The effort to improve the lives of America's foster children may hinge on whether state and local agencies can recruit enough skilled, dedicated foster parents who buy into the concept.
Under a federal bill enacted last fall, child-welfare officials are directed to promote "normalcy" for foster children — encouraging their caretakers to let them engage in a full range of extracurricular activities on par with other children.
This could mean a happier, livelier household, but it also entails greater decision-making responsibilities. In the eyes of some experts, that requires a higher level of parenting skill than has been expected of foster parents in the past.
In California and Florida — among a handful of states with their own "normalcy" laws — child advocates are trying to meet the recruiting challenge with a program called the Quality Parenting Initiative. It acknowledges that foster parenting has an image problem and seeks to attract a new wave of motivated, capable adults undeterred by higher expectations.
One of its vocal proponents is Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. As a youth, with a father in prison and a mother battling schizophrenia, she spent six years in foster care, infused with resentment as she bounced unloved from one group home to another.
Traditional recruiting has often failed to identify the people who would be best at parenting troubled children, she said.
"Instead, we've been looking for beds, for people who have space in their homes," Rodriguez said. "Our system treats the foster parents who come in as glorified baby sitters, instead of people who are going to be fully responsible for mental health intervention, for helping with trauma."
"We need parents who will be fierce advocates for their children," she added. "We need to raise the prestige of foster parenting so people think of it as equal in value to the Peace Corps."
Among those eager to see higher recruiting standards is Paige Drew, a sophomore at Sacramento State University who spent 15 years in foster care.
The toughest times were during her high school years, she said, describing a foster family that often was unsupportive and occasionally abusive. She advocates more rigorous psychological screening of prospective foster parents.
"I know it's hard to find them as it is, but you can't let just anybody be one," she said.
Child-welfare agencies often have struggled to recruit and retain top-notch foster parents, said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Citing an array of studies, she said many foster parents come from low-income households and face daily stresses even aside from providing care to traumatized children.
"We have a system that relies on strangers to open up their homes to lovely, extraordinary but very challenging children, and to do it without much training, support or supervision," she said.
While many foster parents become so attached to a foster child that they decide to adopt, the official goal for most children in the system is to reunite them with their biological parents. Most children are in the system less than two years, and the turnover rate can be taxing on veteran foster parents.
Steps to address the challenges of foster parenting vary from state to state.
In Florida, experienced foster parents are mentoring first-timers. Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that would require 35 hours of training for potential foster parents — more than double the current requirement for some applicants. In Washington state, officials recently agreed to an $8.5 million settlement that will significantly raise foster parents' monthly payments.
Payment rates — intended to cover a child's food, clothing and other basic expenses — vary widely from state to state. In Washington, monthly rates under the settlement will range from $562 for a healthy infant or toddler to $1,505 for an adolescent with serious physical or emotional problems. Florida's monthly rates range from $429 to $515, based on a child's age.
In at least 18 states, lawmakers have enacted a Foster Parents Bill of Rights. In general, these measures establish grievance procedures for foster parents and give them a role in decision-making about their foster children.
However, Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, is skeptical.
"Foster parents get excited when they get a bill of rights passed in their state and then lose enthusiasm as they learn there's no teeth to the rights," she said.
Clements and her husband fostered 127 children at their home in Texas, adopting four of them. Yet even as she praises foster parents, she understands why many become frustrated under the system's traditionally risk-averse mindset.
"The children feel they can't have a normal life, and the foster parents feel like they're running an institution," Clements said. "They can't be a family because of the rules imposed on them."