Introduction

Foster parent resource workers are the professionals assigned to work specifically with the foster family. In several jurisdictions the title “Resource Worker” is used. However, there is no specific designation in the literature for those who are assigned to work with the foster family. Instead the terms “child welfare worker”, “child protection worker” or “social worker” are used. We reviewed recent literature for a description of the work of these professionals. Within that search we located studies that referred specifically to professional staff in children’s services that work directly with the foster family as well as foster care studies that included implications for those individuals.

Based on the literature, the roles of professional child welfare staff who work directly with foster families fell into several categories including: recruitment and retention, assessment, training, coordination, monitoring, supportive relationships and advocacy. Workers who are most closely involved with foster parents have responsibilities for both recruitment of new foster parents and retention of existing foster parents (Ciarrochi et al. 2012). Additionally, the position is intended to promote placement stability and continuity for foster parents, prevent breakdowns (Hibbert and Frankl 2011) as well as permanency, as appropriate, for foster children (Altman 2008).

Assessment of foster parents occurs from first meeting and is continuous. Issues of interest to workers include readiness and motivation to foster, parenting and caregiving capacities and strengths as well as relationship to the worker and openness to feedback and change as necessary to meet fostering requirements of agency (Colton et al. 2008). Ongoing monitoring of caregiver compliance with agency requirements as well as openness to make changes and effectiveness of changes to maintain good functioning within the foster home have been identified (Höjer 2011).

A significant component of the work resource staff members do is training. In addition to training with foster parents themselves, they also provide professional in-services for other agency staff (Shannon and Tappan 2011). With foster parents, topics that have been identified included preparation for fostering as well as child development, behavior (Atukpawu et al. 2012; Fram and Altshuler 2009). The types of information shared with other agency staff focus ways to promote collaboration between foster care and other major functions of the agency (Crosland et al. 2008).

Coordination between the multiple individuals involved in the life of a foster child, and by extension the foster parents, is another function identified in the literature for workers in foster care. Efforts include coordination with professionals within and outside of the system as well as preparation for and facilitation of contact with birth family as appropriate (Atwool 2013). The resource worker works with other members of the agency, including the child’s own social worker, to ensure that plans are made, updated and inclusive (Ligarski 2010). Additionally, workers provide oversight to foster home activities (Barth et al. 2008) to ensure basic standards are met (e.g. nutrition) (Casey et al. 2012). They also manage a dual role in relationships with foster parents and foster children, as well as dual function to support and evaluate the care provided (Keddell 2012; Sen 2010).

Workers who are most centrally involved with foster homes benefit from having empathy for the role of foster parents and their children as well as understanding and caring relationships, with clarity and consistency. In addition to the development and maintenance of a positive relationship between themselves and the foster parents and foster children (Gerring et al. 2008; Gockel et al. 2008), they attend to the relationships between foster parents and foster children (Botes and Ryke 2011), as well as other family members including birth parents and biological children (Murphy and Jenkinson 2012).

The advocacy efforts that workers engage in revolve around the foster parents and occur within the fostering agency, the child protection system, with other government systems such as health and education as well as community service agencies as appropriate. Workers assist foster parents in locating resources for the foster children (Brenner et al. 2010) and making connections inside and outside of the agency as needed (Dorsey et al. 2012) including within other government systems (Fernandez 2008).

While we could find several current advertisements for the position of “Foster Parent Resource Worker” via an Internet search, we could locate no reference to this designation within the scholarly literature. Agency documents indicate that resource workers are typically the point people for services related to fostering in their agencies and those who most often work directly with foster parents themselves. However, from the scholarly literature, little is known about their roles within agencies. The purpose of the study was to identify, from the perspective of resource workers themselves, what their work entails. Specifically, individuals who hold the title “Resource Worker” within agencies providing foster care services across a large metropolitan area were asked “What does a foster parent resource worker do?”. Results were analyzed using a structured conceptualization method called concept mapping (Trochim 1989).

Method

Participants

Invitations to participate were extended by the researchers following a presentation during a workshop on issues facing foster parents. Interested individuals provided written consent and completed a demographic information form before being asked to respond to the focus-group questions in small groups. Each of the 68 participants was employed by one of 14 Children’s Aid Societies in a large Canadian metropolitan area. The majority (61/68) of participants were female and the average age was 44 years. They had been working in child welfare for an average of 18 years and in foster care, an average of 9 years. They has been employed as resource workers for 8 years on average and each had an average of 20 homes on their caseloads, representing, on average, 34 foster children. The majority (53/68) had completed at least one university degree with a smaller proportion (11/68) completing a college diploma.

