Loving & Letting Go
The need for new foster homes in Central Oregon is huge. If you’re thinking of becoming a foster parent, here’s what you should know.
By Nicole Vulcan
My First experience with foster care came via my sister, Emily. She and her husband—recently married, with no biological kids—began foster-ing children while they were still
in their 20s. The First child came and went quickly, fitting into the couple’s plan to offer “respite care” for foster parents who needed a break.
That plan shifted with the arrival of baby Jovi, 11 months old, who came and never left—eventually adopted into their family. Shortly thereafter, another baby boy arrived, to whom our whole extended family became attached before he eventually went back home to his mom. After that there was baby Kendron, who was taken from his parents at birth – he also came and never left. Our extended family has now grown by two boys; our hearts full at seeing this story unfold.
For Emily and Gabe, the story unfolded with plenty of ups and downs. They, like other foster parents, went through the dilemma of whether they could handle it, with what issues the kids would come with, and the big one: the question of whether they would get attached.
If you’re thinking of being a foster parent, one of the first things to understand is that there is probably no way around the attachment that comes with caring for a child.
“We often hear that someone can’t do foster care because ‘they would just get too attached’,” Emily says. “My response to that is, yes you will get attached. However, this endeavor is not about concern over my own attachments. It’s about making the world a better place for a little one who has no one in the world to care for them.”
The need in Central Oregon
With about 8,000 kids in foster care in Oregon presently, the need for foster families is immense all over the state. On May 17, Gov. Kate Brown officially declared the month of May Foster Care Month in Oregon. On that same day,
the Governor signed two bills into law, intended to help foster kids achieve in- dependence. In terms of need, Central Oregon is no exception to the rest of the state.
“Last year we had 140 kiddos that needed placement in the tri-county area—and that’s not including the other kids in care,” says Cherie Ferguson, GRACE Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services’ District 10, which includes Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties.
Ferguson says DHS places a priority on placing kids with a family member before seeking a foster family. The focus on securing a family placement for kids has meant that in recent years, there’s been less focus placed on recruiting new foster families. Enter Ferguson, hired about three years ago, whose job it is to recruit new foster families and to help them understand the steps ahead.
Prospective foster families start with 28 hours of “foundations training,” covering topics including child development, the importance of the child’s birth family, the impacts of abuse and behavior management, to start. Prospective foster parents—which can be single people, married couples or domestic partners of any race, ethnicity or culture who are 21 or over—then go through a background check and a child welfare history check, followed by a home study process that can last as long as six months. That process can be extensive—and revealing.
“We kind of go into it saying, if either of the two of you have any secrets between you, now’s the time to get those aired out, because we’re going to get really nosy,” Ferguson says, noting that the “nosiness” is intended to ensure the safety of the child. Throughout that vetting process, families also receive support and guidance about what to expect and how to handle the challenges ahead.
Ferguson says DHS is also looking at the family’s intentions and ensuring they’re beginning this process for the right reasons.
“We’re looking for families that are looking to meet the need of the child that’s coming into care, rather than looking to a child to meet the needs of their family,” she says.
When the vetting process is complete, families with two parents are eligible to have as many as seven children in their home at once, including their own; single parents can have up to four children. That’s a lot of kids in one home—but with more foster families in the system, the burden on each family can be lessened. Still, Ferguson says DHS tries to place siblings together, and encourages families to be willing to take sibling groups.
Not Doing it for the Money
When DHS places a child in a foster home, the family receives a small stipend to help cover the costs of caring for the child. The DHS “basic rate” starts at $575 for children from birth to age five, going up to $741 per month for teens. It’s not much—especially when families are expected to cover childcare costs with that stipend. Plus, kids often arrive with next to nothing.
“A lot of times they show up and they have, three shirts, four pants, and that’s it,” says Chris Frye, a Sisters business owner who, along with his wife, has fostered several teens. “They don’t have a toothbrush or hygiene products. And they’re another part of your family so you’re paying for every- thing; haircuts, shoes and you end up taking them shopping.”
While Ferguson encourages families to sign on only for what they think they can handle, she says that many families approach her saying they’d only like to foster babies. The need, however, is for the older ages.
“Only about 12 percent of the kiddos we got into care last year were infants zero to one,” Ferguson explained. “The vast majority of them are going to be significantly older than that. The largest group is the six to 12 (age)—36 percent of them.”
When a child arrives, they’re often experiencing the effects of trauma, Ferguson says, as well as needing extra care. Kids often have a lot of appointments at the start, she says, to catch up on things like dental appointments, therapy, court appearances, and parent visitation. The name of the game for foster parents, Ferguson says, is being flexible.
Frye says the early days are also challenging for another reason. “They’re constantly testing you,” Frye reflects. “For a lot of kids, they weren’t able to trust adults in their lives so they were constantly pushing the boundaries. Eventual, y they would settle and they’d realize, ‘OK, they are there for me, they care for me as a person,’ and it gets a lot better.”
So what about the fear of attachment that seems so common for prospective foster parents?
For parents who have gone through the steps and have welcomed a foster child into their home, many say it was well worth the effort.
Frye says, “when you get a kid in a stable environment and you provide them structure and they’re able to trust you… once you’ve earned that, then you see progress and you see that person being maybe able to be successful in life and stop the destructive behaviors they have. That is rewarding on a personal level just to be able to do that for another person.” For he and his wife, it’s also been positive for their biological children.
“Our other kids really bene ted from it,” Frye says. “And even though they have destructive moments, they’re teaching moments for you, for the kids, so when they see that, they’re seeing the consequences, the rami cations, and that sort of thing too—so I think a lot of people worry about that piece of it—but it’s a teachable moment.”
In the state of Oregon, DHS reports that 58.2 percent of kids who left foster care in 2016 were reunited with their families. Another 20.4 per- cent were adopted. Adoption was the ultimate result for my sister Emily, who now says the trainings, interventions, waiting periods and struggles have all been means to that great end.
“We couldn’t imagine our lives without our two boys,” Emily says. “So yes, it is worth it.”
The First step to becoming a foster parent is to call or email DHS.
For more information, contact: Cherie Ferguson
Oregon Department of Human Services GRACE Coordinator, District 10 541-548-9496