve accepted placement, we will ask you, “Do you need ABC vouchers?” “Do you need diapers, formula?”
Foster Parent Contract is a must! If you don’t have that piece of paper and there is an emergency, you can’t get help. We request that for you and anything else you need. We will ask when you are available and ask the transporter to please call you before hitting the road to ensure that you are home. We know you may work and children are absolutely able to be placed after hours. We do have second and third shifts that help transport children after hours. You can’t always leave work early to come get your child. At that point, it is in the county’s hands and they place the child. They’re the ones who transport. I don’t come to your home to place the child. They will place the child.
There is a huge gap between the number of kids in care and the number of foster families. There is a desperate need for more foster families– especially families that will take siblings, older children and teens, and Spanish speaking families.
This is where it gets interesting. This is where our jobs get really fun. After we have really exhausted our entire region using our bed list and other placement resources – asking privately licensed agencies to ask their families, we then reach out to other regions. We work through the entire state. There are protocols in place for different age groups.
If we are after hours, a child can under zero circumstances stay overnight in the DSS office so we’re looking at emergency placement. An overnight stay is defined as being in the DSS office between 10:30pm and 6:30am for more than four consecutive hours. So we are working quickly at night to find someone. We try to place long-term first, but we’ll start calling and see who is available.
Be open. Don’t be afraid. We would never want to put your family in danger. We may call you for a child wildly outside of your preferences. But just know that it is my team’s job to take care of you. We are part of the support unit and we will support you along the way. And if it doesn’t work out, we will move the child. Please know that if there is ever information about a child that was not told to you at the beginning, we did not know it. We were not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We obviously didn’t know and we appreciate you giving us much information as possible. Tell the child’s case worker. Your support worker is your best resource!