Thornwell, a children and family services organization in Clinton, S.C., is making sure that foster care is about much more than “three square meals and a bed,” thanks to its success in matching youth with foster parents uniquely equipped for the task at hand.
“Foster care can be a healing experience, but we have to support both the family and the child, finding unique creative ways to meet needs when it gets hard, so that they can stay stable,” said Morgan Ednie, Thornwell’s vice president of strategic impact.
The stability of foster care placements is critically important. Research shows children in foster care can be traumatized by frequent placement changes, leaving them at risk for delinquency, depression, aggression and other negative outcomes. When the fit is right, young people are more likely to achieve permanency.
“Research on the brain and trauma shows these (foster parent) relationships make a difference,” explained Katie Brophy, Thornwell’s senior clinical director. “The compounding impact of day-to-day, safe, secure, attuned interactions rewires the brain. Our responses to young people change the way they function in a family, a school, in their personal relationships and into adulthood.”
Accomplishing a good match between foster parent and child is the first step. According to Ednie, Thornwell has strengthened its ability to pinpoint individuals who excel at serving adolescents and teens and welcomes LGBTQ couples to serve as foster parents. This has been accomplished with thoughtful adjustments to both recruitment and orientation practices.
“Our goal is to connect with people who have hearts for families, and then to be intentional with a match,” Ednie said. “Our staff works with a small caseload of families, and they really know them. They’re not just a list of names on a piece of paper.”
Thornwell’s process begins with intensive screening of prospective foster parents. They are interviewed in detail about their preferences when it comes to children they might foster, covering variables such as gender, sexual orientation, age, culture, language, the needs of children who may already be part of the household and more, Brophy explained. “We’re very up front and proactive because we don’t want to put anyone in a position they’re not comfortable with.” Brophy added that screening out incompatibilities up front promotes more stable placements and fewer subsequent moves for youth in foster care.
One example of a highly successful match involved a pregnant teen and a foster mother who was a registered nurse. Working as a team, the pair created a birth plan that empowered and protected the teen at a very vulnerable point in her life. “This young lady was able to have a doula and a home birth, which she really wanted. It was an experience that gave this teen choice, voice and agency,” Ednie recalled. Another example was the placement of a young girl who spoke a Guatemalan dialect of Spanish. Thornwell was able to source a family with whom she was able to communicate immediately.
Intentional matching also requires effective recruitment, Ednie said, and hiring staff with deep and often personal experience gives Thornwell an edge. “Our recruiter was a foster parent herself. This makes a difference when we’re working with families because we’ve been there. We understand,” she said. This level of support helps parents and children develop relationships that serve youth now and into the future, remarked Brophy. “When kids develop a sense of safety and trust with foster parents, we know this might be their first time to experience a healthy relationship with an adult. We’re changing patterns and making new behaviors through these positive interactions.”
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Ednie clarified that in addition to a good fit and constant support, successful placements require a willingness to ask for help when it’s needed. “Our families know it’s normal to ask for help. In fact, if you’re not asking for help, we think that’s a red flag. This is hard work, and sometimes when you’re in the weeds, it’s tough to get perspective and see a child’s need underneath a challenging behavior.”
Thornwell’s outcomes show the strategy works. Last year, the organization served 72 licensed homes and helped place 91 children, including 16 teens. Additionally, 97 percent of foster families licensed by Thornwell served longer than two years; the national foster family turnover rate sits at 30 percent to 50 percent within the first year, according to the Brookings Institution.
Longer term outcomes, however, can be challenging to track, Ednie reflected. “Length of placement and time of discharge is often not up to us — it depends on each child’s individual situation. Our opportunity is making sure the time that they do spend in care is healing. Above all, we want foster parents to preserve each child’s ability to form long-term attachments. And you might not see an outcome for years, until these kids are adults and parents themselves.”