Procedure

Each group was given the instruction to “brainstorm” as many possible answers to the question and record all responses. Each participant also indicated if she or he was willing to group responses at a later time and if so, provided contact information. Researchers reviewed all responses by question. Each researcher independently reviewed the responses to identify any that were either unclear or redundant. Unclear responses were edited for clarity and redundant responses were removed for purposes of the analysis. There remained a total of 78 unique responses for the analysis.

Participants who had expressed interest in grouping responses were contacted by researchers and provided with instructions for the grouping task. Specifically, each was asked to group responses together, separately for each question, into groups in whatever way made sense. A total of 14 participants grouped responses and returned their data to the researchers.

Data Analysis

The Concept System (Trochim 1987) was used to analyze the grouping data. The statistical procedures applied to the data were multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis.

Multidimensional scaling organized the responses spatially on a map, called a point map, where distances between responses on the map reflected the frequency with which they were grouped together by participants. Those responses closest to one another on the map were often grouped together by participants while responses distant from one another on the map were rarely grouped together by participants. In addition, a bridging index was calculated for each response to reflect the degree to which that response bridged with others near to it on the map. Responses with the highest bridging indexes (over 0.70) were grouped with other responses further from it on the map while those with the lowest bridging indexes (under 0.30) were grouped only with those responses near to it on the map.

Cluster analysis was performed on the multidimensional scaling values. Each response was initially treated as its own cluster. At each stage of the procedure, two clusters were combined until there was only one cluster. The researchers reviewed the different cluster solutions for the map and determined, based on both quantitative and qualitative evidence, the most appropriate number of concepts for the final maps. The quantitative evidence was the cluster average bridging index, reflecting the degree of consistency with which responses in that cluster were grouped only with other responses within the cluster. The qualitative evidence was the degree of conceptual similarity between the responses within the cluster. In addition, we viewed the distinctiveness of clusters, both quantitatively and qualitatively, before arriving at final decisions. When the final maps were determined the researchers applied labels to each concept.

Results

In the concept map below (see Fig. 1), each number represents one of the 78 unique responses provided by participants (see Table 1). The concepts represent the way that 14 participants grouped the individual responses. The 10-cluster solution provided the greatest interpretability and was therefore selected by the researchers. There were 10 clusters including: Monitor Placement, Facilitate Communication Between Parties, Teach Communication Skills, Match Foster Homes and Foster Children, Retain Foster Parents, Promote Teamwork, Address Problems with Placements, Support Foster Families, Exercise Authority, and Ensure Smooth Operation.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Concept Map for “What does a foster parent resource worker do?”

Table 1 Cluster items and bridging values for concept map

Monitor Placement

Responses in this cluster centered on monitoring foster placements. Participants described these efforts in different ways including guideline adherence, specific activities as well as documentation. The purpose of “quality control” was to “assist with ministry directives” and “fulfill mission of agency”. Their work required them to “interpret and follow ministry guidelines” and “check quality assurance” through “safety inspections” and completion of an “annual interview with bio children and foster child”. Additionally, workers did “home studies” that included “complete safety checks”. Their “administrative work” was essentially to “manage the foster care file” in which they “report and document” activities such as an “annual resource review” and included their “case notes”.

Facilitate Communication Between Parties

In this cluster the responses focused on the importance of communication around important and sensitive issues with other stakeholders. Some of these were routine matters such as “committee work” that did not usually involve foster parents as well as “call case conferences” and “attend case conferences” which usually involved foster parents. More sensitive issues that required good communication between stakeholders included dealing with “agency complaints” and “complaints against foster home”. Additionally, resource workers participated in “adoption conferences”.

Teach Communication Skills

Responses in this cluster concerned workers’ dealings with foster parents and between foster parents and others as necessary. Skills used by resource workers and promoted in foster parents included “advocacy” and “arbitrator”. Additionally, they would “coordinate” and be involved in “consultations”, as well as “facilitate regular meetings” and “assist in training”.

Match Foster Homes and Foster Children

In this cluster responses described activities associated with appropriate placements for children, starting with the decision about “placement of children in foster or group”. Participants put efforts into “liaising between organizations, community, other workers” to make good placement decisions as well as “develop training” to promote awareness of issues associated with “placement matching” between children’s needs and foster parents’ strengths.

Retain Foster Parents

Responses in this cluster referred to efforts made by participants to retain foster parents. Although they had responsibilities to “investigate” potential problems in placements, they also supported foster parents in “meetings with other workers and professionals” and “school meetings”. There were also involved in specific “retention activities” designed to keep foster parents from quitting.

