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Foster Care: State vs. Private Agencies

State agency or private agency? This is the question many foster and adoptive parents have to answer before becoming licensed. Here’s what you can expect, as well as the pros and cons of each type.
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When it comes to getting involved in foster care and adoption, many people wonder about the differences between a state and private agency. Often, one of the first decisions a family makes when embarking on their foster care/adoption journey is with which agency they will work. Understanding the differences between state and private foster care agencies is essential.

Note: Each state child welfare system operates differently. While many families have the option of choosing between a state or private agency, some states do not provide this option. It is important that you research what kind of system operates in your state. Then, read below for special considerations whether you have a choice or you do not have a choice.

Defining State vs. Private Agencies

According to state statutes, state agencies have the authority to license foster/adoptive families and issue certificates. Every state has a child welfare office. The state also has custody of all children in foster care. 

On the other hand, private agencies are private businesses. They go on record with the Secretary of State that they are conducting foster care and adoption business. And they must apply for approval. The state then reviews the private agency’s request and determines whether it will approve the private agency for foster care only or for both foster care and adoption.

The Pros and Cons of Each Agency Type

People have many different thoughts and opinions about the pros and cons of working with the state agency versus a private agency. Experiences can differ greatly. When families have an option between the two, it is crucial that they select the type of agency that is the best fit for them. 

State Agency Pros

A major pro of working with the state agency is that they are the ones who have custody of all the children entering foster care. State agencies and caseworkers know the children. Working directly with the agency that has the statutory authority to operate foster care and adoption can be a pro. 

Another pro of working with the state agency is that the government wants to engage families to help make a difference. The state agency equips foster families so that they can impact the lives of children who are temporarily in foster care and their biological families. For the most part, a state agency wants to do its work as expeditiously as possible. 

State Agency Cons

A con of working with the state agency is that it does not have an unlimited amount of resources. Although taxpayer dollars cover the cost of caseworkers, administrators, and the processes, there is a limited amount of money to hire casework staff. As a result, state child welfare workers often have large caseloads.

With as many as 25 or 35 cases on their caseload, a state worker may not be readily available to answer questions from foster families. They are often busy, working on their cases away from the office.

Another con of working with the state agency is that it is a bureaucracy. There are layers of administration. Caseworkers have supervisors, and supervisors have administrators.

There is a chain of command that certain decisions must be sent up before a foster family can get an answer. It may take hours or days. The state agency is methodical, and they have processes that they must follow. This style of communication may be a con for some families.

Private Agency Pros

Because private agencies are managed on a smaller scale, they often have a streamlined system and can more easily turn on a dime. For example, if there are three or four families that want to move forward in becoming a foster or adoptive family, the private agency could likely set up an individualized plan for the families to move through the process quickly. On the other hand, a state agency cannot often make these types of arrangements. Private agencies are more nimble.

Private agencies are also more focused on relationship building. Because social workers at a private agency might have a lighter caseload, they can invest more time into their relationships with families. Private agencies also look at prospective foster/adoptive families holistically. They will take everything into consideration and equip you accordingly. A state agency is often not able to do this as well. 

Private Agency Cons

There are some cons to working with a private agency. Private agencies are required to follow the rules of working with the state government. However, some private agencies seek to bend the rules. The state government does not take that lightly.

When private agencies do not follow the spirit and the letter of the law, they set up families for getting in trouble. And in seeking the bend the rules, private agencies might send mixed messages. This is extremely unhelpful to foster/adoptive families. If a private agency is lax about the rules, it also runs the risk of losing its license to conduct foster care and adoption business. 

Expectations

Prospective foster or adoptive families can expect different things depending on whether they work with a state agency or a private agency. Knowing the differences between the two types of agencies helps keep expectations realistic. Here are some additional expectations a family can have when working with a state versus a private agency.

