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Today's word on journalism

January 13, 2009

Breakneck:

"I get the feeling that the 24-hour news networks are like the bus in the movie 'Speed.' If they stop talking for a second, they think they'll blow up."

--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 2008 (Thanks to alert WORDster Ross Martin)

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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 children."

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 bolster involvement.

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.

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