A few years ago, I met a young man who used to be in one of the state’s residential foster care programs. He is an adult now, married, with children, and has a good career.
He came into foster care as a young child and grew up in residential care at an agency. He told me about how his direct care staff took him on camping trips and engaged him in fun activities, how they showed him patience and understanding even as he admitted to misbehaving and testing staff members’ boundaries. He named his son after his favorite direct care worker, saying he “showed me how to be a man.”
He is now very vocal about how he attributes his success to the skills he learned and the caring adults he grew to trust during his time in residential care. He added that he wants to help young people now in residential care.
This story speaks to the power of the child welfare workforce to change children’s lives.
Children come into foster care for various reasons, yet they all have experienced trauma that is unimaginable to most of us. The trauma our young people have experienced causes many of them to distrust adults deeply. It is not unusual for them to test the boundaries of the direct care workers they see every day by acting out or running away. This is extremely understandable behavior, after all, because in many cases the adults these young people looked to for support and security hurt, abused or neglected them.
Foster care is a system of last resort since we are the only system that cannot reject a young person for placement.
We have young people with us who have developmental disabilities and complex mental health treatment needs, substance abuse challenges and other needs. Our system serves young people who have been commercially sexually exploited. It is not uncommon for the youth in residential care to have experienced psychiatric hospitalization.
The organizations serving young people in foster care have trained their staff to be informed about trauma and to engage therapeutically with young people to help them navigate their challenges and identify future goals. Direct care staff are with the youth 24/7: They eat meals together, give homework help, engage in fun activities and challenge youth to be accountable to certain behavioral expectations.
Our goal is for young people to be in residential care only until we can safely and successfully return them to their homes, families, schools and communities. That transition, however, depends on the ability of our front-line direct care staff to earn the trust of the children and engage them in treatment for the length of their stay.
In order to not only hire, train and retain a skilled direct care workforce, we have to provide a wage that allows our workers to be able to support their own families. In 2016, the average starting salary for a direct care worker statewide was $25,600.
Due to the state’s improved economy over the past few years, we are now competing with fast food restaurants and others that pay a similar wage to us, but require less training and offer a less stressful work environment than a residential care campus.
Last year, the system experienced a 47 percent turnover rate in direct care staff. That means that there are far too many young people across our state experiencing the loss of another adult that they have come to know and trust. We have to do better for our young people. We need to provide them with stable relationships so that they can grow up and become successful adults. The administrative rate for foster care is set each year by the state Office of Children and Family Services and the Division of the Budget after the state budget is passed. The rate year begins July 1.
Agencies rely on that small rate increase in order to manage yearly cost increases. This year, we have requested a 2 percent increase.
Direct care workers in programs implemented by the state’s Office of Mental Health, Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and Office for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services received well-deserved pay raises through the state budget process. Workers with programs licensed by the Office of Children and Family Services were not included, yet they are doing the same direct care work of other state-funded systems.
It is only right that the state provide comparable raises for direct care staff working in these foster care programs.
We thank the chairs of the Children and Families Committees – Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and state Sen. Tony Avella, and their colleagues in the state Legislature who have advocated on our behalf. We now look to the governor to deliver on his promise to raise the pay of all direct care workers in the state.
Our kids in foster care are incredibly resilient. We know they can succeed. As a state, if we do not set them up for success, we fail them. We must invest in stabilizing our workforce, especially for the system to be ready for next year’s first phase-in of Raise the Age legislation, which raised the state’s age of criminal responsibility to 18.
Our young people depend on direct care workers to help them reach their full potential.
Jim Purcell is the CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.