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by Betty Waring
In Southern Maryland there are special children who for various reasons are in need of a temporary home in order for them to be in a stabilized and more nurturing environment. Foster homes offer social workers and others in charge of helping these children a place to turn. These homes are often a ray of light providing love, friendship and good role modeling to children who could use a lot of each. According to Robbie Loker, Assistant Director for Communications and Community Initiatives in St. Mary’s County, “Each child has his or her own story,” she said, adding that, “The people who foster parent have a special gift for it.”
Being a foster parent requires a person to be extremely flexible in many ways. Sometimes a call can come in for immediate assistance on a moment’s notice. A call came to foster parent Ms. Palmer on a Friday one December. The foster care worker told her that he had a baby who needed a home that day. The little one was only three months old. “We’re here. I’ll have everything ready when you get here,” Palmer told him. That baby turned out to be the youngest foster child Ms. Palmer has cared for. Sometimes foster parents can only hope that they have helped in some way, often not knowing what the outcome will be. Ms. Palmer also cared for Hope, who came into her home at about a year old. Hope suffered from malnutrition and neglect. Not long after coming she was returned to her family who either could not or would not meet her needs. Hope was placed back into foster care and Ms. Palmer wondered about her.
Often times struggling parents just need an opportunity to get their lives in order so that they can provide a better home for their child or children. For instance, Ms. Smith had a college level education and a fairly lucrative job when she developed a substance abuse problem. Because of that she lost her job, her home, and her son Sam who was placed in the foster care of Ms. Harmon. Sam was two years old. His mother, devastated, resolved to pull her life back together. A few months later Sam returned to her. She was living in a motel room that lacked a refrigerator and place to cook. Sam soon went back to the Harmon’s home. Ms. Smith didn’t give up and neither did Social Services. Today, Ms. Smith is able to hold down a job while she raises Sam. She still maintains contact with Sam’s foster parents, even inviting them to birthday parties. Sam does not remember foster care.
According to Doreen McKenzie, Assistant Director at Calvert County Department of Social Services, foster care is “an alternative living arrangement for kids abused or neglected, and it is always temporary.” The older the child, the more memories and ties he or she will have to the birth parents, of course. “Most foster care children in Calvert are adolescent or teenagers. Even siblings sometimes need care and we try to keep them together,” said McKenzie. Currently there are approximately 80 children in foster homes in the county.
Keeping in mind that the welfare of the child is where the focus should always be, social service departments in Maryland recently developed the “Family to Family,” approach to foster care. The goal is to have foster parents work directly with the birth parents so perhaps the foster parents can serve as positive role models to the often times struggling birth parents, all the while making sure that the welfare of the child is the central focus.
In order to facilitate the success of this type of approach to foster care, it is important that the foster parents and biological parents live in the same neighborhood or community.
To become a foster parent, a person is required to participate in a training program called Parent’s Resource for Information, Development and Education or PRIDE. This is a statewide program. It requires a social worker to do a residence inspection in order to be sure that the foster home meets safety requirements. It is mandatory for prospective foster parents to attend nine three-hour sessions of class designed to prepare them for the challenges of foster parenting. Understanding that children in foster care have many feelings about what is happening to them facilitates a successful foster situation for both the caregiver and the child. These children often have special needs and foster parents must learn how to interact with them in a way that will be most effective.
Being a foster parent is also a financial obligation as well. Foster parents must have enough income to cover the costs of caring for a child, even though a stipend is paid each month to help cover the foster child’s needs. Marital status isn’t considered, but anyone wanting to become a foster parent must be over the age of 21. Background checks are conducted and once completed a foster parent license can be issued and is good for one year. After the one year period is over, the foster parent’s home will be re-evaluated and continuing education will be provided in order to keep the license current.
The goals of foster care are “safety and permanent guardianship,” said Jeanne Schmitt, Assistant Director for Services of the St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services in St. Mary’s County, where there are currently approximately 90 children in foster care homes. Schmitt explained that the steps involved in the foster care process are to first, reunite the child with the birth parents; second, place the child with a relative or third arrange for adoption. Lastly, it may become necessary to place a child in long-term foster care. This last option is most apt to happen if the child is older and does not want to be adopted. A child can be in foster care for no more than 15 months of the 22 months following his or her entry into foster care. Within that time, the child sometimes goes home but may return to the foster family. During this time help is provided to the birth parents to help them work through their problems. After 22 months a federal mandate kicks in to have the child permanently placed.
“We see more neglect than abuse,” Schmitt said. She pointed out that the majority of kids in foster care in St. Mary’s County are adolescent or teenagers.
Foster children who are 15.9 years old can be part of an independent living program. They’ll learn basic skills such as how to balance a checkbook, shop, budget their money, fill out an application for a job or college, as well as learn about personal hygiene.
Both Loker and Schmitt point out that many organizations and companies take an interest in helping foster kids. One company, for example, supplied foster children all over the state with a duffle bag for their belongings. Every fall a local church has a clothing drive to help children in foster care. Vacation bible school children made fifty to sixty care kits, baggies filled with toiletries such as soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a little note that said, “Smile, God Loves You.” When August comes, a defense contractor donates back to school backpacks, paper, pencils, and pens.
According to Judy Wilson, Assistant Director for Family Adult and Children Services for Charles County, foster children in the county come “in a variety of ages.” Currently the county has 147 children in foster care homes. “It used to be more teenagers but now we’re seeing all ages,” she said. As in St. Mary’s County, the Christmas spirit in Charles County lasts throughout the year. Some Girl Scouts in the county have an ongoing project of collecting toiletries, putting them in baggies and then taking them to social services to give to children when they go into foster care. The Haircuttery donates certificates so that foster kids can have a free haircut at back-to-school time. During the holiday season social services throws a Family to Family party for the kids, their parents and foster parents. The children receive a gift donated by local merchants.
Often foster parents do not know what happens to the child after he or she leaves their care. But this wasn’t the case with Hope. Ms. Palmer adopted her. She is almost grown now. So for anyone uncertain of what a difference foster parenting can make in the life of a child, be assured, it can make a big one.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent call your local Social Services office, Charles County 301-392-6600; St. Mary’s County 240-895-7053 and Calvert County 410-286-2100.
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