Foster Families Crucial to Helping Children in Crisis
Apr 30, 2016 12:07PM
● Published by North Hills Monthly magazine
By Patty Langer
Every child deserves to be loved, protected and well cared for, and in a perfect world, a child’s parents provide all of these things. But the world is not perfect. Lives can be uprooted by physical or mental illness, addiction, tragedy or financial burdens. And sometimes, children suffer as a consequence. In those instances, the foster care system steps in, providing safe shelter and compassionate support to children whose family situations are unstable.
There are approximately 400,000 children in the national foster care system, yet it’s an issue that is often overlooked. We don’t encounter foster children on a daily basis; or perhaps we do, but are unaware of it. According to the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children (PPC) there are currently 22,510 foster children in the state and 2,532 foster children in Allegheny County alone.
“The need for foster families in our area is huge, particularly for children over the age of eight,” said Christina Sutton, clinical supervisor of the foster care program at Bethany Christian Services in Wexford.
A Brief History
Throughout our country’s history, religious and private organizations have cared for orphaned and neglected children. In the 1800s, most of those children lived in orphanages, group homes or even with families who used them as free labor. In the early 1900s, the federal government created The Children’s Bureau to improve the overburdened system through a series of laws, regulations and funding. Eventually, institutionalized care was replaced with the foster care system we know today.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was enacted to further protect the welfare of foster children while ensuring they would not be shuffled from home to home indefinitely. The law encourages reunification of the family as the primary goal, but places the health and safety of the child first. A practice called concurrent parenting, whereby agencies work to reunite a child with his/her biological family while simultaneously identifying foster and adoptive alternatives, was encouraged to replace the traditional system of sequentially moving through the process.
To raise awareness of the ongoing needs of children in the foster system and encourage citizens to get involved, President Ronald Reagan established May as National Foster Care Month
Finding Safe, Nurturing Homes
Bethany Christian Services, a national leader in adoptions and foster care, embraces the goal of family reunification, placing strong emphasis on the core Christian tenants of love, forgiveness and healing. According to the agency’s website, “Bethany aims to strengthen the biological family and support the child through crisis, so that the child can return home to a safe and nurturing family.”
The ultimate goal of fostering is to provide temporary help, support and guidance to a child who has been separated from his or her family. But as anyone in the system will tell you, it’s not an easy job. Foster parents commit to providing a stable and nurturing environment for a child in crisis, while simultaneously respecting the bond a foster child has with his/her biological family. Emotional struggles and daily uncertainties abound, yet foster parents must maintain a solid sense of purpose.
“Good foster parents want to help be a part of the healing process for a child,” said Sutton.
There are no typical cases when it comes to fostering, requiring foster parents to be open-minded and flexible. One local foster mom (name withheld for privacy) said that she has fostered children for both short term (less than three months) and longer term (12-15 months) periods. Acknowledging the many challenges, this foster mom said the reward is in knowing that she’s keeping a child safe while providing an opportunity for the biological parent to heal.
She became involved in the foster care system after attending the Northway Orphan Care Expo held each fall at Northway Christian Church in Wexford. “I felt like it was a calling from God,” she said.
The foster care system is highly regulated, and each state has a licensing procedure that takes about six months. Federal clearances and home inspections are required, and financial stability must be proven to deter misguided opportunists. Prospective foster parents learn how to deal with a range of issues they may encounter, such as trauma, grief, attachment and loss. Most agencies offer post-placement support as well.
“We’ve been fortunate that Bethany introduced us to other foster parents in the area, enabling us to create a support network,” said the foster mom.
Being a foster parent is an opportunity to make a real difference in the life of a child; in the life of a family. It is not, however, for everyone. There are many other ways that people can help, including considering becoming a mentor or foster grandparent; offering pro bono therapy services; providing free babysitting for foster parents or sending college care packages to foster care alumni. The nonprofit organization Together We Rise also collects donated suitcases and duffle bags for foster children.