Iowa Success Story: Advocating for Foster Families

As we travel the country to visit Bachelor of Social Work programs and attend graduate school fairs, we have met some amazing professors and future social workers who are doing great things in their communities. On a recent trip to Waterloo, Iowa, we met Susan Vallem, a professor at Wartburg College, and her colleague, Tammy Faux, as well as Wartburg BSW students. We learned about how they advocated for Iowa’s adoption of the Certified Respite Provider program, which has made a big difference for families caring for foster children. This program offers foster care families access to a trained respite provider should they need to leave home for a short period of time. Vallem and a – student worked with agencies and the legislature for successful passage. Other Wartberg College students were involved with interviewing, documenting and making recommendations for respite foster providers. Through the experience, some students were inspired to become respite providers themselves.
foster care family
The following is an interview with Vallem about her experience successfully advocating for the program:

Q: What was the need that created the opportunity for this project?
A: Prior to the success of the foster care respite pilot program and change by the Iowa legislature, only licensed foster parents could provide respite foster care. That meant that foster children often had to leave their foster homes to stay in another foster home for respite. Sometimes another home was not available, or the children would have to go to another school district.

Q: What were the initial barriers that were overcome in implementation?
A: The initial barriers are always funding and the acceptance of the Iowa Department of Human Services to certify individuals who were not going to be full-time foster parents.

Q: How were funds raised initially? What type of funding was offered by the state legislation?
A: The funds initially came from a grant. A grant was used for the pilot program, and with that success, we went to the Iowa legislature. The state of Iowa changed its code to allow for foster care respite providers and allocated $25,000 to support training foster care respite providers throughout the state.

Q: Was there any pushback or red tape related to passing this project at a state level?
A: We had amazingly little push back. However, the Wartburg faculty members and foster care association director did offer direction to the students as to how they interviewed, wrote up the documentation, and provided respite services. The students were expected to perform as professional social workers in their interviews and in their documentation. Since DHS was initially reluctant to endorse the project, the work had to be exceptional. Fortunately, the students were willing to have Wartburg faculty push them to perfection. Students understood that what they did and wrote had direct impact on children and families.

Q: What are some of the major outcomes related to this outreach effort? How has this project improved your community?
A: Foster families raved about having respite services accessible to them and appreciated that their foster children could remain in their own home. Families appreciated the opportunity for respite services that had not been available to them before this program.

Q: Do you have any special considerations, advice, or words-of-wisdom that may help future advocates turn projects into policy?
A: Much of the legislative success came from writing a strong issue case. We did our research. Another helpful tactic was requesting the area foster care/adoption agencies and foster parents advocate for the passage of this program in the legislature. A coalition of invested citizens tends to be successful. We also identified key legislators, several of whom were social workers, to champion this cause.

The adoption of the Certified Respite Provider program demonstrates what social workers do every day—we work for one small change that makes a huge difference. We congratulate Professor Vallem, Dr. Faux and the Wartburg College BSW students who worked so hard to make this program a reality.