Become a Licensed Foster Parent: References

What purpose do references serve?

By: Courtney Edge-Mattos

Applying to Become a Licensed Foster Parent: References

There are many steps to becoming a licensed foster parent.  Background checks, obtaining documentation, attending MAPP class, and the homestudy.  One of the most over-looked and under-appreciated components of the study, however, is the reference section.

Agencies are required to obtain personal references, employer references, school references (if applicants have school-aged children in their home), and medical references.  Agencies may ask different questions on their forms, but all have the same intention: to better understand who the applicants are and if they are appropriate to become licensed foster parents.  Here is a little breakdown of the references and things to consider when requesting someone complete a reference form on your behalf.

Personal References

At JRI Foster Care and Adoption, we obtain four personal references for each applying household.  That means that if it is a home with a couple or partnership, we want a total of four personal references, but we want all references to know BOTH members of the partnership.  A reference should be someone who has known the applicant(s) for several years.  A person who has only just met the applicant(s) or only knows the applicant from a very limited setting (like work or the gym) does not have the intimate knowledge of the person and the ability to truly assess the applicant’s character.  We suggest choosing someone you have known for many years and who has interacted with you in a variety of settings.  It is even better if they have experienced you interacting with children, like in a volunteer setting, as a babysitter, or at a family party.  A maximum of two references can be family members. 

Personal references are used to assess how you are perceived by other people and whether other people believe you have the qualities to be a successful foster or adoptive parent.  References are asked to list positive qualities they observe in applicants, as well as applicants’ biggest challenges.  Challenges are not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important for agencies to know areas of difficulty for a future foster parent.  For example “She is a perfectionist” doesn’t mean a person can’t be a foster parent, but it might mean that it will be hard for the foster parent to accept that things sometimes (often) don’t go as planned and the applicant may need help with flexible thinking, adjusting expectations, and managing loss of control over case planning and outcomes.  We ask references about the applicant’s support network, because successful foster parents need people around them who are cheering them on and are willing to lend a hand.  It is very hard to do this work without a team. 

Sometimes personal references are not in support of a person’s goal to be a foster parent.  This can be a stopping place, if the agency feels that the references’ concerns are valid and would impede an applicant’s ability to be a successful foster parent.  Agencies do provide confidentiality to references, so the identity of the negative reference would not be provided to the applying foster parent.  The issue would be discussed with the applicant, in a way that lends as much anonymity to the reference as possible.  If the issue can be addressed or feels invalid, a fifth reference may be requested.

School References

For applicants who have a child in school (including nursery school and through high school), agencies obtain school references for each child in the household.  The goal of these references is to assess the applicant’s responsiveness to schools (Is the applicant accessible?  Does the applicant appear to take an interest in his/her child’s education?  Does the applicant attend school functions, like parent-teacher conferences?) and invested in his or her child’s success?  The child’s attendance and promptness, preparation for school, and relationships with peers will also be questioned.  It is important for agencies to know that a family is functioning well without the addition of a child placed through foster care.  Education is very important and, for children placed in foster care, often require very consistent, focused collaboration between schools, foster parents, biological parents, social workers, therapists, and other team members.  It is important to see that a parent is already working successfully with his or her child’s school. 

Employer Reference

Providing foster care is an enormous responsibility and commitment, but it is not a job.  Foster parents must have a steady income that meets their household’s needs.  The stipend provided for care of a child is to be used for the child’s care.  That includes school supplies, field trips, hair cuts, a gift if he/she is invited to attend a birthday party, year books, school dances, food, gas to take them to appointments, clothing, shoes, etc.  Given all of that, it is important for an agency to know that an applicant is employed (unless they have income derived from another source, like a retirement pension, an inheritance, etc). 

It is also important to know how an applicant interacts with his/her co-workers, responds to directions from a supervisor, if he/she is punctual and reliable, and if he/she is an employee in good standing.  If a person has many warnings at work and is likely to be terminated from employment, the addition of the responsibilities and stress of being a foster care provider might not be appropriate at that moment in time.  If a person cannot get along with his or her co-workers, supervisors, and customers, it brings into question if they would be able to successfully participate as a member of the foster care team, working with social workers, lawyers, educators, family members, and children.  We encourage applicants to speak with their employers and really consider whether or not their employer will provide the job flexibility necessary to be a foster care provider.  Conversations about work-from-home options, flexing one’s day (like working nine hours on Monday, but only seven on Tuesday), or taking extended lunch breaks to accommodate meetings that arise could be helpful in preventing issues later on and helps everyone have realistic expectations going forward. 

Medical References

Foster care providers do not have to be in perfect health.  Most of us could stand to lose a few pounds, to eat a little better, etc.  However, when agencies are assessing a medical reference, it is important to see that an applicant is compliant with medical recommendations, is compliant with treatment (like taking medication regularly, attending follow-up appointments, etc), and their medical condition (like diabetes, asthma, or a mental health disorder) is stable and well-controlled.  Agencies use different forms for this.  At JRI Foster Care and Adoption, we ask medical providers about medications a person is prescribed and if this would impact their ability to care for a child.  If a medication would impact care of a child, then it needs to be assessed if there is another medication a person can take that would be less inhibiting or if there is another caretaker available when the person takes that medication (ex. A sleep-aid medication would impede someone’s ability to wake and care for a child, but if the secondary caregiver is available and unimpeded, that would not be a disqualifying issue).  When requesting medical references for children in the home, the intention is to ensure that the parents are taking their child to the doctor for all well-child visits and is compliant with treatment. 

In the event that an applicant has a specialist to address a certain medical or mental health need, an additional reference may be required.  This is to ensure that the applicant and all household member’s health is safe and appropriate, that a child’s addition to the household would not cause a decline in mental or physical health, and that a child placed in the home will not suffer a sudden loss or need for a new placement.  We encourage applicants to speak candidly with their doctor, therapist, or other providers about their goal to be a foster or adoptive parent.

Another Point of View

References of all kinds provide another point of view.  Agencies need to fully understand an applicant in order to best assess their appropriateness to provide foster care and ensure that a child’s well-being, safety, and security will be maintained in a foster home.  We encourage applicants to carefully consider their references and to speak with references ahead of time, so that they know to expect an agency to contact them.  References provide a valuable assessment of applying foster parents and can be very helpful in the homestudy process. 

Have more questions about references?  We’d be happy to answer them! Please fill out our Inquiry Form and we will be in touch!

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We hope to hear from you soon!  #FosterHopeFosterCare


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Rachel has been a part of the JRI team since January, 2000. For over 20 years, Rachel has been working in the field of human services assisting families with accessing and navigating services. Rachel received her Bachelors degree in psychology and Masters Degree in Public Administration from Bridgewater State University. She was promoted in July 2005 to Family Networks Program Director where she closely worked with the Department of Children Families for 10 years ensuring that children and families received the highest quality of individualized services ranging from community based through residential care. Rachel is very dedicated to helping the individuals she works with and is committed to improving the lives of children and families. Rachel’s passion for creative service programming inspires her in her role as JRI Service Navigator.