Foster families filling in where
original parents failed
By Debra Hawkins
Editor's note: Some names have been changed to
protect those in the system.
December 12, 2008 | "It snowed outside," 9-year-old
Ashley says, looking out the front window of her foster
parent's house. A few minutes later, after walking to
the back of the house, she exclaims, "Look, it snowed
it the back yard too."
After growing up in a house where meth was created,
her brain is unable to process the idea that when it
snows, it snows everywhere outside, not just where she
can see. Her brain is unable to process that idea at
9 years old.
Children like Ashley end up in foster care because
of the harmful and damaging environments in which their
parents have allowed them to be placed.
There has been a dramatic increase of the number of
children in foster care in the last 10 years, including
more than 50,000 children residing in some kind of foster
care in 2005, according to the American Academy of Children
and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Children being placed in foster care come into the
system for a variety of reasons, including neglect,
drug abuse by one or both parents, incarceration of
parents and behavioral problems in the child. Although
the ultimate goal in foster care is to return children
to their birth parents, the process of foster care can
take anywhere between six months and two years before
a child is returned to their parents or parental rights
are terminated and the child is available for adoption.
Typically, when a child is removed from parents, placement
with a close relative is sought before considering placing
the child with strangers.
According to the Division of Child and Family Services,
DCFS, there are more than 2,300 children in the custody
of the state of Utah alone. About 1,100 of those children
are in custody in the Salt Lake area, and with fewer
than 400 families licensed to take these children in,
there is a dire need for quality foster care in Utah.
In order to become a licensed foster family in Utah,
applicants must first complete an initial review with
a case worker, pass a background and reference check,
participate in an in-home inspection to see whether
or not the home is considered safe for children and
complete 32 hours of training.
Training for future foster parents includes classes
on the separation of children from parents, attachment
and all forms of child abuse and neglect.
"I didn't think it was that hard to become a foster
parent," said Rachel Sorensen, who has been a part of
the foster care program for the last seven years. "It
is harder being one than becoming one. When you get
the kids, you don't really anticipate what it is really
going to be like. You don't know. You can read it out
of a book and hear it in a class but until you experience
it, it is a whole other thing."
With children in foster care ranging from infants
to teenagers, from all different cultural and religious
backgrounds, information from DCFS said they feel it
is important to have a diverse group of foster parents
that can support children in their cultural and religious
beliefs in order to help provide increased stability
for the child.
In accordance with that same effort, DCFS said they
try to keep siblings together in foster homes whenever
possible. However, large groups of siblings are some
of the hardest cases to place and often get split up
simply because there is a shortage of foster parents
willing to take multiple children at a time.
Most foster parents in the program prefer to take
care of healthy, small children because typically these
children are seen as having fewer problems than teenagers
or the medically fragile.
Sorensen, who has taken in both infants and older
children, said taking in older children has been a bigger
strain on her family as a whole. Older children demand
more time and attention from the foster parent, leaving
them with less time to devote to their own children.
Sorensen said she thinks doing foster care is extremely
important but often feels she is on her own when it
comes to support for the children in her home.
"I think with the older kids, they have so many issues,"
Sorensen said. "There isn't really a lot of support.
They say here they are, do the best you can with them."
Sorensen said she typically works two to four hours
a night with the foster children in her home on their
homework. Most foster children she has worked with have
been really far behind when it comes to school work,
some not even knowing how to read when they are in the
fourth and fifth grades.
"It is hard when my own kids ask why I don't read
with them anymore," Sorensen said. "The foster kids
are there competing for my attention and they usually
get it because they need it. I have heard some people
say they can't do fostering until after their own kids
are gone, which I completely understand. It is hard
on your family."
Often, all children entering state custody have emotional
problems, usually having seen traumas in their life,
such as parents being abusive or addicted to drugs.
These children, medically fragile and teenagers alike,
need love, protection and understanding.
Sorensen said although sometimes these children can
be disruptive to her family, she finds it rewarding
when children leave a year later and can read, when
before they couldn't read a word.
"We had one little girl that before she came to us
she never slept at night because she was always scared."
Sorensen said. "The first night she came to our home
she slept. That makes you feel good that they know they
aren't going to get slapped but they are going to get
food. When you see those benefits and those good changes,
it makes the hard work worth it."
Usually, after a few short months in a family's care,
foster children become a part of the family, giving
them the acceptance and attachments they may have never
had. This acceptance effort is made before a placement
takes place to match the child's need to the family's
capabilities. This is done so as to not remove a child
from a foster home unless the change is back to their
parents or another relative.
After the emotional trauma of being taken away from
their parents, information from DCFS said the organization
prefers to transfer children as little as possible because
transferring only increases feelings of despair and
worthlessness in the children involved.
Sorensen said she has had a few children she felt
needed to be removed from her home earlier than planned
because of their disruptive behavior. She said she felt
like the state wasn't very supportive in her decision,
even though it was the right one for her family.
"It brings a lot of contention in your home. There
have been times when my husband didn't want to come
home because he had to share his home with somebody
who is wreaking havoc on the family," Sorensen said.
"The child kicked holes in the walls and destroyed things,
but it wasn't what he did to my stuff, because those
are just things; it was what he did to my husband and
Parents whose children are in the foster system have
anywhere from 6 to 18 months, depending on their progress
and the age of their children, to work through their
problems and regain custody of their children. If they
cannot meet the state's requirements, the children are
either placed for adoption or someone else is given
permanent custody of the child.
Usually, when a foster family adopts a child in their
care, they leave the foster care system, creating a
greater need for foster parents.
When Sorensen first entered the system, she took infants
into her home and was able to adopt one of the children
from the system. But she has stayed in the foster care
system to continue to help.
"You do foster care because you want to help," Sorensen
said. "You can look yourself in the mirror everyday
and say I am doing something good for society, I am
helping. I am doing something worthwhile even though
it is hard on me and hard on my family."
In 1994, Utah created the Utah Foster Care Foundation,
UFCF, to study why involvement in the state's foster
care system was declining and what they could do to
Sorensen said she feels the state needs to offer more
help to foster parents to keep them involved. The children
are usually offered therapy and Medicaid cards to help
take care of their medical needs, but the system often
overlooks their academic needs, she said. Sorensen said
she would like to see a system put in place to help
foster kids relearn the basics of reading, writing and
arithmetic, because most of the kids lack these skills
and are in danger of dropping out and following the
same trend as their parents.
"These children are just going to drop out if they
keep getting straight F's," Sorensen said. "They need
more help. They need to get the basics down so they
even have a chance in life."
Sorensen said she also feels there needs to be more
support for the foster parents. The state has what are
called cluster groups, where foster parents can talk
to other foster parents to help relieve stress, Sorensen
said. Sometimes it feels like the cluster groups are
not enough - too many foster parents feel like they
are on their own, she said.
"I would like to see more support for the foster parents,"
Sorensen said. "I have heard other foster parents say,
'The kids, they come in your door and the door shuts
and then you are on your own.' It needs to change."
Since the creation of the UFCF, the foundation has
been able to recruit and train more foster parents,
yet the need for more families, funding and programs
in the system is consistent.