The Star-Ledger

State Studies Labor Of Love From Unions

Proposal would enlist workers to be licensed foster parents

The Star-Ledger — Monday, November 24, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Gov. James E. McGreevey's administration is considering a proposal from labor leaders that would enlist the state's public and private union workers to become licensed foster parents for troubled children.

In exchange, labor leaders want the state to provide additional sick and vacation time so their members are better able to tend to the medical, psychological and educational needs of their foster children, said Hetty Rosenstein, president of Communication Workers of America Local 1037, made up of 7,000 members.

Drafted by CWA and backed by the AFL-CIO and the labor-friendly activist organization, Citizen Action, the proposal is getting good marks from some child welfare experts as an innovative way to help the Division of Youth and Family Services replenish its dwindling ranks of caretakers.

The state is facing a foster care crisis: the number of children in the system is rising while the number of homes available to them is sliding.

If McGreevey embarks on a foster care partnership, it would be the first program of its kind in the country, labor and child advocates say.

"This is a good idea. We need more creative thinking on ways to increase the pool of licensed foster parents," said Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization.

The league knows of only one other program that bears some similarity. In Bellingham, Wash., near Seattle, police officers are now volunteering to go through the training and licensing to become foster parents.

The idea came from the officers themselves, who were frequently required to watch children at headquarters while child welfare caseworkers scrambled to find available foster homes.

Some state officials worry the New Jersey union proposal would alienate foster parents who joined without the added perks and who remain committed despite a tumultuous year in which the foster care system was the target of a class-action lawsuit that described it as unsafe for kids.

But the agency faces tremendous pressure to meet a Jan. 18 court-imposed deadline to devise a plan that would remake New Jersey's much-criticized child welfare system. Strategies to find foster parents must be a key element of the plan.

"We don't seem to be successful recruiting foster homes, so we have to do something new," Rosenstein said. "Taking care of abused and neglected children is not only some DYFS worker's responsibility. It's a community's responsibility, and part of that community is employers."

"This creates a model, beginning with the state, which would then be re-created with other unionized, (private) employers," she added.

Citizen Action's Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye said she has been meeting with corporations to sell the idea. Some have shown interest in joining the program, she says, but they are waiting to see whether the state embraces the idea first.

"I've talked to multiple corporations and no one has asked what's in it for them," she said. "They are being good corporate citizens because everyone has to do something to improve the system."

CWA leaders say the proposal will encourage those who have the will to become foster parents but fear they lack the time to properly care for a foster child, Rosenstein said. "If you knew your employer would support you, that would help," she added.

The idea, pitched in August, has been slow to move.

Colleen Maguire, a deputy commissioner in the state Department of Human Services, called the proposal "creative" but is approaching it carefully because "it's suggesting that there be special accommodations" for a specific set of foster parents. "We have to be really cautious about setting up two parallel systems."

"If we were to consider this, I would think it would be considered holistically, for everyone," Maguire said.

The proposal calls for workers to receive an additional five sick days, plus up to five paid days off to allow the foster parent to help the child get used to the new surroundings. The union also wants recruitment and training meetings held at the workplace. In return, the union would commit to actively recruit foster parents throughout the entire state AFL-CIO organization, with a goal of adding 1,000 homes.

The workers would be expected to complete the 24-hour training course, home inspection and background check all prospective foster parents must pass. They would qualify for the monthly stipend and clothing allowance all foster parents receive -- an average of $450 a month per child.

Although Maguire denies it, state sources who declined to be identified said the union's proposal was initially rejected by DYFS management. But pressure is mounting on the state to come up with some dramatic new way to deal with its foster care crisis. The arrest of Collingswood parents last month for allegedly starving four children adopted through the state foster care system has added to the sense of urgency.

The proposal doesn't apply to DYFS workers, who are prohibited by state rules from becoming foster parents. Newly appointed DYFS Director Edward Cotton has said he would consider lifting that restriction if he thought it would increase the pool of caretakers.

A meeting between the union and the McGreevey administration to discuss the idea is scheduled for Wednesday, Rosenstein said.

"Any proposal that seeks to help foster children ought to be considered," said McGreevey's spokesman, Micah Rasmussen.

The idea also intrigues the New Jersey Child Welfare Panel, which is overseeing the state's reform plan due in January. "The panel will not take a formal position (on the idea), but it ought to be the subject of serious discussion between the union and the state," panel Chairman Steve Cohen said.

The number of children living with foster parents is at an all-time state high of 9,700, but the number of foster homes appears to be declining, down 9.3 per cent from two years ago, according to a report by the advocacy group the Association for Children of New Jersey.

State officials and advocates say they see more foster parents leaving the system because they are adopting their children and then closing their homes to other foster children.

Other foster parents got weeded out as the state started scrutinizing applicants more carefully. Still others go because they find the state bureaucracy too difficult to navigate and too distant to support them when they need help caring for a child.

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