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Foster Care | Foster parents in Washington state are joining the organized labor force

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

Steve Baxter and his wife Daniele have housed foster children for two decades in Washington state, and they currently care for six teenagers. That life-consuming commitment began 20 years ago with a needy girl in Mr. Baxter's youth ministry, but today it has turned into a drive to unionize the state's foster parents, in what would be a national first.

Spearheaded by the Foster Parent Association of Washington State (FPAWS), for which Mr. and Mrs. Baxter share the seat of president, the unionization effort is a result of complaints by foster parents of inadequate reimbursements and too little say in decisions regarding the children they serve.

In an official letter last month to Cheryl Stephani, the state's assistant secretary of children's administration, the FPAWS board of directors decried that department's failure to retain committed foster homes. Despite heavily funded recruiting efforts, a steady exodus from the system has produced a net loss of 400 homes from a year ago. The letter characterized the situation as "in crisis" and "not sustainable."

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Indeed, around 6,000 foster homes must provide care to almost 10,000 foster children throughout the state-with the gap stretching wider each year. Such figures mirror those of many states around the country, suggesting foster parents in other states will scrutinize the results of FPAWS' unprecedented enterprise. "We are aware that we're the first, and the whole nation will be watching us," Mr. Baxter said. "There's pressure to do it right and perform well."

For skeptics across the country, unionization and its accompanying demands for increased financial benefits could feed suspicions that some foster parents are callously indifferent toward children and only interested in the money. But Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, scoffs at such stereotypes: "They get less than a dollar an hour to take care of the country's most vulnerable children. People are not in this for the money."

The Baxters do not expect most foster parents in the state to join the union. As many as 70 percent hold licenses to care only for particular children, typically relatives or close friends. Such volunteer parents usually adopt the children and move out of the system.

It is from among the remaining parents that FPAWS aims to create a professional class of highly trained, better-compensated foster-care workers. Mr. Baxter, who worked a full-time job in the logging industry before retiring two years ago, asks, "If your job were unfunded for three months, would it be fair for someone to ask you to do it anyway because you love your job? Would you think it were fair if people complained that you only did your job for the money?"

Mr. Baxter also says that joining the Washington Federation of State Employees will give foster parents increased leverage when dealing with state social workers who often dismiss foster parents' opinions. "When we have a child in our home 24/7, we know the child better than anyone-except maybe the biological parent," Mr. Baxter explained.

FPAWS' letter to Ms. Stephani calls for further integration of foster parents into the state system and suggests unionization is necessary to compel such change. Ms. Stephani did not respond to WORLD's request for comment.

While the National Foster Parent Association provides support for state-specific groups like FPAWS, Ms. Jorgenson is unsure whether joining the union will help solve the foster-home shortage or promote greater teamwork between foster parents and social workers. "There are still a lot of questions to be answered," she said. "We're in a wait-and-see mode."

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