Even without a global pandemic, foster parents have a difficult job. The added work of homeschooling, visitation and personal protective equipment has propelled an effort by some Massachusetts foster parents to form a union to help.
Felicia and Rick LeClair are helping spearhead the unionizing effort. Since they started taking foster children into their Leominster home almost five years ago, they've fostered about 50 children.
Their 22-month-old foster son has been with them the longest — since he was five days old. Felicia LeClair says he's the third child of a woman struggling with mental health and substance use issues who already had an open case with state child welfare officials about another one of her kids.
"If there's already an open case, plus a positive substance exposure, that baby is removed so he came to us and he's been here ever since," she says. "He's just really a special child. He's super sweet."
The LeClairs, both with grown children and grandchildren of their own, say they became foster parents when they heard from friends who are social workers about a desperate need for foster homes. The couple says they want to provide stability for children and help break what often becomes a cycle of trauma.
"You know that saying 'it takes a village?’ " Felicia LeClair says. "There are people that aren't able to take care of their children and it doesn't matter why — the children are the bottom line. And how do we expect them to grow into successful, productive adults if we can't give them those tools that they need from the start?"
She thinks there should be a village, so to speak, of foster parents. To make it a reality, the couple is helping to unionize the more than 2,000 foster parents in Massachusetts. Although the idea has been discussed for more than a year, they say the pandemic has put more demands on foster parents, including getting PPE and navigating visits with social workers and biological parents as well as education.
"As a foster parent, you weren't allowed to homeschool. Now foster parents are homeschooling and it's a whole learning curve, a whole parenting curve," Felicia LeClair says. "I'm a pediatric nurse. I was a member of a nursing union, so I know the benefits of having people on your team."
Having a team advocate for foster parents to help deal with state bureaucracy is another benefit, Rick LeClair says, especially when both foster parents are working.
"The Department of Children and Families operates under 1950s rules sometimes, not rules for 2020." Rick LeClair says. "The rules are not created to make your life easier for the benefit of the kid, although that's what the words say. There's an unbelievable amount of red tape. There's bureaucracy. There's politics involved. And the people that are foster parents are all fragmented."
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families [DCF] says it deeply values the work of foster parents, especially during the pandemic. The department points to efforts to improve the foster care system over the past five years, saying it has improved training and communication, and increased daily stipends and clothing allowances.
Right now, the average daily stipend is about $25. DCF says foster parent reimbursements have increased every year since 2014, compared to no increase since 2003 prior to then.
Supporters of unionizing say money is just one issue. Cheryl Haddad, founding member and former president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families [MAFF], says a union would provide one voice and help gather foster families to ask lawmakers for resources and services.
"I find it very unreasonable to ask these volunteers who help take care of children to go to the legislature to ask them for services. It's crazy," Haddad says.
But Catherine Twiraga, the current MAFF president, questions whether unionization is the right approach. She says each child and family is different and formalizing work arrangements could get in the way of family relationships.
"I didn't become a foster parent to get a job," Twiraga says. “I became a foster parent to help children. So I don't see how it can be one in the same. I've had jobs where I was an employee and that's not how I approach being a foster parent."
The Service Employees International Union Local 509 is now holding meetings to gauge the level of support among foster parents, but President Peter MacKinnon says collective bargaining is different for non-traditional workers like foster parents. He points to his union organizing day care providers in Massachusetts who also have complex individual situations that aren't easily covered in a labor agreement.
"Our union also represents family child care providers. These are people who are doing a job," Mackinnon says. “They are workers who need a voice to be able to do that work as effectively as possible. And we can give them that voice."
Massachusetts would be the first state with unionized foster parents, after foster parents in Washington state abandoned a unionizing effort more than a decade ago. Instead, they agreed to create a more formal structure to work with the state.
But that hasn't worked out so well and the idea of unionizing has resurfaced, says Mary McGauhey with the Foster Parents Association of Washington State.
"We'd certainly entertain that thought again," McGauhey says. "I don't think that there's a single board member who wouldn't entertain that thought again."
In Massachusetts, unionizing would require a change in state law to allow foster parents to collectively bargain. The need for those willing to care for children in state custody is expected to increase because of the additional stressors of the pandemic, and unionization might help recruit more foster parents, says state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
"Families across the country are facing unprecedented challenges in this pandemic," she says. "As schools are opening up and teachers are getting their eyes on kids, we expect the number of kids in need of foster care to grow significantly."
Legislation will be filed in Massachusetts in January to change state law and allow foster parents to collectively bargain with the state.
The Massachusetts foster parents supporting unionization say they could structure their bargaining group to consider the unique and complex work of a family without creating another layer of bureaucracy.
The LeClairs say they understand — probably more than they first realized — that being a foster parent is more than a job. Upon learning in July that their 22-month-old foster son was eligible for adoption, they filed the paperwork.
"It's a very complex dynamic that happens that you can't really predict," Rick LeClair says. "How can you take that kid who you've been with for 22 months and put him with another family and say, 'We're not your momma and dada anymore, these people are.' How do you do that to a 2-year-old kid?"
This segment aired on November 17, 2020.