1. Responsiveness. As a foster parent, there will be many times when you will need to contact your agency. Their ability to respond quickly and provide support is essential. The best way to know how they are going to act after you join them is to assess how they respond BEFORE you join. When you call their office, are you responded to quickly, or do you end up in an endless voicemail loop with people taking days to get back to you? Imagine if you had an emergency or urgent question. Don't make the mistake of thinking an agency that treats you like this up front will be any different after you sign on the dotted line.
2. Individual attention. When you first contact the agency, how much personal one-on-one time do they spend with you? Are you invited in for an individual meeting with a professional counselor, or herded into a group "orientation" meeting? You will have lots of great questions to ask, and you need to have the time to ask them. If the organization cannot spend one to two hours up front getting to know you, how can you expect them to make good placements of children in your home down the road?
3. A full tour of the agency. They all look great on paper. But brochures and online sites can be misleading. In the world of “www.websites,” anyone can look impressive. There is no substitute for taking a personal tour of the organization. Is it warm and inviting? What services do they offer? How many people work there? Is there adequate staff for the families they currently have? Do they offer support groups? Is the organization clean and neat? Does the environment feel sterile? If you want to know how an organization really works, take a walk through their facility. What does the corporate culture feel like? Are there lots of closed doors and messy offices? Are the management offices off limits? Do people look genuinely happy to work there? Do you and your family feel welcome?
4. Programs, Clubs, and Opportunities for the Children. It’s vitally important to the success of a foster child to have not only a loving and nurturing foster family, but a strong and supportive community around them. This community should include opportunities for families to connect as well as unique venues for the children to learn alongside other foster children.
5. Lots of social opportunities. Are there year-round activities and celebrations where everyone can feel like they are part of a vibrant, caring, larger family? Not only do foster parents get a chance to know each other better this way, but the foster children feel comfortable and excited about being there as well.
6. On-site childcare. The key component of foster care is, of course, kids! A good foster care agency offers lots of support in the way of classes and support groups. There needs to be somewhere for the kids to go and fun things for them to do while you are participating in sessions.
7. A highly supportive community. What kind of assistance and encouragement is offered by the organization? Do they have dedicated home supervisors to guide you through the process? Do they have opportunities for foster parents to get together, share their experiences and get advice? Does the agency provide its own certification classes, ongoing training, CPR/First Aid, and post-adoption support, or do they make you seek it elsewhere on your own? Are the foster parents actively involved in the organization via a foster parent council that meets with management? Is there a frequently published newsletter or constantly updated website to keep you and the broader community in the loop about special events and achievements?
8. Nonprofit or official charity status. This is important! Several years ago, the state of Colorado required all agencies receiving foster care funding to be incorporated as nonprofits. This meant that all for-profit organizations had to reestablish themselves as nonprofits. This doesn't mean that they are charitable organizations under the 501(c)(3) IRS statutes. How does this affect you? Quite a bit: If an organization is an actual charity, they are eligible to receive donations, gifts and services that strengthen and enhance your experience. Ask what kind of organization they are and what kind of donations they receive.
9. Goodness of fit. Every agency is different. Find the one that suits you. Are you looking for an agency that is community-oriented, faith-based, and full of educational opportunities?
What is the mission of the organization? Does it have a written statement of values, and if so, do the values and principles match yours? Some agencies are “mission”-oriented. Their main emphasis is on supporting families as they enter the mission field of foster care. Other agencies are more "vocational." Their main emphasis is helping you run a foster care or group home business out of your home. These agencies typically will focus on maximizing the number of children placed in your home and may not want to certify you if you plan on adopting or having small numbers of children in your home. Find the agency that best reflects your intentions.
10. Types of child placements. What are the ages and demographics typically placed by the agency? Do they specialize in young kids, older kids, children with special needs? Do they treat sex offenders and other "at-risk" populations? If so, what is their policy for keeping populations separate and safe? Each agency keeps track of the ages and demographics of the children they serve. Ask them for this information. If an agency specializes in serving at-risk teens and you are looking for a baby or elementary school-aged children, they may not be the right place for you.
11. Statistics and references. What are the statistics that matter to you? One of the most important facts to find out is how many children are placed through the agency each month. If the agency only receives a handful, you could be waiting quite a while to receive a placement. Also, if you are interested in adopting through foster care, then make sure to ask what their adoption rate is. Across the state of Colorado, the adoption rate from foster care is about 6%. Individual agencies can be as high as 20%. This is a good indication of the type of child placed with the agency and the proficiency of the agency. Ask for references. Every organization should be able to give you a list of current and past families who can tell you about their experiences.
12. Experience and expertise. How long has the organization been around? What kind of experience do they have? What parenting philosophy do they follow? What are the educational levels of the staff? Is the agency a "leader in the field" or just getting started? State of Colorado licensing regulates only the minimum standards. That means CPAs (child placement agencies) can be very, very different. Some CPAs are small "mom and pop" shops with relatively few services. Others, while larger, provide many other programs such as crisis pregnancy services, refugee services and therapy services—for them, foster care is a sideline or only a small part of what they do. It is easy to get lost in these types of organizations, or feel like you are a small part of a large bureaucracy. These are important distinctions to understand.
13. Reputation. Ask around. There is nothing better than word of mouth. Check them out online. Do a Google search. Have the agency’s achievements been in the newspapers? Are they active in the community? Do they provide educational programs to the public? What are people saying about them? Ask your pediatrician, your church. Ask the agency if they’ve received any positive radio or TV coverage, or have published any books.
14. Inclusion of your own children. If you already have children of your own, you will of course want to know what foster care will mean for them. Can they attend the agency’s groups and activities? Are there special programs and training for them? Some organizations have special clubs and activities for your birth children. Ask about them. If the organization provides special events and services for children, are they just for foster children, or can your children participate as well?