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Fostering Our Children

by and on August 05, 2019 5:00 AM

We all know how traumatic it can be for a child to switch to a new school. New kids, new teachers and a new atmosphere can be difficult to navigate for any young person. For kids in foster care, already going through a difficult time, the additional stress of navigating yet another unknown in their lives can weigh heavily on them, compounding existing anxiety and complicating their trauma.

That is one of the reasons why the county tries to keep kids from Centre County in the region’s foster care system, so their relationships with friends, teachers and others who have acted as positive support structures can remain a constant in their lives, said Julie Heverly, foster home recruiter for Family Intervention Crisis Services of Bellefonte. Having that sense of familiarly can help provide comfort during a very difficult time. Any kind of positive commonality can help put kids at ease.

Distance can also hinder the process of reuniting a family, if the potential exists, as time in counseling together is a major factor in making this transition healthy and successful.

The problem is that there are not enough foster care families in Centre County to help those kids who need it, especially for groups of siblings that they try to keep together, said Heverly. Some youth end up having to leave the county, far away from their school, friends and family, and start over.

This past year Children and Youth Services has seen higher numbers of kids needing foster care.

Currently, 77 Centre County youth are living with foster families after being removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse, said Robin Cain, foster care specialist for CYS. This is trending higher from the past two years which saw numbers in the 50s and 60s.

“We have seen a spike recently, and that is because we have seen some sibling groups come into care recently and that makes our numbers spike,” said Cain.

She said there are 68 licensed Centre County CYS foster care homes in the county, but only eight of those are available at a given time — and half of those homes are only able to take a kid for night or two in an emergency.

“That leaves four families that could take a child longer term, and that could be providing care for them for a few weeks or a few months or if reunifications is not successful, possibly forever,” said Cain. “There are never enough homes for our foster kids.”

And to make things more difficult, most of the homes in Centre County are only available for kids aged zero to five years. This leads to too many kids placed in either foster care homes or facilities outside of the area. Uprooting them and making any kind of potential reunification with their family is difficult.

“So they are leaving their community and they are leaving their schools. Kids have a central connection to their community, to their school, to providers that they have been working with. Some people have a primary care physician or a doctor or a therapist their whole life. And then by needing to leave Centre County, they leave everything … their church, their school, their friends, their family, they lose everything pretty quickly,” said Cain. “By needing to leave Centre County they are losing those central connections.

“Knowing that they can stay in their home school and see their friends helps them so much. You know every connection that we lose when we move a kid, that is another trauma experience for them,” she continued. “Leaving Mom or Dad because of an abusive situation or why ever they have to come into foster care is then compounded by every loss they have. As much as we minimize those losses, it helps the kid to really be able to thrive in their environment and rebound from the trauma they have.”

Heverly said that just as soon as they train someone to be a new foster parent in Centre County, they end up placing kids with them, and immediately need more families.

“There is always a need for foster parents in Centre County,” said Heverly.

Heverly said loving foster parents can make a big impact on children who just need a little support, care and a safe place to grow, learn and live.

“You don’t have to be a perfect person to be a foster parent,” said Heverly. “We are just looking for caring people willing to take on the challenge.”

After all, being a foster parent is not “for the faint of heart,” said Heverly. But she said she hears often that it is an “awesome and humbling experience” that can help make families even stronger.

BEING A FOSTER PARENT

Hillary Harris can attest. Over the past 11 years, her family has helped 12 foster kids and adopted another child as an infant. They brought in every age group, from babies to teenagers, into their home, and while it certainly hasn’t been easy, she feels it has helped the family grow.

“We have gained a lot of humility,” said Harris. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in family therapy and her husband was a youth minister before they became foster parents. She said they realized quickly fostering children was a greater challenge than they were expecting.

“We thought, you know, we would provide them a home and treat them like our kids, but once we got these kids into our home, we quickly realized there is nothing we can do fix them,” said Harris. But with patience and the support of the whole family, she said they feel like they were able to make positive changes. From seeing the smile on the face of a 9-year-old boy who just had his first birthday party with friends, to seeing eyes widen on a kid’s first trip to the beach or just spending the time baking cookies with a little girl, she knows that her family is making a difference.

“It’s the simple things that make a difference and mean a lot to kids,” said Harris. Her biological kids grew as well, learning patience and to appreciate what they have.

She said keeping foster kids in their home community is a big deal for them because they have enough to deal with besides traveling and starting school someplace new.

“One of the sad realities is that being a foster kid is like having a part-time job,” said Harris. “After school, you have visits, and therapy and this appointment, and all you just want is to be a kid. Having to travel for these things only makes it more difficult to be that.”

She said having to go to a new school and make new friends “adds another layer to their trauma.”

BECOME A FOSTER PARENT

For those who are considering becoming foster parents, Harris suggests that everyone in the house, even the young kids, need to be on board. She said if you are married, the marriage needs to be in a good place, and if you are single you need to have a strong support system. She also said it is important to speak to people who have gone through the experience and know what it is like to bring a foster child into their home.

She said the training program provided is very good, but it is vital to be an active participant and ask questions. She said there is a lot of support for foster care families in the county. Harris said she has made wonderful relationships within the support network for these families.

She said Centre County is unique in that if offers a mentorship program for new foster parents, providing an experienced resource. And that is important because being a foster parent is a big commitment, but one that certainly means a lot to the kids who need it.

“We are talking about full-time care, 24/7,” said Heverly. She said they are always looking to provide permanency for children, whether that is by reuniting them with their family or relatives, or to provide permanency through adoption.

Cain said there are many supports offered by CYS and other agencies, and foster families receive a stipend to help cover extra costs associated with taking care of a child; yet becoming a foster parents is not a job, but a chance to make a difference for a kids in need, she said.

“Being able to be involved with a child who is in need, I think there is a lot to be able to make sure that our Centre County kids are able to stay home. I think there is a lot of satisfaction knowing that you were able to help somebody else in our community,” Cain said. “Most of our foster parents don’t do it for any other reason than they care about the kids and the families. Because the amount of time they invest in the kids and the families the small subsidy, while it helps, it is not a job, it is not a paycheck. They are doing it because they want to help out the kids who are in need.”

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent or learning more about the county foster care program, contact Centre County Children and Youth Services at (814) 355-6755.



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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