Communicating Child Care

Social work professor investigates foster care interactions to recruit, retain foster parents

Assistant Professor of Social Work Dr. Ethan Engelhardt, who works to improve outcomes for children in foster care through research, knows the system’s limitations firsthand. Engelhardt and his wife, Jordan, became foster parents while he completed his social work doctorate at the University of Kentucky. Though Engelhardt studied elder care until that point, he noticed a lack of research about foster parents’ interaction with the child welfare system.

Dr. Ethan Engelhardt

Dr. Ethan Engelhardt

“Once I got connected with the foster care system, some of the process woes were something I wanted to look at. So, I think because of my passion and experience, it kind of fueled my desire to look into it further,” Engelhardt said. “Communication is lacking, and it feels like there’s this system that’s set up, and this is the way we’ve always done it, and that’s how we’re going to continue to do it, partly because there’s not a lot of funding for change. On the research side, I knew there was something here, something had to be done about the inconsistencies.”

Engelhardt’s first major study focused on foster parent-caseworker interaction. He analyzed entries from current and prospective foster parents on the online discussion forum Reddit to identify their needs and concerns.

He found foster parents expressed frustration about the information they receive from caseworkers, hesitated to “bother” caseworkers with questions, and sought advice on how to interact with a child’s biological parents. Prospective foster parents lacked information about how to become a foster parent.

Engelhardt shared the results with child welfare caseworkers to provide information on how to support current foster parents and connect with prospective foster parents.

“There’s a lack of foster parents. They’re quitting more frequently, more often, and the struggle to get more foster parents is kind of like a revolving door,” Engelhardt said. “My goal is to increase retention and also to create new ways to recruit foster parents and figure out ways to keep them. If one of the number one reasons that foster parents quit is because they’re frustrated with caseworker interaction and communication, we need to make that easier.”

Engelhardt’s current project collected survey responses from foster parents across the U.S. about preferred communication. The survey included questions about how, when and why foster parents prefer to receive information from caseworkers.

When the study concludes this spring, Engelhardt will share those results with state and local child welfare agencies to help streamline communication between foster parents and caseworkers.

“Ultimately, I want to support foster parents the best I can and support agencies the best I can, because they’re our best resource when it comes to providing for kids,” Engelhardt said. “I want to automate these things and make it easier for both parties, so the kids aren’t stuck in the middle. In some ways, that all seems so simple, but it’s not the way it’s happening. My hope is this provides information to state and county foster care agencies so that foster parents and caseworkers feel supported.”

Approximately 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States, and Engelhardt estimates 75-80% of those children live in private homes with foster parents or a kinship placement, which includes relatives or friends of their biological parents. Across the country, child welfare advocates anticipate increased pressure on the foster care system following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Currently, child welfare workers take on two or three times the recommended number of cases, including extra responsibilities such as working overtime, housing children when there is no available placement, conducting investigations and appearing at court hearings. Most foster parents quit within the first two years, while children are placed in state care for at least three to four years, creating a gap in care.

When there aren’t enough caseworkers or foster parents, children may be sent to group homes, sleep in offices or move often, which can lead to a lack of connection, stability, trust and behavioral skills.

“No matter how you feel about the Roe v. Wade decision, it’s going to change the landscape. There’s a greater need for foster parents as an influx of children are born that are potentially going to go into the system,” Engelhardt said. “It’s caused a greater urgency not only to create more caseworkers, but we’re going to need space for these kids and normalizing foster care parenting as an appropriate way to serve, communicating it as something that people can do to grow their families and serve others.”

The Engelhardts have two sons who were born before they began fostering and two daughters who were adopted through the foster care system. Engelhardt leverages his personal experience with the system to encourage others to serve and connect with foster parents for research.

“It was always kind of part of the plan, but also a big part of our religious faith as Christians is the calling to care for the orphans and widows,” Engelhardt said. “If you have a bedroom, you have a place to serve. In a lot of ways, it was a way for us to give back to the community to serve, to expand our mission of faith and our family. We don’t have time to volunteer at a soup kitchen or to volunteer at an afterschool program, but we have an empty bed and we have space.”

At Auburn University, Engelhardt teaches Introduction to Social Work and Human Behavior and the Social Environment in the College of Liberal Arts. Two-thirds of his introductory course students do not major in social work, and Engelhardt hopes they take away the empathy, policy knowledge and service mindset of social work that applies across careers.

“Social work has a culture of ethics around serving, and providing voices to those that have need, that not just social workers should be pushing for,” Engelhardt said. “In every profession, you should be advocating for people. Maybe it’s not your full-time career, like as a social worker, but there’s going to be space for you to step in and make a change.”