Foster parents combine passion and preparedness to care for children in need
By Ann McCreary
In Okanogan County there are 50 licensed foster homes. In the Methow Valley, there is a grand total of one.
When a child must be removed from a home, the goal is to try to keep the child in the community if possible. Here in the Methow Valley, that can be difficult.
“In your area, there are not that many resources” for children needing foster care, said Jeff Kincaid, area administrator of foster home licensing in Okanogan County for Children and Family Services.
Melissa MacDougall works to recruit foster parents in Okanogan County, to make sure those children who are removed from their homes are placed in a safe, caring foster home.
MacDougall is the liaison for Fostering Together, a program that works with the state Department of Social and Health Services to recruit foster parents. Like most liaisons for Fostering Together, MacDougall, an Okanogan attorney, is a foster parent herself.
She helps people through a lengthy, complex licensing process to become foster parents, and then provides support to them through the challenges they face as foster parents.
Fostering Together makes sure prospective foster parents know that the job comes with many challenges, because “these kids come with issues,” MacDougall said.
Nearly all foster children have been neglected, abused or sexually abused. In some cases a parent may have died, or be unable to parent for some other reason, Kincaid said.
Police may find children in a home while carrying out a drug bust, or in a car driven by a drunk parent, he said.
“Most people don’t see this side of life,” said Kincaid. “It’s horrible what happens to kids and that’s why we need these people [foster parents] to … show them what a home is like, some glimpse of what is normal.”
Kincaid grew up with parents who had three children of their own, took in many foster children, and adopted 17 children. He and his wife are also adoptive parents of five children.
“Whenever I give talks about this subject, I tell people one of the main characteristics of foster parents is — they’re crazy,” Kincaid said.
They are “crazy” enough to care about children, even kids who swear at them or try to run away, he said.
“If they think being a foster parent is only about being seen as altruistic and noble, it’s not likely to work,” Kincaid said. “Foster parents have this quality … a passion to give back. It’s something from their heart that draws them to serve their community and these kids.”
People with that passion to give back are willing to go through the time-consuming and invasive process of becoming licensed as a foster care provider.
In her liaison role, MacDougall is there to help people through licensing. “Most parents, when they are going through the licensing process are ready to pull their hair out. Generally you can do it in 90 days. If you are fairly devoted and, like me, pushy, you can do it.”
The licensing process begins with an orientation session and caregiver trainings that focus on the child welfare system, the effects of trauma grief, loss and attachment, and the effects of care giving on the family.
“You’re scared to death in those trainings,” MacDougall said. “They tell you the worst. They want to make sure you’re ready.”
The licensing process also involves close examination of the people and environment in the prospective foster home. This includes an extensive application; criminal background checks; income assessments; personal, psychological and marriage histories; medical evaluations; extensive interviews with the prospective parents and an on-site home study.
“We’re going to try to turn over everything we can find,” Kincaid said. “We try to be sensitive and careful when walking through this … sometimes we find people with wounds that haven’t healed, or who have had things that happened to them as children.”
Prospective foster parents must also complete training in first aid, HIV/AIDS and CPR.
As part of the training and orientation, prospective foster parents are also made aware of what may be the most difficult part of taking in foster children — letting them go.
“The No. 1 goal is reunification” of foster children with their biological families, MacDougall said. While some foster parents may hope for adoption, they can’t count on it.
“The risk is first and foremost to your heart — that a child you love may leave. What people fear most is they’re going to fall in love with a child and that child is going to go back to their home,” MacDougall said.
“But there are no guarantees in life are there? I’ve been in that position and it’s absolutely terrifying,” MacDougall said. “But if you’re doing this for the child, how can you not?”
While a child is in foster care, court hearings are held regularly to review whether parents have made progress in correcting the problems that resulted in their child being removed.
Those hearings also address issues such as parent visitation, what services parents and children need, when children might be returned home or whether a petition to terminate parental rights should be filed.
If a child’s social worker determines that the child can’t safely return home, the court may terminate parental rights and the child may be legally “free” for adoption. Birth parents may also voluntarily relinquish parental rights, and some may opt for an “open adoption” that permits visitation and an ongoing relationship with their child.
Recognizing that young adults often have difficulty making it on their own, Washington state recently passed an extended foster care law allowing adopted children 18-21 years old to “sign themselves back into foster care … so they don’t have to leave and be on the streets,” Kincaid said.
Foster homes are licensed for three years. In order to retain the license, foster parents are required to take 36 hours the first licensing period, 30 the second three years, and 24 from then on, MacDougall said.
More care needed
Throughout the state, there is an ongoing need for more foster parents, Kincaid said. About 9,500 kids are currently in foster care in the Washington with approximately 4,700 foster homes to place them in, he said. “There is a huge need for more homes,” Kincaid said.
Among the greatest needs are foster homes that can accept children from particular populations, such as toddlers or teens, MacDougall said.
“In an ideal world, all foster children would be placed into a home that fully met their emotional, cultural, and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, a lack of available foster homes often results in siblings being separated and children placed into homes that may not understand their unique cultural background,” according to information from Fostering Together.
Social workers strive to find the most appropriate placement for foster children. Sometimes, however, “it means calling for hours trying to find a bed,” especially when emergency, after-hours placement is needed, Kincaid said.
With infants, for example, a foster home needs to have a crib available and the foster parents must have flu vaccinations. With groups of siblings, a home must be found with room for two or more children in order to avoid separating them, Kincaid said.
Sometimes social workers find an initial, safe placement for children overnight, and follow up the next day to find a home that better meets the social, emotional or health needs of children, Kincaid said. In some cases foster parents may be temporarily authorized to take additional children beyond the number for which they are licensed.
Foster parents are also a great source of information, letting social workers know of other foster families in their community with room for another child or two. “Foster parents are close. They know the resources in their community. It truly is a team effort to get kids in placement,” Kincaid said.
To try to meet specialized needs, foster parents can receive training and support to work with particular groups of children. These include sibling groups of three or more; Native American, African American, Hispanic or other children of color; children who need behavioral and emotional support; gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender children; and children with significant medical issues.
“There are some remarkable parents out there,” Kincaid said. “Some people have this gift of dealing with difficult teenagers. Some care for medically fragile babies. And there are some who are perfectly capable of taking care of kids zero to 18 years old,” Kincaid said.
Foster parents receive a reimbursement rate depending on the needs of the children they serve. The basic rate begins at about $500 per month from the state for each foster child, and vouchers for milk, cheese and other basic foods are available through the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. But the reimbursement usually doesn’t cover the actual costs incurred by foster parents in caring for their children, Kincaid said.
“We consider them volunteers. They take the children because they care,” he said. “I have nothing but admiration for foster parents. They’re willing to open their homes to more and more children.”
Information about foster parenting in Washington is available on the Fostering Together website: fosteringtogether.org.