Foster Care Parent Shortage in Western MA

Foster care families are better and cost less than group homes, so why the shortage in Western Mass.?

By Michelle Williams

Originally posted on masslive.com on June 10, 2015

 

For most children in Massachusetts placed in emergency foster care, the process starts with a phone call.

The reasons vary: a parent goes into the hospital and are unable to care for a child; a child is found to be a victim of sexual or physical violence and taken from a home.

From there, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families works with partner organizations to place the child in a new residence as soon as possible.

Ideally, a child is placed in a single-family home with one other foster child, but the lack of foster parents have made this goal challenging.

There were 8,590 Massachusetts children placed in foster care in 2013, the most recent year data was available. Eighty-one percent of children were placed with families. Family placement includes children in relative foster care, non-relative family foster care and homes looking to permanently adopt a child. Other children were placed in group homes or specialized care facilities.

One in seven children nationwide are placed in group settings, “even though for more than 40 percent of these children, there is no documented clinical or behavioral need that might warrant placing a child outside a family,” Annie E. Casey Foundation wrote in a recent report.

Foster care advocates say children do better when placed in single-family homes and that it is more cost effective.

“By their very structure, many group placements simply are not designed to offer such individualized nurturing,” the report states. “Group placements often remove children from the familiar routines of school, neighborhood and activities, and siblings are likely to be separated, especially if they are of different genders. Some of these group facilities were never intended as places for a child in crisis to stay for more than a night or two, but they have morphed into residences of last resort.”

The foundation estimates group placement of children costs seven to 10 times more than placing a child with a family, nationally.

The Center for Human Development works with foster care families in Western Massachusetts and struggles to find enough families for children. The organization’s foster care program operates out of West Springfield and works with families throughout Western Massachusetts.

Last year, they worked with about 240 families. Most of the parents live in Springfield and surrounding communities though they hope to extend their network further into Hampshire and Berkshire Counties.

On average, a child in Massachusetts stays in foster care for between three to 18 months before they’re reconnected with parents or adopted by a new family. CHD specializes in short-term care, which may last for only a night or up to 90 days.

If DCF determines it’s best for the child to stay in foster care, he or she is placed in a long-term home or facility.

A foster parent can have up to two foster care children in their home. “There were days when you could place many more children in a home,” Mary Albert, assistant program director at CHD, said. “With the number lower, a parent can really focus on the needs of a child.”

Needs that can require a lot of energy. “Our youngsters really require a lot of support, whether it’s working with the school, getting them to and from appointments, working with their doctors to provide medical care or just making sure they feel supported at home,” she said.

Foster parents also must be willing to allow children to remain in contact with their birth families because the goal in most cases is for the child to return home.

Before a child is placed with a family, prospective parents go through an intensive screening process that typically takes five to six months.

Yamilca-Nogue-at-the-5K“It can be quite an invasive process,” said Yamilca Nogue, a homefinder for CHD [pictured on left]. Those interested must fill out an application, then their home is checked by a social worker. “We check everything: parking, neighbors, make sure the smoke detectors work, running water and that there’s food in the refrigerator,” Nogue said. Foster parents may own or rent their home but it must be large enough to accommodate children.

If the home passes inspection, all members of the household over 14 years old must pass a background check. If all in the home pass, the prospective parent must take a multi-week training course.

While a parent is approved after completing the many steps to becoming a licensed foster care home, it’s not the only factor involved in placing a child.

“For example, when a child comes from a Spanish-speaking household, we need to place them with a family that also speaks Spanish,” Nogue said.

The family’s request for the child’s age and gender is also factored in. As such, foster parents are especially needed for: children of color; those that don’t speak English as a first language; sibling groups; children with special needs; and older children and teenagers.

There is no “perfect family” for fostering, Albert said, what’s important is providing a stable, caring environment to a child going through a traumatic time.

“Our foster parents vary: some are married, others are single-parent families; some are young while others have grown children of their own; some are gay, some are straight and they all come from a wide variety of ethnicities,” she said.

Nogue added, “What’s important is wanting to do it, wanting to be there for a child, being someone who truly wants to make a difference in their life.”

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, call Yamilca Nogue at (413) 781-6556, send an email requesting more information to fostercare@chd.org or go online to CHD.org.

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