Abstract: Engaging Foster Parents and Kinship Care Providers with the Courts (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Engaging Foster Parents and Kinship Care Providers with the Courts

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Corey Shdaimah, PhD, Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Danielle Phillips, MSW, PhD Student, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background: Federal and state laws require opportunities for foster parents to meaningfully participate in dependency court hearings. However, foster parents and other child welfare stakeholders often feel excluded from the court process (Van Duizend & Sydow, 2010), even when they attend court hearings (Shdaimah & Summers, 2015). This paper is based on two focus group studie­­s funded by the state of Maryland with foster parents and kinship care providers to better understand facilitators and barriers to court engagement during hearings related to children in their care.

Method: This paper draws on a total of nine focus groups: six with non-relative foster parents (N=57) and three with formal and informal kinship caregivers (N=10). Focus groups were conducted between 2017-2020 in diverse Maryland counties with different socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and population density demographics. Focus groups, lasting between 90-120 minutes, were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were coded independently by two coders, who created a revised a coding scheme through dialogue and consensus which they then applied to all focus groups (Maxwell, 2012).

Findings: Findings show that foster parents and kinship caregivers want to be engaged with all aspects of child welfare cases for three main reasons: 1) to be kept abreast of children’s cases; 2) to support children in and outside of court; and 3) to convey information that they deem crucial to the child’s welfare to those who are making decisions on children’s cases. Respondents’ comfort, sense of being valued and respected, and concerns for the safety and well-being of their foster children were impacted from the environment inside and outside of the court. Overall, study respondents identified more impediments to engagement than facilitators, including dissuasion, often by caseworkers or children’s lawyers, and lack of (timely) notification. Interactions with case workers and attorneys often shaped respondents’ ability and willingness to engage with the courts and, more generally, to seek support in their role as providers of care to vulnerable children. Respondents developed strategies to enhance their ability to be aware of and participate in the court process; these included peer mentoring, proactively seeking information, and strategically asserting themselves on behalf of children.

Conclusion and Implications: Our findings point to the need for sustained efforts to facilitate appropriate engagement of foster parents and kinship caregivers. These should include enhancement or creation of existing mechanisms for ongoing communication, such as Ombudspersons or local and state-level advisory committees. Findings also underscore the importance of collaboration among local agencies, attorneys, Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the courts, as engagement with specific stakeholders is often mediated through interactions with others. Of particular value is support from peer-to-peer networks, which help individuals and interface with state agencies. Our study suggests that effective changes must be grounded in agency responsiveness that conveys recognition of foster parents and kinship caregivers as providers of a valuable service to the state and the children they care for.