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A call for foster families
Fewer kids in the system but more foster parents needed

05/08/14



 About 20 years ago, Marge Bouchard accompanied a friend to a local foster care agency. Her friend was hoping to become a foster parent, and Bouchard was looking forward to babysitting the child. 

It turned out her friend wasn’t eligible because she didn’t have a high school degree, but Bouchard decided to become a foster care parent herself. 
“Later on, I adopted four kids,” she said. “You grow to love them.”
About 800 kids are currently in the state’s foster care program — too many, considering the much smaller number of foster care parents available.
 
Fewer kids in foster care 
In the past five years the number of children in the foster care system has decreased by about 200, said Kathleen Companion, foster care manager with the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families. There has been a greater emphasis placed on timeliness and preventing the need for kids to be in long-term foster care (more than 12 months). 
“We’ve been trying to look at the most efficient use of the money we get from legislators,” Companion said. “We are saying, let’s work hard to get children back to their own families so they don’t have to be languishing in foster care.”
Speeding up the process means increased “solutions-based casework” with birth parents to help ensure they step up and change the things that are a danger to children. But in some cases parents can’t make the necessary changes because of issues like drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness. In those cases, the New Hampshire court system will terminate the parents’ rights and find people to adopt the children. 
“That doesn’t happen any sooner than 12 months,” said Eileen Mullen, administrator with the Division of Children, Youth and Families. “But 12 months is a long time, so we have to make a decision — are we going to intensively work with birth families or are we going to seek determination rights?”
In the majority of the cases, kids go back to their birth parents, but when that isn’t possible, foster care parents often adopt them. Some people who sign up to foster children do so with plans to adopt, while others, like Bouchard, make up their minds along the way. 
 
Foster parents needed
Despite the shrinking numbers, the need for foster care parents is growing, Companion said. That’s partially because foster parents who go on to adopt no longer have the capacity to house other children.  The vast majority of the times that children are not able to go back home — 98.1 percent — they are adopted by their foster parents. 
The more foster parents available, the more likely children will find the right living situation. Finding a good match for each child can be challenging, said Mullen. Most importantly, social workers try to find homes within a child’s school district, and there aren’t enough foster families for that. 
“We need homes in every community in New Hampshire. The last thing we want to do is move them away from their district so in addition to the trauma of moving from their birth parents they have to meet all new teachers and make new friends,” said Mullen. 
There are other benefits to a larger foster parent pool too. Some qualified foster parents would prefer to house one sex over another, or there are certain behaviors they aren’t able to handle. Some kids can’t be with other kids, due to trauma, and others cannot live in homes with pets. 
There is also a rising demand for parents who are able to take two, three or more siblings together. 
“We’ve seen an increase of requests for people who will take sibling groups,” said Michelle Galligan, foster care recruiter for New Hampshire Health and Human Services. “It’s become more challenging to place them.”
While children in the system range from less than 1 to 18 (or 21 years old in cases of developmental disability) teenagers are the hardest to find homes for. 
“We always need homes for teenagers because many people are afraid of them,” Mullen said. “We have children who have been in the system for a number of years, waiting for adoption.”
Before becoming foster parents, applicants are thoroughly screened. They go through a licensing process that involves background checks and home inspections by local fire and health departments. They must submit the names of references, go through fingerprinting and criminal record screening, and successfully complete Foster & Adoptive Care Essentials training.
Foster parents don’t need to own their home or be married to participate, and they are given a stipend that pays for the needs and care of the children. 
“They don’t need to be going broke to take care of the kids,” Galligan said. “Most insurance is taken care of by the state. The stipend is ... higher depending on the child’s need for things like medical and disabilities expenses.” 
 
What it’s like 
Thirty-two years ago Carol Enman talked with her husband about fostering a child. They thought they always had a little extra food that went to waste, and so it would be a good idea to take in just one child. 
“In May I got one and in July I got another,” she said. “Every time the phone rang I would listen to a story about this needy child and I couldn’t say no.” 
The best foster parents have a sense of humor, patience and a desire to help a child even through the hard times, Galligan said. They also have the strength of character to work with the biological family as a mentor and role model.  
“It’s rewarding because you see the outcome of the child,” Enman said. “They are happy for everything and anything they get, which is nice, and it just brings a lot of joy in the home. Everybody goes, ‘Oh how can you do that? You must be a saint.’ It’s not really like that; they help me out.”
Enman is now fostering four siblings ranging from 9 months to 8 years old. She treats them like her own children and has established a daily routine that works. In the morning they she gets them up and ready for the day, gives them breakfast, drops the older ones off at school and does errands with the younger ones. After school, the kids play outside together, do some reading, watch TV, eat supper together and do homework.  
But elements of foster parenting veer away from typical family life. It can take a while for children to get comfortable with the routine of their new home. Some kids are more challenging than others because they’ve experienced some serious trauma. 
In these cases, it’s best to have a support system, and a calming hobby or two, said Bouchard. 
“We have support between foster parents. If we know we have a child that’s hard-knocks, we will support each other,” she said. “And we all have something we love to do, a craft or cooking, that makes it go away somewhat. … You get that little mental time you need to clear your head and relax. I crochet a lot.”
Sometimes Enman fosters children who have been separated from their siblings, and then she makes sure they call and see each other. She also ensures kids speak regularly with their birth parents, and that the birth parents feel their kids are safe with her. 
“My outlook on that is, it could have been me that needed extra help,” Enman said. “I could have been them. It’s nice to meet them and tell them they are safe and I’ll take care of them.” 
 
As seen in the May 8th issue of the Hippo.





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