Washington state foster parents want to unionize

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Daniele Baxter, who has opened her home to more than 700 abused and neglected children over the past two decades, carries a business card that lists her occupation as “professional parent.”

The full-time foster parent hopes to become a genuine card-carrying union member as well.

She and others are trying to organize what is believed to be the nation’s first union of foster parents, and hope to win the right to bargain with state government.

They want to establish higher training and education standards and create an experienced, professional corps of foster parents. They also hope to secure better compensation, including retirement benefits and perhaps medical insurance.

That, in turn, could reduce the high turnover in their ranks that results in youngsters being bounced from one foster home to another, they say.

“We really are the professionals in this field,” said Baxter’s husband, Steve Baxter. “When you have a really hard job to do, who do you call in? You call in the union plumber, the union carpenter and the union foster parent.”

Washington state’s Children’s Administration, which oversees foster care, has refused to say what it thinks about the effort to organize the state’s estimated 6,000 foster parents.

Daniele Baxter said foster parents are signing up in droves. But she would not give numbers. The foster parents would be part of the Washington Federation of State Employees, an AFL-CIO affiliate that is the largest union representing Washington state government workers.

“If we do it right here, I think it will set a pattern around the country,” said Greg Devereux, director of the state workers union.

Observers around the country are watching the first-of-its-kind organizing drive. But the National Foster Parent Association has declined to take a position.

“The other states are in a wait-and-see mode, because there are a lot of questions to be answered,” said Karen Jorgenson, director of the organization. “Is this going to increase the rift between the department and the foster parents? One of the questions is, what are the benefits?”

Republican state Sen. Joe Zarelli rejected the idea of foster parents unionizing as contrary to the volunteer nature of the job.

“The whole idea of opening your home to children that need parental role models is one of volunteerism and not one of employment,” said Zarelli, himself a former foster parent. “You don’t do it for what you get, other than directly from the kids in the form of appreciation.”

Washington state has about 9,600 children in foster care. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Washington state’s foster parents are paid by the state on a sliding scale for taking in abused or neglected children, receiving roughly $375 to $525 a month. Foster parents also receive medical coupons, clothing vouchers and other assistance for the children, along with training for themselves.

Relations between foster parents and state child welfare agencies can be frosty, though. Foster parents complain that the amounts they are paid do not cover their true costs, and say too many of them drop out in frustration because they do not get adequate training.

Turnover among Washington’s foster parents is estimated by the state at 20 percent to 25 percent a year.

The Baxters presidents of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State said a more professionally trained corps would ultimately save the state money.

“Basically, if we can give the support to the foster parents so they can view this more as a profession, a supported and respected profession, the turnover might be less,” Daniele Baxter said. “What we’ve been called for years and years and years is volunteers, and we’re not volunteers. This is a career choice.”

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