What the Coronavirus Has Taught Us About the Pivot in Foster Care

When the topic of elementary school P.E. teachers comes up with a group of adults, it is usually a little divisive.  Some saw their P.E. class as a welcome escape from a desk-bound, math-riddled, sentence-diagramming school day.  Others saw their P.E. teachers as agents of torture.   I, for one, had a GREAT P.E. teacher.  His name was Mr. Lowe.

You never knew what you were going to get on any given day when you walked through the doors of  Mr. Lowe’s gym class:  floor hockey (the best),  timed sit-ups (the worst), and dodgeball (depends on who you ask), were all part of the regular rotation.  One of the things I appreciate about Coach Lowe now that I am an adult is that he clearly had a long-term view of his job.  In addition to being the elementary P.E. teacher, he was also the Freshman football coach and the Jr. High basketball coach.  He knew that he had to prepare us in elementary school for greater things a few years later.  This meant that he was outside every day at lunch recess running a game of flag football for whoever was interested, playing quarterback for both teams.  It also meant that in P.E. class, we were going to spend A LOT of time on basketball fundamentals.  Passing drills, lay up drills, dribbling drills, and, of course, pivot drills.

The pivot in the game of basketball is vital.  With one foot obligated to stay where it is, the other foot is tasked with helping its owner see the floor from a new angle, usually in an attempt to look past a defender.  If you move both feet, the ref will call you for traveling and the other team gets the ball. If you keep both feet still, it’s likely you’ll get your pass or shot blocked and again, the other team gets the ball.  Both feet doing their jobs in a pivot is important.

Over the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to pivot in significant ways.  Families, schools, and businesses have all had to figure out how to do the thing they’ve always done (keep one foot planted) while doing it in a way that works in an entirely new environment (pivot foot).  Foster care is no different.  While we all try to continue doing what we’ve always done — care for children and families — we’ve been forced to figure out new ways to do it.  

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of foster care leaders that are figuring out what the pivot looks like during this time.  I’d like to share a few pieces of those interviews with you here.

Recruitment and Training

One of the most encouraging things I’ve heard is that interest in becoming a foster parent has not necessarily dropped off in the midst of the pandemic.  In fact, I’ve talked to those who have pivoted to virtual orientation meetings for prospective foster parents and they have seen a huge jump in the percentage of those attendees that go on to sign up for foster parenting classes.  

In fact, Rachel Janke, a Foster Family Recruiter for Bethany Christian Services in Ventura County, California, shared this in a recent Zoom interview:

You know, we all were so busy and got a lot of people, that in the back of their minds were thinking, someday I’ll be a foster parent. Someday I’ll go for it. And now they’re at home and they have extra time and we’re making it really easy for them to just click the button on their computer and join the group . . . and that’s exciting to see.

Of course there is a downside to foster family recruitment as well.  Janke said, “I think there’s something to be said for that in-person conversation that we used to be able to have  . . .  at the table over coffee and chat about what this would look like for your family . . . So we’re missing that part.”

Biological Family Visits

One of the significant pivots that agencies have had to make is in the area of biological family visits.  Nora Nworu, Foster Family Licensing Specialist from Bethany in Philadelphia told one story:

One of the children in care was really upset that now everything’s online, they can’t go see their birth parents in person. And they thought it was their fault. They thought that they were in trouble and so they weren’t allowed to go see their family.

Agencies have helped foster parents make some important shifts here too, allowing for biological family interactions that weren’t customary prior to the pandemic.  Now, biological families are getting to participate virtually in family meals and bedtime routines.  This takes creativity for sure, especially with younger kids who aren’t prone to sit and talk.  But families are figuring out how to read books, play games, and share art all through an online platform.  And there are bio families for whom mealtime around a table has never been the norm.  They are now seeing first-hand what this can mean for connection with their kids.

Kerri Dunkleberger, Executive Director of Olive Crest in Orange County shared:

“So we’ve had some of our foster parents involving our bio parents in the tucking in at night . . . the prayer and the actually saying good night . . . We’ve had some foster parents that have involved our biological parents in a game night. So they are experiencing some normal family life that they’ve never really seen or witnessed.”

Leading in the Midst of a Pivot

One of the things that is of particular interest to me, is what kind of thinking is required of a leader when a major pivot is necessary?  Are there certain questions to ask or ways to think that help good leaders handle these kinds of direction-changes well?

Adrien Lewis, the Executive Director of CarePortal said:

“The question that we asked is who should we be talking to? And the reasons why we should think about that is because other people are doing things that we can both fuel and be fueled by, and do more together . . . through that there’s been so much fruit. We’ve had conversations with dozens of organizations across the country that we’ve never had conversations with before because, for such a time as this, we all want to take action in a different way. So that’s been fruitful.”

Of course any organizational pivot requires both understanding and reframing your strengths in ways you never have before.  Philip Pattison, Executive Director of Foster the Bay, shared about the choice his organization had to make between two mindsets:  

“We can put our head in the sand and say, you know, we have a fixed mindset. This is, this is what we do as an organization. That’s it. Like this is our capacity, these are our skills, this is what we offer. Or we can have a growth mindset and say, because of the needs of the time we can make some adjustments, our capacity can get a little bit bigger.”

Philip went on to share that collaboration with others is one of the keys to increasing that capacity in new directions.

What to Keep When the Dust Settles

While the first impulse at a time like this is to say, “Everything we do during this time will be a less-good-version of what we normally do,” organizations (and families for that matter) are finding silver linings all over the place.  There are things we’ve discovered and re-discovered that are worth keeping.   Many agencies are likely going to keep some online orientation meetings and trainings for the convenience of their audience.  CarePortal now has an entire portion of its church-based resource-sharing platform dedicated to mobilizing in certain targeted areas at times of disaster, whether it be tornados in Oklahoma or hurricanes in Florida.  Foster families are considering how biological families can continue to play a more integrated role via technology in the normal rhythms of family life.  While all these things were born out of a terrible situation, they are good things worth keeping.

We usually pivot because a formidable opponent has forced us to.  But when we do, sometimes we find that we have a better shot.