Abstract: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Foster Family Experience during Hurricane Irma (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

A Mixed-Methods Study of the Foster Family Experience during Hurricane Irma

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 10:45 AM
Union Square 14 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Julie Steen, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL
Background and Purpose:  In September 2017, Florida suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irma (National Centers for Environmental Information, 2018).  Multiple entities have provided child welfare agencies with guidance on preparing for and responding to this type of disaster (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2009; National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement, 2007; United States Government Accounting Office, 2006).  Further, the research literature includes some attention to the impact of hurricanes on foster care systems (Davis & Miller, 2014).  However, little is known about the foster family experience during natural disaster and the foster parent perspective on disaster preparedness and response.  This study is an effort to meet this gap.  Specifically, this study sought to address the following questions:  What factors relate to foster parent stress during Hurricane Irma?  What factors relate to foster parent satisfaction with the foster care system’s response to Hurricane Irma? 

Methods:  A mixed-methods study of the foster family experience was conducted with a convenience sample of 50 foster parents in Florida.  Survey invitations were sent by email to foster parent association officers, who were asked to distribute a link to the online survey.  Questions focused on their experience during the hurricane, the response of the foster care system, their level of stress, and their recommendations for future hurricane response.  Quantitative responses were analyzed using independent samples t-tests, while content analysis was conducted for qualitative responses.

Results:  Foster parent stress was significantly higher among those who had evacuated (t(48)=2.896, p=.006) and sustained damage to their homes (t(28)=2.981, p=.006).  Open-ended responses indicated that evacuation was made more difficult by foster care agency delays in granting permission to travel out of state and by confusion on whether they were allowed to take children to homes that had not passed through screenings/home studies.  Foster parents also described being short on funds due to the costs of evacuation and home repairs.  Foster parent satisfaction with the foster care system was significantly higher among those whose caseworkers contacted them about the storm before it arrived (t(48)=3.307, p=.002), provided them with resources specific to the storm (t(48)=2.623, p=.012), asked whether they would be evacuating (t(48)=3.462, p=.001), and described the process for connecting with the system after the storm (t(48)=3.848, p<.001).  In open-ended responses, they applauded disaster preparedness procedures whereby the licensing agency collected emergency evacuation information during annual licensure renewal, but also noted fragmentation and duplication of storm-related contacts with multiple foster care agencies.  In addition, they recommended scheduling visits with biological families as soon as the storm is over so that foster children can be reassured that their families are safe.

Conclusions and Implications:  These results provide an important picture of the problems encountered by foster parents during Hurricane Irma and the ways that these problems might be minimized during future storms.  Specifically, foster care systems should consider earlier out-of-state travel permissions, emergency funds for foster families, clarity on acceptable evacuation settings, and quick scheduling of family visitation after the storm.