A foster parent goes to McDonald’s with children, some connected to her by biology, some by foster care.  She buys food only for her birth children.

The slight is cruel but its origins are easy to grasp. For years, society often viewed children in foster care as state wards, shuffling through the system as names on a case file, problems to be solved rather than young people simply lacking a stable home.  Foster parents sometimes internalized the mindset of otherness for foster children.  They lost sight of the fact that kids are kids, regardless of circumstance.  In fairness to foster parents, bureaucracies treated them poorly.  Rather than treating families as the most important intervention for a child’s physical and mental health, development and well-being, bureaucracies treated families as beds, or, at best, glorified babysitters.  Overworked caseworkers couldn’t return their calls, involve them in decision-making or provide them with critical information.  Foster families were adrift. 

The good news:  Things are changing dramatically for the better.

Thanks to child welfare system transformation movements like the Quality Parenting Initiative, or QPI, children are seen as deserving the proverbial French fries.  Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, which created QPI, gave the French fries example to illustrate the movement’s goal: prioritizing relationships and bringing all caregivers in a child’s life together to create an environment where the child feels accepted, loved and secure.

Establishing those positive feelings comes through relationships.  Since relationships are the “active ingredients” of early experiences, and much brain development occurs early on, early relationships are critical to a child’s ability to form quality attachments throughout life, according to internationally acclaimed child developmental expert Dr. Charles Zeanah. According to Dr. Zeanah, “The QPI approach holds great promise for American child welfare policy and practice. Without question, it is the most exciting innovation in child welfare that I have witnessed in my career.”  

Under QPI, foster parents are viewed as key partners with case workers in children’s well-being and security.  They are partners with birth parents working to regain custody, not just providers of beds and meals.  Birth parents are understood with more nuance and compassion than before, not as unfit parents but as human beings who have been victims of poverty, isolation, domestic abuse or addiction who may have made mistakes in judgment.

QPI sees an entire team – birth parents, foster parents, case workers, state and local child services agency officials, doctors, therapists and judicial workers – all working to create the most stability, the best environment and most of all, the best possible parenting, for the children.  QPI recognizes that no one-size-fits-all parent exists.  The best parent might be a birth parent who’s done the work to create a stable home, a grandmother, an aunt or a foster parent.  It is the responsibility of the system to change practice and policies to ensure each parent has the tools to create the best possible chance for the child to thrive. 

QPI embraces five principles. 

Principle 1: Excellent parenting is the most important service to provide to children and youth in care.  Children need families, not beds.

A prior emphasis on foster parent eligibility was checking off basic requirements: a fire extinguisher in the home, no criminal record, enough room for a six-year-old’s bed.  QPI emphasizes the quality of the parenting and empowers foster parents to treat any child in their care as their own. In the past, driving the child to a doctor’s appointment or shopping for school supplies fell to case workers.  However, these routine tasks are part of parenting.  Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters said, “Quality parenting means every child has a 24-hour parent. We haven’t asked our foster parents to do that; foster parents have just been seen as placements (in the past).”

Quality parenting also involves foster parents and birth parents working hand-in-hand to prepare for the often probable return of children from foster care to their birth parents.  In the past, birth parents were in the dark about what their children were doing.  Tiffany Carroll, a Louisiana birth mother, twice found out only afterward that one of her children had been to the emergency room.  She didn’t learn until later of her toddler’s first hair cut.  Communicating daily events and milestones helps birth parents know their children are secure.  It helps foster parents learn what the children like to help parental decision-making.  A child who won’t sleep without a nightlight might be too young to say so, but his birth parent can offer that important information to the foster parent.

Former foster youth speak positively of the impact QPI can have on their lives.  Quijai Johnson said her foster mom cultivated a relationship with her birth mom.  As a young adult and college student, Johnson visits her birth mom on break and has benefitted from more relationships and support. “That QPI relationship, that quality parenting that I experienced, allowed me to both establish a relationship with my mom and establish a relationship with my foster parent,” Johnson said

Carroll earned back full custody of her children.  She’s now a parent mentor for other birth parents with kids in foster care.  “It’s been amazing,” she said. “Any and everything I ever wanted as a biological parent and now as a parent mentor, everything I ever wanted in a system change, was wrapped up in QPI.”

Principle 2: Child development and trauma research indicates that children need constant, consistent, effective parenting to grow and reach their full potential.

QPI is based on the solid research establishing that quality parenting is foundational to every single outcome we hope to achieve for children. Despite this research, child welfare practice and policy often inadvertently undermine children’s receiving the parenting they need. Changing these practices and policies involves some big changes, but more often requires very basic new attention to emphasizing customer service and relationships. For example, QPI emphasizes better communication as the key to better informed and thereby more effective parenting.  A Louisiana state official described the ability of a foster parent to tell a birth parent how a child spent her evening in the foster home.  The little girl had macaroni and cheese, watched a movie with her foster mom, cried a little because she missed her birth mom and fell asleep.  The birth mother had the peace of mind of knowing her daughter was cared for and safe.    Or a birth father might learn his son is a starting player in the football game so he can attend.   Maintaining these ties can help ease the transition from one household to another and back again, for everybody, especially the child.

This emphasis on building and maintaining consistent relationships that will nurture a child for life must begin as soon as possible. In Minnesota, QPI priorities include a comfort call to birth families within 24 hours of a child’s entering a foster home and a meeting soon thereafter between birth and foster families.

Principle 3: Each community must define excellent parenting for itself. 