State Agency Expectations

When a family works with a state agency, they can expect a couple of things. Firstly, families can expect the truth. While a state worker can only tell a family what they know about a case, they are obligated to be truthful and share what information they do know. They might not know everything about a case, but that they do know, they will tell. Secondly, families can expect that the state will be clear about the rules. Thirdly, the state agency will tell families where to find resources because they want them to be equipped with as much information as possible.

A state agency will tell families that it is critical that they go to training, keep records, sign up for respite care, and more. A state agency will explain the reasoning behind the forms and meetings they require. They will also emphasize the importance of self-care for a family. A state agency wants families to be the best they can be when they welcome a child or sibling set into their home. 

Private Agency Expectations

A private agency will say something similar to what a state worker would say. Private agencies will stress how families are a resource to the children in their community. They will say that it is important to ask questions, have support, and show up for meetings. With both state and private agencies, every meeting has a purpose.

Just like a state agency, private agencies will emphasize the importance of self-care. However, a private agency may go one step further. If you are married, a private agency may encourage you to take care of your marriage. They will tell you not to neglect your spouse, your marriage, or any children already in your home. This is because a private agency is more likely to look at your family holistically than a state agency.

Payments

For prospective foster/adoptive families who are deciding between working with a state or private agency, one important factor is payments. Typically, when it comes to making a payment for becoming a foster or adoptive parent, state agencies do not charge. While there are still things a family will need to pay for, such as a background check or physical, the actual work of the state agency is covered by taxpayer dollars. 

On the other hand, private agencies may have a list of fees they would potentially charge a family. These fees are in addition to the payments a family will have to make to meet the requirements of licensing. It is important that prospective foster/adoptive families discuss payment structures with private agencies so they can be aware of the processes.

For Those Who Have an Option

Many prospective foster/adoptive families have an option of whether they want to work with a state or private agency. In many states, there are both private agencies and a state child welfare office. If you have the option between state or private agencies, consider the following:

  1. What type of office is closest to you? Is it state or private? This may play a part in what decision is best for your family. 
  2. Are you a relational person? If relationship-building is important to you, private agencies may have more time and energy to invest in a relationship. Consider whether that would be best for your family. 
  3. Does your faith motivate your decision to foster/adopt? If so, working with a faith-based private agency may be best. They will work to fan the flame of your prayer life and support your family’s spiritual wellbeing.

If you have the choice between a state or private agency, you should go to the orientation meeting for both. Come with questions to ask. You will want to meet and get to know the people that you will spend the next many months with. Training can last as many as 10-12 weeks, and you will want to be comfortable with the people you are spending so much time with. Evaluate whether they are like-minded and respectful to your family. Do you feel seen and appreciated as a resource instead of just another number in their system? Remember, it should be a good fit for you.

For Those Who Do Not Have an Option

Because child welfare is run by states in the U.S., there are 50 different ways for the system to operate. There are some states that are state-operated. Others are state-run but county-operated. Some states have regional systems. Other states have a privatized system.

Only Option: State Agency

In some states in the U.S., the state child welfare office does not offer contracts for foster care and adoption to private licensed agencies. In those states, you must work with the state agency. Do not be dismayed if this was not your preference. Regardless of what agency you work with, there are children that need you. Be open-minded as you attend the orientation meeting and training meetings. Be attentive to what God is telling you as you prepare to serve the children and families.

Only Option: Private Agency

Some states contract out their foster care and adoption work to private agencies. In these privatized systems, you may have several child placing agencies to choose from. Researching multiple agencies can help you find the best fit for you and your family. It is important that you participate in the orientation class, gather information, and meet the people you will be working with. 

Final Thoughts

Do the research about what kind of system is operating in the state in which you reside. Go online and ask the question: “How can I become a foster parent in my state?” You will find information about your state’s foster care system, whether they have a state agency only, a hybrid system, or a privatized system. Every state is different. For more information about foster care and adoption, visit WaitNoMore.org.

© 2022, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 

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