‘We’re always in need’: How Utah Foster Care works to retain good foster parents

The winner in the small business category deals with retention, both of employees and foster parents.

(Utah Foster Care) Nick Ford, right, a University of Utah offensive lineman, helps cook food at Cultivate Craft Kitchen during a Sunday dinner event with Utah Foster Care — one of the services the nonprofit provides to assist foster parents across the state.

Retention of employees has been a major concern for workplaces large and small, particularly over the COVID-19 pandemic — but another kind of retention concerns the people at Utah Foster Care, which finds, trains and supports foster parents.

“We always need people who are willing to open their homes and hearts to youth who are in foster care, because [the children] are in [it] for no fault of their own,” said Heidi Naylor, director of foster family retention at Utah Foster Care. “We need safe places for them to land while their parents can get the help they need so that they can get back together and be a family.”

Naylor is new to this job, she said, but she has plenty of experience with the foster care system, as a licensed foster parent who has adopted from the system, and as someone who has worked as a retention specialist. With that experience, she said, she understands the critical role retention plays in the foster care system.

“My role here is to help already licensed foster families maintain their license through continuing education,” Naylor said.

The most common reason foster parents drop out of the Utah foster care system, Naylor said, is a change in their life — which can include moving outside of Utah, or a change in one’s health or employment.

Other reasons, she said, include a change in their family (such as adopting a child they had been fostering) or problems with the systemic issues in the fostering process.

To support foster families, and retain them to help other children, Naylor said her nonprofit works to educate, recruit and train Utah foster families. UFC also collects donations for youth and foster families, and helps organize activities that larger foster families may not be able to afford — for example, the University of Utah football team throws a “Sunday supper” every three months, where dinners are donated, cooked and served at a local restaurant.

Some of the problems foster parents face could stem from Utah’s complicated system for assigning foster parents to children. UFC trains and retains foster parents, but it’s the state’s Office of Licensing and Background Checks that issues the licenses needed to become foster parents — and another agency, the Division of Child & Family Services, takes that license information and assigns children to foster parents.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces to the puzzle,” Naylor said, “and sometimes that can be frustrating for families working within all those systems.”

Often, Naylor said, foster parents may have “very specific ideas of what they can accept in their home, as far as behaviorally or medically with a child” — and that makes retention even more difficult.

For example, she said, the majority of people waiting to become foster parents are looking to care for young children, 3 years old and younger.

“We need foster families that are willing to open the range of children they’d be willing to have in their home, because oftentimes that 2-year-old has a 6-year-old sibling or 12-year-old sibling,” Naylor said.

DCFS and the Child Protection Agency make the decisions of whether siblings are separated, Naylor said, though efforts are made to keep siblings together. “Siblings are the strongest bond that most of our youth have in their life,” she said, adding that “the entire point of foster care is family preservation.”

Another challenge, one largely specific to Utah, is the state’s “infamy for large families,” she said. “Sometimes we have large families that are wanting to foster and that can be a struggle. … If you have eight kids already, and you have a sibling group of three, that takes you way over the scale.”

Qualifying to become a foster parent can be a challenge, Naylor said, with minimum requirements for house space and other factors. On average, foster families make $17 a day, she said, and reimbursement checks don’t start coming until the child has been in the house for at least a month. Naylor said she and her husband have a running joke: If you’re doing foster care “right,” you’re losing money.

“You pay more to board a dog overnight than a foster parent gets paid to care for a child,” she said.

Internal employee retention at a business as people-centric as UFC is important, Naylor said. The woman who held Naylor’s job before her has been there for more than two decades, and just moved to another part of the organization.

“One of the amazing things about Utah Foster Care as a whole is people don’t leave this job, Naylor said. “We work in such a phenomenal work environment and because our goal is family preservation.”

There’s always going to be a need for the work Utah Foster Care is doing, Naylor said.

“Unfortunately, we will always continue to have children that are abused or experiencing trauma. I honestly wish I didn’t have a job, because I wish we lived in a society where that didn’t happen,” Naylor said. “We’re always in need of foster families. … We have children from all walks of life that come into foster care. So we need people from all walks of life to really open their homes.”