What works in a densely populated city might not work in a sparsely populated rural area.  Dedicated phone lines between parents and case workers might be especially important in a county where the child welfare office is 50 miles away.  Online training videos can be helpful for parents who can’t easily attend every training class in person.  Several QPI states offer extensive online resources for caregivers.  California, Florida and Nevada offer “Just in Time Training,” allowing caregivers to ask questions that are answered via video and posted in an online library so families can receive the information they need at the moment they need it.

In Florida, Hillsborough County QPI emphasized parent mentors, while Seminole County, with one of the smallest proportions of kids in foster care, emphasized organizational change, including creating a full-time position to lead training classes.  The community approach gives local people ownership to create what works for them.  A statewide attempt “would’ve been like herding cats,” one official said.

Principle 4: Policy and practice must be changed to align with the community definition of excellent parenting.

A Louisiana child welfare official gives the example of a slumber party.  Under the old model, a foster parent would have needed to call the child welfare office to get permission to send a child in her care to a sleepover.  The permission may not have been timely or even granted.  In Florida, former child services Secretary George H. Sheldon pointed out a requirement of criminal background checks on the sleepover hosts’ parents.  He called for a balance of protecting foster children while giving caregivers flexibility to use good judgment.  “Every good parent worries about the safety of their children, but they know they have to face the risks of daily life if they are to build confidence, experience and happiness,” he said.   “So we let them drive, play sports, go on field trips, visit friends, have friends over, go on dates. Our challenge is to give them the tools for making good decisions and acting responsibly.”

Under QPI, communities decide how to empower foster parents and prioritize parenting.  Perhaps just as a parent decides whether to allow a birth child to attend a slumber party, she should be free to make the same judgment for the foster child.  Maybe the foster mother is especially well-informed to make the decision because she’s in regular communication with the birth parent.  The foster mom knows the little girl can’t sleep without her favorite stuffed dog because the birth mother told her so.  With this communication and partnership, the child is equipped to attend a slumber party with school friends, enjoying a celebrated rite of passage and a sense of belonging.

Principle 5: Participants in the system are in the best position to recommend and implement that change.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, a Foster Parent Advisory Board gave foster parents a formal role in describing their challenges and suggestions.  Biological parents and youth became more vocal.  Dedicated telephone lines allowed a better exchange of questions and answers.  A first-in-Florida professional foster parent mentoring program created a dedicated resource to help foster parents. “The partnership, working together has just been amazing,” foster parent Aundré West said.

Peer support is critical for foster parents to succeed.  A foster parent in Louisiana was unaware that her fellow church member also was a foster parent.  Had the women known of their shared status, they could have supported each other.  While confidentiality for the children is critical to maintain, QPI recognizes that being a foster parent should be a point of pride worthy of community support.  Community members want to help.  A Louisiana foster parent partner cited generous donations to college scholarship funds for youth aging out of foster care.  Louisiana has stressed community engagement in its significant foster care reforms.  “We’re not all called to foster, but we’re all called to care,” Walters of Louisiana said.

Community involvement makes sense, as better outcomes for foster youth have social and financial implications.  As the national policy campaign CHildren Need AMazing ParentS, or CHAMPS, points out, attracting quality foster parents and helping birth parents regain custody helps children avoid multiple, emotionally destabilizing temporary placements. These improvements also could save taxpayer money by reducing group home placements and maybe even mental health treatment costs.

QPI also makes sense to child welfare workers.  A Louisiana family services worker said, “I don’t think that it’s more work.  I think it’s better work.”  Another case worker said QPI reinvigorated her dedication to the cause she sought 20 years ago.  Teri Hrabovsky, a foster parent partner in Louisiana, said QPI looked daunting at first.  Then she realized its core purpose.  “QPI is honestly nothing more than just kindness and treating people the way that I want to be treated,” she said.

Sade Daniels, a former foster youth, stresses that loving families are critical, and institutional settings are cop-outs.  “We have to empower parents so they know (the kids) deserve care and love and that’s how they thrive, too, and that’s how we thrive, too,” Daniels said.

The Quality Parenting Initiative works for everyone:  the child who deserves to be happy, healthy and thriving; the birth parent who may desperately want help to reunify with her child; the foster parents who are driven to help children for all the right reasons and need support to succeed; and the child welfare workers who want to help achieve loving, stable homes for the kids in their care.

The QPI model leaves tremendous flexibility for states and communities to implement the principles the way that works best for them, directed by the youth, foster and birth families, and the staff closest to the problems and the solutions.  In that vein, QPI sets the table.  Parents, youth, agency leaders, staff, advocates and policy makers make the meal.

QPI Facts

The Quality Parenting Initiative, a strategy of the Youth Law Center, is an approach to strengthening foster care, refocusing on excellent parenting for all children in the child welfare system.

Launched in 2008 in Florida, QPI is now in more than 75 jurisdictions in 10 states (California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin).

QPI’s philosophy and outcomes inform the national policy campaign CHildren Need AMazing ParentS, or CHAMPS, which pairs QPI with data-based approaches to improve parenting and thereby outcomes for kids.  Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, which created QPI, is CHAMPS co-chair.

QPI emphasizes five principles: excellent parenting; research-based parenting; community-level leadership; community decision-making; and participant input in system change.

Detailed QPI results data will be forthcoming.  A comprehensive evaluation of child welfare culture change in QPI jurisdictions is just getting under way through the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Dr. Richard P. Barth, dean of the School of Social Work and professor at the University of Maryland.

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