Imagine that you are five again. One day a few policemen and other adults show up at your house. They meet with your mother in the kitchen. You can tell that your mother is angry and upset. After awhile she comes into the living room. She sits down beside you and holds you tight. After a few seconds she tells you "I want you to go with this social worker. You will be living with another family for awhile. I hope to see you again real soon." Tearfully she gathers a few clothes and toys. You go out the front door, not knowing, or understanding what has just happened.
Imagine how you feel.
(There was a five second pause here)
This is how many children are placed in a foster care family. Often with no warning they are yanked from an unsafe home situation. They are placed with people they don't know, who have different rules, and expectations.
In our county about half of one percent of the children are placed in foster care every year. Unfortunately only half of them will eventually be reunited with their families. But even then, it will often be extended families, uncles and aunts, or grandparents. Many of these children have suffered neglect or abuse.
Ten percent of the children placed in foster care families in our county are babies. These are babies tested who tested positive for drugs at birth.
The foster care system is designed to protect children.
My wife and I are in the process of taking legally required classes to become foster parents. The following is some of what I have learned. I'll summarize the major points and encourage you to consider looking into being foster parents.
Here is a diagram of how children are ideally moved through foster care.
TAKEN and placed in an ESH
LONG TERM FOSTER
First someone initiates action by filing a report. This may be an anonymous report via the phone. It may be the result of some police involvement with a family. A neighbor may call in with a real, or imagined, concern.
Next there is an investigation. A social worker visits the home and makes a decision on what action to take. If there is reasonable concern the children will be removed from the home, often right then. If there is reason for concern, then the social worker won’t wait. The long term goal is for the family to change so that the home is safe. The social workers are directed to work to reunify children with their parents, and if that is not prudent, then they try to place the children with extended family.
After the children are taken from their home, they are placed in ESH, an Emergency Satellite Home. These foster parents will have a few hours warning. This is designed to be short term. At this point the social worker is just trying to find a safe place for children.
After a couple days the children may be moved to another foster care family. This is more long term. The social worker may have found a family which is a better match for the children. For example the new family is Latino and has a better appreciation for the culture of the children.
Once children are taken from their parents, the state becomes the legal parent. A judge makes decisions bases on recommendations from social workers and input from other involved parties. Everyone has a lawyer. The children have a lawyer. The social worker has a lawyer. The parents have a lawyer. Maybe each parent has a different lawyer. The foster parents may have a lawyer. The social worker acts as the eyes and ears for the judge. The overriding goal is always what is best for the children.
As I said earlier about half of the children placed in foster care are returned to their family. But this may not always be with mom and dad. Sometimes they will be placed with an uncle and aunt, or with grandparents. The judge will try to find relatives who will provide a safe and caring home. When possible the judge will try to keep siblings together.
The other half of the children end up with one of three outcomes:
1) They may just stay in the foster care system.
This often happens with teenagers. They will be adults in a couple years and they don’t want new parents. They just need a safe place till they turn 18.
2) A foster family may become the legal guardian.
Foster care parents are on a short leash. For example they can not give a child a haircut without permission from the social worker. Being the legal guardian allows the foster care parents more flexibility.
3) A family may adopt the children.
If a family is found which wants to take care of the child, a judge may rule that the family can adopt the children.
If you are interested in helping out, or just learning more, call your local foster care agency. They can provide you with information about how things work, and what you can do to help.
As I working on this speech I remembered the story of the starfish. The story goes that one day there was a huge storm. Thousands of starfish were thrown up on the beach. A man was walking down the beach after the storm and noticed a boy running up on the beach and then down to the water. As the man got closer he realized the boy was picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. When the man got close enough he asked the boy why he was bothering. The man pointed out that there were thousands of starfish on the beach and the boy couldn’t save them all. “You can’t make a dent with all these starfish, you can’t make a difference, why even bother?”
The boy picked a starfish and threw the starfish into the ocean. “I made a difference for that starfish.”
Foster care parents can make a huge difference in the life of a child.