OLYMPIA, Wash. - Steve Baxter worked for many years as a logger, and for many years he has served as a foster parent, too. His job in the woods earned him the right to join a union. Why, asks the 54-year-old Mr. Baxter, should his job in the home be any different?

Mr. Baxter and his wife, Daniele, whose business card describes her as a "professional parent," are part of a strong movement to make Washington the first state with a union representing foster parents, which would provide the caregivers bargaining rights with the state, which could lead to higher pay and perhaps even retirement benefits and medical insurance.

But the idea has drawn vigorous opposition from some lawmakers, who say that such a move would send a terrible signal to the mistreated and neglected children taken into foster parents' homes.

"This idea takes away from the whole purpose of why people should take these kids in, which is volunteerism," said state Sen. Joe Zarelli, a Republican from southwestern Washington and a former foster parent who adopted one of the children he and his wife took in.

"We don't pay people pensions and benefits and so forth to take care of their own children. And we shouldn't do it with foster children, either.

"If you take it in that direction, you're basically going back to orphanages," he said. "It will be, 'Let's do the math, let's pack in as many kids as we can - what's the profit margin here?' "

The foster parents who favor forming a union take umbrage at that suggestion and liken the work they do to that of home-health workers, who have joined unions in several states.

"When you take high-needs kids into your home, it is more like a job, and you need the training and the respect that go along with a job," said Beth Canfield, a foster parent for 23 years in Bremerton, who has cared for several hundred foster children over the years and currently has five of them in her home.

"The fact is, these aren't kids you can drop off at the roller rink," said Ms. Canfield. "Some can't be unsupervised, ever. That does make it more of a profession."

Several hundred of the state's 6,000 licensed foster parents have signed petitions to join the Washington Federation of State Employees, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in what a union director hopes will become "a pattern around the country" of foster parents asserting the right to join the union.

The move has drawn a neutral stance from the National Foster Parents Association, an advocacy organization, and other groups representing foster parents or children have also declined to take a position, as has Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.

In a May letter to state child welfare officials, the Foster Parents Association of Washington State, a nonprofit group, announced that it was "taking an important and historic step" by establishing joint membership with the state workers' union.

"We feel there is hope if we can change the basic relationship between the state and foster parents," the letter said, adding that unionization could help establish "a substantial core of highly trained, highly skilled foster parents to care for children with serious behavioral issues."

As in many other states, Washington has been periodically sued to improve its foster-care system, and the training time for foster parents has been increased to 36 hours.

That is a far cry from the roughly 30 minutes in instruction foster parents once received, but advocates say it is nowhere near enough time to develop a truly professional cadre of caregivers and decrease turnover.

Ms. Canfield, the foster parent in Bremerton, who is a vice president of the organization, said foster parents deserved a greater say in developing standards, training and pay scales for the work that they do.

"Foster parents should be at the table when decisions are being made," said Ms. Canfield, describing unionization as an important means to achieve that aim.

But Mr. Zarelli, who along with his wife cared for several dozen foster children in the 1980s, said unionization was antithetical to good foster parenting.

"The idea here is not employment, it's volunteerism," Mr. Zarelli said. "You don't do it for what you can 'get', other than what you get directly from the kids in the form of appreciation and knowing that you've been a huge help in their difficult lives.

"On the other hand," he said, "if you're treating them like a business, like they're just a job to you, then they're going to know that too." This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. More headlines...

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