Promote Teamwork

Teamwork between different stakeholders was an important component of the work. Participants described several ways that “teamwork” was promoted in their role so they could “support service team” in order to “ensure success for kids”. Some efforts were specific to agency resources such as “facilitates team work of service team”, while others were more broadly based in the community such as “arrange wrap around services for foster child and foster parents”. In either case, they would “communicate with other workers with the home” as well as function at times as a “liaison between foster parents and agency”. Additionally, they provided direct service to foster parents when they “run support groups”.

Address Problems with Placements

Responses contained in this cluster reflected the efforts of workers to deal with difficulties that arose in placements. Participants noted that “build trusting professional relationships” with the foster parents made a positive difference in their response to “challenge”. Solving challenges were aided if the worker had an “orientation” to “resolve conflict” using a “mediate” approach and had good “stress and crisis management” skills.

Support Foster Families

There were many responses in this cluster focusing on the provision of support to foster parents. Workers noted that they individualized “support (to) foster families” after they “assess strengths and challenges” of the whole family, which at times meant they “help foster parents with their own family issues that affect fostering”. A goal of the support offered was to “develop and build capacity” among foster parents and “promote continuous development” in relevant areas. To do this they offered to “assist foster parents find resources” as well as “assist and teach foster parents” and made “home visits to the foster families”. Workers “support foster parents” when they “provide information” to “help foster parents navigate child welfare system” including “assistance with finding respite” as well as “encourage families to take relief” that is available. Participants noted that they help “deal with crises” and “encourage” as well as help “problem solve”. At times, they function as a “counsellor/therapist” to “assist foster parents to understand child’s moods”. They “provide guidance to new homes” and “support during investigation”, which can be particularly challenging times.

Exercise Authority

In this cluster the responses focused on the enforcement of policy and standards. Workers maintained consistency with documented requirements and duty to “evaluate” foster parents’ efforts because of the responsibility they had “supervising foster families in meeting the needs of foster children”. Workers were held to the expectations about what issues to “prioritize” when they “supervise” in homes.

Ensure Smooth Operation

The responses in this cluster reflected a broad mandate to “promote placement success and stability”. Participants noted that they were to “help maintain placements” and do “everything” they could to “make everybody happy”. Their efforts ranged a great deal from strategic support and resource provision with foster parents to assisting with paperwork or transportation regarding “medical appointments”.

Discussion

In the literature there was attention to administrative aspects of monitoring to ensure adherence to agency and government standards (Colton et al. 2008). Participants described the importance of record keeping and documentation to maintain currency of files and from the literature these measures were characterized as one way to help achieve and maintain good functioning in the home (Höjer 2011) and community (Fulcher and McGladdery 2011). Another similarity between the literature and participants centered on the specificity of cost related to resources (Alpert and Britner 2009), and how financial efficiency underscored the safety and monitoring functions of resource workers (McBeath and Meezan 2009).

There was reference in the literature to the importance of being inclusive in approach with other members of the agency, as appropriate (Ligarski 2010), and presumably to include case conferences. However, we found no references to the effort of workers to deal with complaints against the agency or the home made from outside of the agency or home. There is literature concerning problems in placements (e.g. Hibbert and Frankl 2011), little attention has been paid to activities surrounding formal complaints.

There were multiple references concerning the advocacy efforts of workers within the literature. Advocacy efforts were found within the literature in relation to specific purposes, such as dealing with community organizations in the areas of health, or for education services through the schools (Brenner et al. 2010). Additionally, effective communication through advocacy was directed toward resources for foster children within the agency or children’s services system itself (Dorsey et al. 2012). Another distinction evident within the literature included the interests who they represented, which at times was the foster parents (Briggs 2009) and at others, the foster child (Pölkki et al. 2012).

There were several references concerning the matching of foster children to foster homes. Matching occurs based on appropriate assessment of the child’s needs and parents’ strengths (Olsson et al. 2012). Offerings by workers to other agency staff about trends and issues with foster children and parents as well as qualities that promote a good match assist with planning and placements (Crosland et al. 2008; Shannon and Tappan 2011). Placements where the match can be improved are enhanced through offering training to assist foster parents in areas such as learning strategies and school involvement (Fram and Altshuler 2009) or cultural awareness when caring for a child with a different background than the foster parents’ own (Carter 2009).

From the perspectives of participants, efforts to retain foster parents were preventive. Their efforts were to promote placement stability, prevent breakdowns and increase permanency, as appropriate (Altman 2008; Hibbert and Frankl 2011). Supportive activities, such as attending meetings with foster parents or foster children who were accessing community resources, were noted by participants and evident in the literature (Pelech et al. 2013; Murray et al. 2011; McLean 2012).

