By Casey Chaffin
Two weeks ago, three siblings came to the Department of Human Services Child Welfare Office for foster placement. Immediately, several Child Welfare staff began trying to find one foster home for all three kids, because sustaining remaining family ties is a priority. Other work was cast aside, and they spent an entire day searching for a placement.
They were unsuccessful.
“We ended up separately placing them in three different homes and out of county,” said Gwen Slippy, Marion County’s Foster Parent Recruitment, Retention and Training Specialist. No Marion County foster homes had the space.
This is a day in the life of the DHS Child Welfare Office. As of the latest DHS Child Welfare count, there were 603 kids in foster care in Marion County. 204 of those kids are in “child specific” homes, meaning they’ve been placed with certified relatives or with other people in their lives who certified their home for fostering. That leaves the remaining 399 children to be placed in 77 general-certified homes—an average of about five foster children per home.
According to DHS policy, single foster parents may have up to four children, including their biological children, in the home. Couples may have up to seven children in the home. Due to an extreme shortage of certified foster parents, these higher numbers are the new normal for those fostering.
These circumstances are especially difficult when a single foster home takes on multiple children who aren’t related to each other. In this instance, “It could be that that foster parent is working four different cases, which means four different caseworkers, four different attorneys, four different visits per week. Not every home is that way, but to give that perspective for some homes, that’s the craziness of it,” said Slippy. “It’s a lot for them to manage and they’re carrying a really heavy burden.”
The system has not always lacked so many foster homes. In the early 2000s, when Oregon was suffering from a methamphetamine epidemic, thousands of foster children entered the system all at once. For several years, over 1,100 children were in care on a monthly basis in Marion County. DHS orchestrated a huge push for foster families, and the community came through. But after that push, many of those foster parents adopted their foster children, and subsequently stopped opening up their homes to new kids.
The number of children in care has lowered considerably since then; yearly averages show around 650 children in care. But the system is struggling to keep up. As Erma Brundidge, a Child Welfare foster parent certifier said, “Our number of foster kids isn’t as high, but we do have fewer foster homes and those fewer children in care are tougher.”
Brundidge has held different roles within DHS Child Welfare for almost 20 years, and she’s seen a shift in the kids arriving in care. Behavioral problems among children in foster care have intensified in recent years. While Brundidge isn’t sure of the cause, they know that the kids who come into care “require more time and energy and skill level” from foster families, Brundidge said.
Foster families can rise to the occasion of dealing with difficult behavioral problems, but they must have the “desire to learn those skills and can invest some time upfront,” she said.
This is why all foster parents, regardless of whether they’re related to the child, must complete foster parent certification training. For initial certification, foster parents must attend a set of eight, three-hour sessions, which cover everything from working with a child’s biological family to child development to sexual abuse and trauma and how those circumstances impact a child’s behavior. On top of these classes, DHS requires an additional six hours of trainings to become certified.
These additional trainings can take the form of DHS-offered classes in topics like extreme behavioral issues and how to deal with the grief of saying goodbye to a child who’s been in the home for a long time, but training hours can also come from attending counseling sessions with a foster child or reading books specific to the child’s case; these details can be worked out with one’s certifiers. After initial certification, foster parents are asked to complete 30 hours of training every two years for re-certification.
Aside from formal trainings, Slippy and Brundidge are dedicated to receiving foster parents in their office and working through issues together. This is part of DHS’s effort to change the culture within the agency after the recent state audit of the foster care system.
“Our new DHS director and Child Welfare director are helping the culture of our agency to shift, in that this is a service agency and when you serve people you serve each other and serve in a bigger picture,” Slippy said. For more on DHS’s response to the recent audit, see side bar.
What’s most important for foster parents, Brundidge and Slippy emphasized, is to understand the limits of their knowledge: fostering a child who’s been abused and traumatized won’t be the same as raising one’s own biological child. The ideal foster parent, Brundidge said, is “someone who doesn’t think they have all the answers and would approach it just like a brand-new parent approaches parenting.”
Just like a new parent, foster parents need support from those around them. Slippy and Brundidge emphasize the role of the community in creating successful foster homes. There aren’t enough foster parents but there also isn’t enough support for current foster parents. There’s a role for those in the community to play, whether that’s in babysitting or transportation of the child when the foster parents to attend an appointment or in moral support when a foster parent is struggling to cope with a new child.
“If [community members] can’t have the child in their home, they could help support a family by bringing in a dinner or any of those simple things,” Brundidge said.
In addition, recasting the role of the foster parent as a community service is important. Community members should acknowledge how much dedication it takes to be a good foster parent.
“I honestly believe if we can have a mentality of thankfulness and acknowledgement, we could go far beyond reaching out and getting foster parents,” Brundidge said.