Editor’s note: As we wrap up national Foster Care Month, the Gazette-Mail is launching Kids in Care, a new monthly column to spotlight the high hopes and, at times, overwhelming challenges that are both a part of West Virginia’s foster care system. This is the first installment. Adoption and foster care workers and experts are welcome to submit their own columns for consideration, and readers are invited to respond with questions, comments and suggestions.
“I could never be a foster parent, I would get too attached.”
Directing a nonprofit program with a primary goal of recruiting foster parents, this is the sentiment I hear often from prospective foster parents. It is a reasonable and natural response, since foster parenting requires both love and attachment.
It also illustrates one of the largest barriers we face in increasing the number of foster parents in West Virginia, a goal that we desperately need to achieve in a state with a rapidly increasing foster care population.
Bursting at the seams
According to West Virginia’s Legislative Foster Care Report, there are currently 7,095 youth in foster care in this state as of April 30. That means more than 7,000 children who are in the custody of the state due to abuse or neglect — or both — on the part of their parent or guardian. That’s up from 4,366 five years ago, in April 2014. About 850 of those 7,000 children are from Kanawha County.
Placements for these children span a broad variety of settings including: relative/kinship (which is preferred and required by law when relatives are available and appropriate), foster families, short-term shelters, group homes, treatment facilities and hospitals. Placement decisions are made based on law and policy, availability of foster homes and individual needs of the children.
As you might imagine, recruiting foster parents is a challenging task. While all nonprofits face challenges in asking for support, our “ask” is far harder than encouraging individuals to donate canned goods or to spend a Saturday volunteering. It involves asking an individual or family to “open your life” as our tagline sometimes reads, to share their home and family with a stranger, to love and attach to them with no guarantee of the outcome.
The primary goal of the foster care system is to reunify families — meaning, there is a temporary need to place children in a safe setting until their families can remedy the situation that brought their children into care of the state. At the same time, the child’s plan must include a “concurrent” plan, which the West Virginia Foster Care policy requires, in case the reunification doesn’t succeed.
The concurrent plan is often for foster parents to adopt.
According to the Bureau for Children and Families under the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the reunification rate for this state in 2017 was 58 percent, and the adoption rate was 28 percent.
Loving and caring for a child as if they are your own, keeping in mind the dual outcomes of reunification and adoption, is what we ask of foster parents every day. It is understandably a challenge.
My agency, Mission West Virginia, works with DHHR to recruit foster families across the state. We do this through a variety of recruitment methods, ranging from paid advertising to community open houses to word of mouth. We do not certify families — we are the starting point, with a staff person dedicated to providing information, helping families find a foster care/adoption agency in their area, answering questions and addressing fears.
You are needed
Encouragingly, a 2017 Harris Poll on behalf of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption found that almost one in three individuals in the United States (28 percent) have considered becoming foster parents. However, this poses the question: Why do only a small percentage of those families follow through? Time, commitment, qualifications, agency services and, of course, fear are all factors.
“I could never be a foster parent, I would get too attached.” After years of communication with potential families, I have no perfect answer but I have many thoughts on addressing this fear.
You are needed. There are more youth in care in West Virginia than ever before. Almost half (3,397) are placed with relatives. Those who cannot live with relatives need foster families, ideally located in their school district, their community or their home county.
Families are especially needed for sibling groups and teenagers. Placements become less than ideal (out of county, siblings separated) when there are not enough foster families. Fear of loss is valid, but families who truly want to help will need to weigh their need to protect their hearts against the needs of children who need and would benefit from their care.
Not all reunification efforts are successful. In more than 40 percent of the cases in West Virginia, reunification fails and the child or children are eligible for a more permanent placement.
Loss is a part of life. We all experience valuable relationships that positively affect us despite their temporary nature. The college roommate, the former co-worker — we enter into many relationships without evaluating their chances for permanency.
A reframing of foster parenting from “Will I be able to adopt?” to “How can I help this child at this moment in their life?” is a healthier approach that calms the sense of desperation that can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and loss throughout the case.
Getting too attached would make you a great foster parent. The need for young children to attach to their caregivers is well studied. The foster family home model works not just because they provide food and shelter but because foster families provide love and caring in a way that helps a child form healthy attachments. This will affect their development and relationships throughout their lifespan.
You can be part of something bigger than yourself and your family. Foster families can play a valuable piece in the reunification of a family. The model of foster families being anonymous and hidden is becoming outdated. We are seeing more success when both sets of families work together in the best interest of the children; foster families can provide mentoring to the biological family while both families can exchange information about the children.
In best-case scenarios, the foster family may stay on as mentors to the biological family meaning that, instead of loss, they experience the expansion of their extended family while helping to ensure that the children continue to thrive.
Foster parenting is not the right decision for every family, but it would be unfortunate to let fear be the only barrier when the need is so great.
Families interested in pursuing foster care in West Virginia can contact Mission West Virginia at missionwv.org/request-information, by emailing email@example.com or calling 1-866-225-5698. Mission West Virginia also hosts a resource library with books and other materials available through loan by mail.