Amid friends’ pics, viral videos, and annoying political posts, some social media users in Southeastern Massachusetts are now seeing new ads pitching a life-changing proposition: foster parenting.
If the ads have popped up as you scroll, you’ve already been identified as someone most likely to say, “Yes.”
Child welfare agencies are increasingly using microtargeted advertising, the same technique that shows you Facebook ads for exactly what you’re likely to spend money on, to enlist new foster parents amid a nationwide shortage, experts said. The latest adopter in Massachusetts is HopeWell Inc., the state’s largest nonprofit foster care provider. Massachusetts has about 4,720 foster children who could be placed in homes, either with kin or unrelated foster parents, DCF reported, but just shy of 4,000 foster homes.
Last week the Globe reported the shortage of placements for foster youth with complex needs is so significant that the department has been using apartments as temporary housing. HopeWell is among the contractors providing apartments.
HopeWell, of Dedham, is contracted through the Department of Children and Families to provide homes and services for foster children with complicated needs, including behavioral or medical challenges. These youth are among those most affected by the dearth of foster homes, said Shaheer Mustafa, HopeWell’s president and chief executive. Traditional foster parent recruiting methods — such as outreach at parks, fairs, and shopping malls — are increasingly ineffective, he said.
HopeWell’s online campaign began July 25 and targets Facebook and Instagram users in Southeastern Massachusetts. So far, it has attracted about four times as many potential foster parents as traditional recruiting efforts would, Mustafa said.
“You need to know who these people are, you need to understand their motivations, you need to find them online, and then saturate them with messaging,” he said.
The microtargeted ads are slated to run for a year to 18 months, he said.
Recruiting foster parents requires finding the right fit between child and family, experts said. Placing babies or very young children is easier. Finding the right match for teenagers, particularly those with complex needs, is hard.
The Foster Parent, the Los Angeles recruiting company handling HopeWell’s digital campaign, conducted focus groups and online testing to create profiles of the types of people most likely to take in children in foster care with diverse challenges, said founder Mark Daley, who runs similar campaigns in other states.
So what does that ideal foster parent look like? For a teenager in the foster system, that person is a single woman 45 or older, with grown children who holds a job as an educator, Daley said. Other likely foster candidates include same sex couples, couples with fertility issues, or people in caretaker jobs, such as nurses, medical secretaries, or social workers, said Daley, originally from Brockton.
The profiles Daley’s company assembled are fed to social media companies, which maintain vast troves of information about their users’ ages, genders, hobbies, professions, and family histories.
“You can identify the people in Dodger Stadium who have pet turtles,” Daley said. “They know everything about us.”
Facebook and Instagram match the descriptions of likely foster parents with users who best fit those demographic profiles to ensure the ads are seen by the people most likely to respond to them.
People who click on one of the ads are connected with HopeWell staff who ask questions about their interest in foster parenting and start them on the licensing process. People can move through registration and licensing in a matter of months, but it often takes as much as two years for a person to go from considering fostering to committing to bringing a child home, Mustafa said. People frequently drop out of the process; HopeWell follows up with stragglers through texts and phone calls.
HopeWell’s $2,500 digital recruiting investment has so far attracted 38 leads in just over a month, Daley said. Three of those people have already applied to become foster parents, said Mustafa. A more traditional campaign would typically attract about 10 leads in that region over several months, Mustafa said.
“This is working,” he said.
DCF has been doing its own social media outreach since 2017, and is spending about $975,000 this fiscal year through a contract with Issues Management Group, a Boston public affairs and communications company, said Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokesperson. It targets people by ZIP codes, interests, age, and language, and puts additional material in front of people who engaged with one ad but didn’t follow through to become a foster parent.
Since digital outreach began, the state has added 2,685 foster homes that do not have a family relationship to a foster child, though Grossman could not say how many of those new additions were the result of digital advertising. The digital outreach, though, has generated 529,000 clicks to the mass.gov website in five years, and 18,000 forms submitted to learn more about foster parenting.
Declining numbers of foster families and increasingly ineffective recruiting efforts are nationwide problems, said Denise Goodman, an Ohio-based child welfare expert who consults with agencies across the country on how to best recruit foster parents. States often report having 55 percent to 75 percent of the foster families they need, she said.
“Now we have two-parent families who are both working, and perhaps have their own biological children, and they’re tapped out,” she said. “The idea of adding another child or two or a teenager to your family is really daunting.”
Goodman noted digital outreach can be expensive, and should be considered an additional tool, not a replacement for in-person recruiting.
And even microtargeting has a lot more misses than hits, Daley said. Just 5 percent to 12 percent of the leads generated by online campaigns end up as foster parents.
“You have to reach a ton of people in order to get one to sign up,” he said.