The importance of teamwork was reflected in the literature. Similarly to participants’ experiences, the needs of children were priorities and opportunities to involve them were necessary (Fitzgerald and Graham 2011). Additionally, the need for workers to conduct themselves as team members was reflected in both the participants’ descriptions and evident in the literature (Renner et al. 2009).

Both the literature and the participants noted that the relationship between workers and foster parents was particularly important when difficulties arose. It was noted that many problems in placements were addressed more easily if there was a good relationship between foster parents and workers (Gerring et al. 2008; Gockel et al. 2008). In addition, a practical problem-solving approach to dealing with challenges was seen as helpful (Daly 2012).

Support to foster parents was a prominent function of workers. There were multiple references to various types of specific support efforts made by workers on the relationships between foster parents and foster children (Botes and Ryke 2011) as well as between foster parents and biological children, as appropriate (Murphy and Jenkinson 2012). Preparation and support through transitions, which can be particularly challenging times, such what to expect when having a first foster child (Atukpawu et al. 2012), changes in agency policy and procedures (Denenberg 2008) or changes when foster children leave (Castellanos-Brown and Lee 2010) have been described.

There were examples in the literature concerning enforcement of standards (Casey et al. 2012) as well as professional responsibility that workers had for activities in the home (Barth et al. 2008). Additionally, the need to promote positive experiences for foster parents and foster children was previously identified (Ciarrochi et al. 2012). However, the weight of responsibility to ensure that not only standards were met, but positive relationships maintained through challenging times including extraordinary measures to make sure that all stakeholders were pleased with the process is substantial, and not apparent in the literature.

Based on the review of participants’ experiences and comparison to the existing literature several differences can be identified. The differences include issues identified by participants but not in the literature as well as issues in the literature that were not identified by participants. Issues identified by the literature suggest areas that local practice may benefit from attending to in day-to-day efforts of resource workers. Issues identified by participants indicate areas worthy of consideration in future research for their relevance in characterizing the activities of resource workers.

Specifically, the issues identified in the literature and not by participants included the use of technology in their work, connections to birth families as part of their role as well as specific attention to the dual roles of support and monitoring with their associated ethical dilemmas. In response to the issue of technology and its absence among the experiences of participants in the present study, the geographic location in a high population density area could make the need for video technology for communication a less-preferred method for reaching out and staying in touch with foster parents, in comparison to regular in-person and routine telephone contact. The absence of reference to connections with birth families among resource workers who participated in the study may be accounted for by the more focused role that these staff have in larger, urban children’s aid organizations where functions related to birth family relationships are taken up by other staff within the agency.

The absence of potential conflicts between enforcement of standards and support to foster parents is a difference from the literature where tensions between these functions by the same person are identified as potentially challenging. In support of the practice of the dual functions is the reality that in typically under-resourced systems, child protection agencies account for every expenditure and the potential overlap of having two staff members visiting the same homes instead of one would be heavily scrutinized. Additional support for the dual functions could be based on the benefits of in-depth knowledge held by one worker of both the efforts made to meet established standards by the foster parents and the provision of the specific forms of support and resources necessary to enable them to meet requirements. It may be beneficial to clarify the monitoring and support functions as well as the relative priorities that workers use to make decisions in homes where standards are not met but progress is evident and expectations are that they will be met in future research.

Issues identified by participants but not apparent in the literature suggest potential directions for research attention, including the investigation of complaints against foster parents and the range of responsibilities—including monitoring, support, coordination, investigation and retention—and outcome of keeping all stakeholders happy is heavy.

It would be beneficial for future research to explore the ways that resource workers are involved in the receipt and processing of complaints against foster parents. Their involvement in complaint investigation is potentially problematic because of the intensive connections they have with foster families in supportive and monitoring roles. While involvement in the investigation may be helpful, because of their knowledge of the families, any assumption of responsibility for decision-making in response to complaints would put them in the unenviable position of compromising their relationships with foster parents, their credibility within the agency and responsibility to protect children.

The weight of responsibilities carried by resource workers, in relation to meeting all expectations of different stakeholders, ensuring standards are met and supportive relationships are maintained throughout as well as balancing the high demand for foster home placements while ensuring that quality is upheld is substantial. The extent to which these workers are prone to challenges such as compassion fatigue and burnout as well as strain because of differences between their roles in the agency and those doing protection work have not been studied. Specifically, their advocacy efforts on behalf of foster parents and foster children have the potential, without strong collaboration and positive professional relationships with others in their agencies, to be seen as a challenge by others who have different responsibilities. It would be worthwhile to explore their places within agencies and relationships with other worker roles to determine where points of stress are and ways they see to address them.