"The greatest challenge of foster parenting is managing expectations. The children live with uncertainty every minute of every day, and a lot of our work as foster parents is helping them find the certainty in their lives and using that as a landing pad when other things change." — Karin Dula
Foster parenting comes naturally for Karin and Randy Dula of Rochester. Karin's parents adopted her younger brother after a ten-month foster placement in their home, and Randy was adopted from foster care when he was seven years old. He recalls, "I felt disoriented most of the time. I was in two foster placements before the family that eventually adopted me, and I remember thinking 'I don't know how to feel about anyone.' When you're a kid it's natural to feel liking or love toward people who feed you, and read books to you, and play with you, but I always knew the people who were taking care of me today could be gone tomorrow, so I was afraid to get attached. I didn't know how to make my feelings temporary, so I didn't let myself feel much of anything."
What is Foster Care?
Children are placed in foster care when a crisis renders their original family or home either unsafe or inadequate for their care. In some cases, the parent or parents make the decision themselves to place their child because of parental illness, financial burden, or addiction. Other times children are removed from their original home by legal authority for reasons of abuse, neglect, or other unsafe circumstances. In any case, foster care is intended to be a temporary placement undertaken for the protection of the child.
Right now there are approximately 1100 children in foster care in Monroe County, ranging in age from birth to 18 years. More than 800 of these are in foster homes within the county, and the rest are in higher levels of care, such as residential treatment or transitional care facilities.
The goal of foster care is to provide safety, emotional support and physical care for the child while the original home situation is evaluated. In order for the child to return home, the parents must work with a caseworker to develop a specific treatment plan to resolve the crisis and commit to long-term stability in the home. In cases like this, the parents may be granted supervised or unsupervised visits with the child, as long as they maintain the terms of the treatment plan.
"My brother's birth mother was an addict, and she had to stay in treatment if she wanted to have visits with him", said Karin. "Well, it was nothing but a roller coaster for all of us. She would do really well for a while, and he was happy to see her, then suddenly she would just drop off the face of the earth. She stopped going to her program, no one could get a hold of her. and my brother didn't understand why she didn't want to see him. He cried a lot, and it broke my heart. I used to wish she would just relinquish her rights and let him get on with his life." Eventually, she did. If the parents decide they are unable to raise the child, they may legally relinquish their parental rights, and the child becomes available for adoption. Once adopted, the child is a permanent member of the adopting family, and the birth parents no longer have any legal right to see the child.
Some foster children cling to a sense of loyalty to their parents, even when their relationship is extremely dysfunctional. Foster parents do well to understand that children often see things in their parents that don't make sense to adults. "Our oldest son was very attached to his birth mother", recalls Karin. "She neglected him terribly, but to him, that was his home and his mother. We saw a filthy apartment, no food, open drug use in the home, strangers in and out all the time. but that was what he knew. Even after she lost her parental rights and we adopted him, he kept thinking of us as temporary. It took him a long time to let go of that life and let himself live fully with us."
Who Can Be a Foster Parent?
Anyone who is open to the joys and challenges of foster parenting may become a foster parent. The Monroe County DHHS is looking for families who will foster infants, preschoolers, school-age children, adolescents and teens, sibling groups, pregnant and parenting teens, as well as special needs children (e.g. medically frail children). As some foster children become available for adoption, foster parents are often given the opportunity to adopt. Except for personal legal fees, the adoption entails no costs. Specific guidelines are available on the Monroe County DHHS website.
Foster parents for Monroe County DHHS will receive a daily board rate (based on the age and needs of the child), a semi-annual clothing allowance, and Medicaid coverage for each child. Medicaid will cover all the child's medical care, as well as counseling services, as necessary. In addition, foster parents receive casework support from the child's foster care caseworker, and also support from a Homefinding caseworker.
The Dulas have adopted two of their three children from foster care and are foster parenting two others. They are hoping to be able to adopt the two children currently in a foster placement with their family. Randy explains, "Their mother is conflicted about what she wants to do. She says she is willing to sign the relinquishment, but then she doesn't go through with it. There is enough evidence of neglect and abuse that she has been denied unsupervised visitation, but she sees the kids a few times a month."
The Dulas say that the two children have integrated well into their family, and the other Dula children are eager to make it official. "We talk openly with all the kids about the temporary nature of foster care, and try to help them understand that everyone is working for the best interest of the children", says Karin. "We want them to know that we love them and want them to be part of our forever family, but their mother is still their mother, and we want to help her in whatever ways we can."
Where Do I Begin?
Interested Monroe County residents will be invited to an Informational meeting, which is held monthly by Homefinding staff. If an individual or couple decides to apply for certification, each applicant will then meet with a Homefinding trainer in the home, and if basic qualifications are met, will receive a 10-week training (30 hours in total, usually held in the evenings) provided by Homefinding. A Home study will then be written by the Homefinding trainer, after which the applicant becomes certified as a Foster/Adoptive Parent, and is ready to accept children into the home. For more information call Homefinding at 585-753-6522 or 585-753-6051, or fax them at 585- 753-6649.
"I think if more people understood foster parenting, more people would be open to it," said Randy. "It's not for everyone. Sometimes you become attached to a child and it rips your heart out when that child is returned to their original home. On the other hand, it's an incredible opportunity to help a child during a very difficult time in their lives. It's difficult and challenging, but all parenting is. When it feels like the risks outweigh the benefits I remember how I felt as a kid, and I think I would do almost anything to be able to bring some peace and sense of security to a child's life. There's really nothing like it."
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Genesee Valley Parent magazine. Copyright 2009 Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.
Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning writer and sales trainer with more than a decade of experience in medical writing, magazine journalism, and corporate communications. She publishes articles on a variety of topics, including parenting, adoption, sales training and motivation, pharmaceutical sales, and emerging technologies. Bacchetta is also an adoptive parent who blogs about parenting at www.theadoptiveparent.blogspot.com. She networks extensively with other adoptive families, and she is writing a book about the adoptive experience. Contact Sally at firstname.lastname@example.org and read her latest articles on her freelance writer website.