The basic definition of family is “a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.” Digging into the foundation of family will reveal layers of love, support, discipline, safety, and stability for children. It’s when a home severely lacks stability that the Department Social Services (DSS) can step in.
In 2014 North Carolina had approximately 15,000 children in foster care statewide. Easter Seals UCP (ESUCP) helps place children across Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties. They provide support in the foster care system in a few ways.
First off, their annual “Carry On 4 Kids” collects gently used suitcases for children in foster care who leave their homes with little more than a trashbag of belongings. They also offer in-depth training for potential foster parents at least once a quarter to help prepare and establish more homes for children. The next training sessions begin Tuesday, September 8.
Like any other family unit, foster parents are younger or older, single or married, gay or straight. They already may have children or have never been a parent. What they typically have in common in the beginning is a bit of trepidation.
“I personally like it when people are a little hesitant,” says Pat Watson, licensing coordinator with Easter Seals UCP, “because it means they really thought seriously about [fostering] and understand the implications of taking a child who’s been pulled out of his or her biological home.”
The Easter Seals UCP is a therapeutic fostering program, which means many children they place need special care. Some children come from circumstances of physical or mental abuse. They may have special educational needs or require help with medication.
“Kids that have suffered trauma have some unique needs,” Watson continues. “We have a lot of children with behavioral problems and mental health issues because of that abuse. We have children that haven’t had the building blocks, like an infant’s had, as you progress along. They haven’t had anyone give them love and consistency.”
Over the course of six weeks and 12 sessions, foster parents in training learn everything from how to administer medication to being a child advocate. Easter Seals uses the Pressley Ridge Training, an evidence-based curriculum with specific steps and outcomes for parents to learn.
“We go into a variety of things, like child development, how to mitigate trauma, how to work with children who’ve been sexually abused,” Watson lists. Additionally, CPR and first-aid training is provided
There is also a class for parents on how to take care of themselves. “[Parents] can give and give, and if you don’t take care of yourself as a foster parent, burnout can happen,” Watson continues.
Becoming a foster parent doesn’t start and end with the classes. Minimum requirements to become a foster parent include being at least 21 years old, having a high-school diploma or GED, a driver’s license, and proof of financial stability. While foster parents must also obtain an approved fire inspection and clear background check, Watson schedules one-on-one meetings at the home to check for water hazards (which must be inaccessible to the child), rooms with separate beds, accessible closets and dressers for children. It’s also preparation and time for foster parents to get to know and build a relationship with a child placement coordinator—who act as a lifeline in many ways.
“We used to think of foster parenting like a Charles Dickens novel,” Watson says. “Now, our parents are so prepared between the classes [and] support of our agency. After they’re licensed and a child is placed in the home, all of our coordinators are out there every week and on the phone, as well as on-call 24/7. You’re never without a backup.”
While some children’s connection with their biological homes are terminated in the best interest of the child, there is an initiative to rebuild it. “The main goal is to return a child to his or her biological home,” Watson says. “While we’re working with a child in a foster home, with parents that are making the child feel safe and secure, DSS is usually working with the family.”
It’s common to have a preconceived notion if a child was taken from a home then it was because of a bad parent. Watson discourages such assumptions.
“The child may have been neglected because mom lost her job and dad left,” she rectifies. “So she loves her children, she just wasn’t able to provide for them. We train our parents to accept that. We’ve had foster parents work with [biological] parents, who listen to the successes they’ve had with their children. . . . Some even maintain that relationship after the child returns home.”
Families who work with DSS to regain guardianship typically have a plan in place and goals to meet. When appropriate, they practice “shared parenting” with the foster parents. “We try to maintain the connection if it’s possible and approved by DSS,” Watson continues. “You, as the foster parent, are trying to help a child maintain that connection, but not get back into the same routine that was a major problem at home.”
The shared parenting practice, however, can be intimidating for some. Moreover, the potential dangers associated with parents looking for their children at foster homes is often put to Watson.
“We get as much information about parents and the child as possible,” Watson reassures. “If DSS says it’s unsafe for the family, then a plan is in place that there will be no connection. Confidentiality is a huge part of fostering for the family and child’s protection.”
While some would-be foster parents come into classes with a “deer in headlights” look, the big picture is instilling confidence in providing a stable home for a child—for as long as they may need it. “Our agency maintains a goal of ‘no moves,’ because each one is traumatic for kids,” Watson says. She cites one boy who had to move six times over the course of four months because of few placement options. “We have some folks come in and say, ‘We’ll try,’” Watson continues. “Well, that doesn’t sit with me very well. You’re committed.”
The Easter Seals works with children from birth to 17 years old. It is common for potential parents to come in with the intention to foster children of a certain age.
“We have a lot of people that want a 2-year-old or younger, and we take note of that preference and what works with that home and family,” Watson tells. “I don’t want to try and push. If you think a 6-year-old is not appropriate, tell me. It’s a matching process.”
Other foster parents come in with the intention to adopt, which Watson takes into account as well. “I ask that from the beginning because I will try to make a match that can evolve into [adoption],” she says.
Though there is a lot of effort into properly pairing foster parents and children, if there’s an issue, more support is provided. Easter Seals offers additional counseling and help as needed. Watson says, “If it just isn’t working then that child will come back and we’ll find another placement—but that is last resort.”
Typically about 60 percent of potential foster parents complete the free training, as some plans and circumstances change. Others realize it’s not their calling. “It’s not bad,” Watson explains. “I don’t want to put anyone in foster care with a parent that really has serious concerns.”
Depending on when training is completed and other requirements are met (parents have two years after training to obtain their license), children are often placed in a home within 4 to 6 months.
Foster training classes will begin Tuesday, September 8 at the ESUCP office at 5040 New Centre Drive in Wilmington. Call Pat Watson at (910) 790-5921 ext. 8337 for more information.