WASHINGTON -- Burned-out foster parents have little voice in decisions about kids they care for, are forced to spend hundreds of dollars on unexpected costs and too often are stung by false accusations of child abuse, government auditors say.
The report helps explain why the number of foster families has fallen even as the need rises.
"Many leave because they are frustrated and exhausted," said the report by the Health and Human Services inspector general. "They are weary from navigating a foster care system that is difficult and inoperable."
The problems identified by the report are not new, but they have become more acute as the number of foster children with complicated problems rises.
Parents often do not realize what they are getting themselves into and then face a bureaucratic web of rules and trouble getting the help they need, said Suzanne Stevens, president of the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Parent Association.
"It kind of feels like being locked in a tornado," said Stevens, who has had 79 foster children over 15 years. "You have everything being sprung on you at once. You kind of feel like you're spinning out of control."
No easy fix
Nationally, there were about 142,000 foster families in 1999, down slightly from a decade earlier, and advocates believe the number has fallen further since. Concerned, the HHS inspector general convened focus groups with current and former foster parents in five states, and sent a survey to child welfare officials in every state.
Many of the problems identified in the report involve systemic issues that will not be easy to fix, such as the trouble foster parents have in reaching overworked caseworkers, who typically leave their jobs after a couple of years.
"Several of the foster parents said that caseworkers did not return their calls for days or even weeks," the report said. Caseworkers agreed they are hard to reach, blaming the large workload and multiple responsibilities.
But that doesn't make it any easier for the foster parent, Stevens said. "When you have a child that's in a crisis situation and you cannot get ahold of your worker, you don't know what steps to do."
Foster parents also have trouble accessing basic services, including child care, dental and mental health services -- problems that also extend beyond foster care. For instance, while foster kids are covered by Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, many doctors and dentists don't accept it because it pays so poorly.
The report found that managers gave little credence to the stress foster families face when they are falsely accused of abuse or neglect by a troubled child.
The investigations leave foster parents feeling "insulted, distrusted and potentially labeled as child abusers," the report said, and it is particularly traumatic to be "accused of the very thing they are trying to prevent."
"It happens daily," said Karen Jorgenson, who directs the National Foster Parent Association. "We need to have a process whereas the foster parents are not 'guilty until proven innocent.' They remove all the kids from their home immediately, before they do their investigation, even when some of the kids making allegations have a history of making allegations."
On the other hand, the report notes, foster parents understand the importance of removing children if there is a real chance that abuse is occurring.
The report found other problems foster parents face include:
Frustration getting heard when decisions are made about a child's future. Often, the foster parent is left out of meetings to plan for future court hearings and time with the birth family. Agencies are recognizing this problem and trying to change, said Millicent Williams, director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America.
Need for respite care, which gives the parents a break from foster care for a few days. Foster parents believe this is key to keeping them in the program, the report said. But state program managers did not consider this important, possibly because -- with a shortage of regular foster families -- this is such a difficult issue to solve.
Unexpected expenses. Families wind up spending a lot of money for clothing, transportation and extracurricular activities, and often consider dropping out because of the financial strain.
"Foster parents usually spend a minimum of $200 per month out of their pocket," Stevens said. "They have no clue when they're going through their training of what actual expenses are going to be incurred by them."