New Program Brings Long-Needed Training to Foster Parents

Children Benefit as Parents Learn to Handle Unique Fostering Role

June 17, 2004

The burnout rate for foster parents – people who help guide the future of some of the most vulnerable children in our society – is extremely high, but a new program at the University of Rochester Medical Center is trying to change that. A state grant will enable faculty to bring specialized training to foster parents, using research-based methods of improving a child’s adjustment to foster parents.

The “Fostering Futures” program is the first of its kind in the region to be based on actual research that shows what parents need and what elements of training most benefit them. It’s one reason the New York State Office of Children and Family Services recently awarded the program a grant of $99,000.

Nationally, foster parents average only five years of participation before calling it quits – a tremendous waste of a vital resource and a devastating blow to children in the foster care system, says Wendy Nilsen, Ph.D., director of the program and assistant professor of psychiatry. The focus of the new program is to transform well-intentioned parents into specialists in foster care.

“Most foster parents say they really didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “Too often we would see well-meaning foster parents who got burned out. But foster parents are the single most important influence on the well-being of these children, and stability of foster care has been found to be one of the greatest predictors of the children’s current and future psychological and social success. So we wanted to help.”

Experienced foster parents will join Department of Psychiatry faculty to serve as trainers and mentors, with capacity to train 75 parents over the next year. The sessions will be based on a successful pilot program last year in which 66% of parents said the program helped lead to improvement in their foster child’s behavior, and 75% reported a decrease in their level of parenting stress.

Just as important, participants overwhelmingly noted a feeling of isolation as foster parents but afterward praised the group approach for bringing parents together so they could help each other. Many of the participants have remained in touch as a support network long after the program ended.

The parents in Fostering Futures will attend 12, two-hour sessions, covering such topics as how to develop a positive parent-child relationship, reduce inappropriate child behavior, and provide social support. Another component of the program will cover how to interact effectively with biological parents and other issues unique to foster parenting. Participants will train using role play, video instruction and group discussion.

Foster parents do attend a mandatory county orientation before caring for a child, but participants in the pilot program made it clear they need more training.

The program is also novel, explains Nilsen, because the Monroe County Department of Human and Health Services, which is committed to having more training experiences for foster parents, has actively supported the development of the program even though the training is through the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Two other Department of Psychiatry faculty members, assistant professor Kathryn Castle, Ph.D., and associate professor Thomas G. O’Connor, Ph.D., are involved in the training as well.

There are more than 1,200 foster children in Monroe County alone, and approximately 300 foster parents.

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