The Need Is Huge, and So Is the Return

A family is where children should feel safe, wanted and worthy. When a family must be separated, for just a short while or longer, it’s difficult for everyone involved and, too often, the children are left feeling unloved and alone.

This is where Oklahoma’s foster families step in. Foster families help fill a void while attempts are made to ultimately reunite the family, whenever possible. Unfortunately, there is always a shortage of these amazing families. I spoke with Rachel Williamson, recruitment and development supervisor, Cleveland, Lincoln and Pottawatomie County Child Welfare Services, Foster Care and Adoptions, about the need for more people to foster children and how to get started.

Please tell me about the need for foster families in Oklahoma.

Children come into DHS custody every single day, and we always want to have the best family to meet each child’s specific needs. The children in custody are ages newborn to 17, and many are part of a sibling group that needs to be placed together, so it is vital to recruit foster families who are willing to accept sibling groups. Like every child, children coming into state custody have their own unique needs. Some of the children have learning challenges or medical needs. Some are LGBTQ. All of the children have experienced some level of trauma, whether that is from the abuse or neglect they have suffered or because of their removal from their biological parents and/or siblings. Often, trauma masks itself as a behavioral problem because children are not able to verbalize their feelings in the same ways as adults. We need foster families who are willing to learn trauma-focused care and put it into practice in their homes for these children.

We are in need of all types of families to foster, including single parents, married or separated parents, same-sex couples, multi-generational households, etc. The needs of every child cannot be met by one specific type of family.

How many children are waiting for placement with a foster family? What is the normal wait time? Can you share some statistics?

As of Jan. 1, we have over 8,000 children in DHS custody statewide. This changes daily as children come into custody, or are reunified with their biological families or, when that can’t be safely done, adopted by forever families. When we can’t find a safe placement for the child with their own family or someone known to the child like a teacher or neighbor, known as a kinship placement, we need to have foster families able to step in the gap and offer a safe, temporary home for the child while their family gets the help they need. We have just over 4,000 traditional and kinship foster homes statewide and will always have the need to recruit additional families. Families can choose the ages, as well as the needs and behaviors they will accept. The amount of time it takes to accept your first placement after you have been approved varies largely based upon what a family says they will accept. However, we hope our families will be open-minded to the types of children they will accept into their homes, as we have a great need for families for large sibling groups, teens and children with special needs.

Cleveland County has 366 children in DHS custody. Of those, 115 are in traditional foster homes and 152 are in kinship foster homes. The remaining 99 children are in a mixture of placements, such as adoptive homes, group homes, residential treatment or hospitals, shelters, therapeutic foster care, tribal foster care or trial reunification. Some are placed outside of Cleveland County, which makes family visitation and important connections, such as school or friends, more difficult. Nineteen siblings are currently separated. We need enough foster families in every community to keep children within their home community and close to the people they care about, as well as their own schools.

Why are foster families so important?

Foster families serve in multiple roles for children and their families. They are the safe place for the children to be during what is usually a crisis situation for the biological family. They are also mentors to the biological family and can help walk them through the process of reunifying with their children. Foster parents often continue to maintain relationships with their former foster children and their biological parents once reunification has occurred, as a support. We believe that no child can have too many adults who love them.

In some cases, foster parents may provide a permanent home by adopting the children placed in their home if the court determines that reunification is not possible. They are also advocates for the children and their biological families.

One of our foster parents related the following: “Fostering is so important to me because the kiddos that come into foster care didn’t ask to be there. If it weren’t for foster parents like myself and many others, there would be no homes for these kiddos to live. The sweet kids in foster care deserve a loving and safe place to call home while their parents get their problems worked out.”

How can people decide if fostering might be right for them?

They can call and talk with a recruitment specialist in their county to ask any questions they may have. Sometimes, families are not sure what questions to ask so they can also call a recruitment specialist and say, “Tell me what I need to know about foster care.” Some counties also host information nights for interested families to come and learn about foster care.

How does one get involved in fostering? What are the requirements/prerequisites? What training is involved?

Foster families must be 21 or older. They can be single, divorced, married or legally separated. They must have space for additional children in their home with an individual bed available for each child.

The assessment process for foster families includes multiple background checks, including criminal, driving record, fingerprints, military, child welfare records, public records and sometimes out-of-state criminal and child welfare records. It also involves references, a house assessment, a home study and 27 hours of training.

Tips for Preparing Your Home for Fostering

•             Prepare a bedroom with beds, dresser, a few toys and clothes for various sizes/ages

•             Keep extra toothbrushes, pajamas and stuffed animals on hand for late-night placements

•             Talk to your children about fostering so they know what to expect

•             Check for potential safety issues in your home

•             Be sure smoke detectors and fire extinguishers have been tested/batteries changed recently

•             Expect the unexpected. Sometimes the child who comes to your home is not the one you were expecting, so it is important to be flexible.

•             Understand that children in foster care have experienced trauma, and they need you to meet them where they are. They need you to help them and their biological families heal.