Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fostering Facts #2

Fostering Facts #2

What to expect
Much like starting your own biological family, you are never really ready to be a foster parent. Each kid is different. Each situation is different. You can’t just say “oh, I have 3 rooms, I’ll take 3 kids”. They might not like each other. One of them might need more care and attention than you expected. Or they might all be amazing, and willing to step out of their comfort zone and fit in with your family seamlessly. They might love the food you eat or hate it. You might always have to re-negotiate chores, or not. Things that you never considered might come up. Do you like to have a glass of wine with dinner? Well, maybe one of your foster kids comes from an alcoholic home and seeing you sip that wine or smelling alcohol on your breath triggers them. We’ve had to do months of trust building around that with our two girls, modeling for them what a healthy relationship to alcohol looks like.

The biggest job you can do to prepare for being a foster parent is to set up your support network. If you’re taking in younger kids, who do you have that is willing to get clearances so they can babysit? If you’re taking in older kids, who do you know that can point you in the direction of good after school or summer programs to enrich their lives? If you’re taking in kids from a different race/religious background, who do you know who can talk you through what is expected or needed? You will need people to help you in ways you can’t even imagine, even if it’s just being willing to sit with you and let you vent. Sit down and take inventory. Do these people live close by? Do you know anyone with experience with the system? Start asking. You may be surprised to find that you know someone who was in foster care, or adopted, or had a cousin who was. These people will be worth their weight in gold.

Make sure your support network is diverse. You can’t put all your hopes in your Christian church community only to find that the child you’re bringing into your home is, say, a Hindu. That will feel alienating and disarming to the child. Even if you don’t have any Hindu friends, ensuring that your child is meeting people from a variety of backgrounds will help them to feel less alienated, less obviously an "other." Actively seeking help from their home community is also important. If you don’t know ahead of time what their background is, be willing to put in the time in the first week or two to finding out. You will be thanked.

When we got our girls, we abruptly realized we had no hair care stuff AT ALL in the house. I have a hair brush, which essentially the end of my hair care routine. While I was familiar with the hair needs of African American girls, we weren’t prepared for weave care right out of the box. Fortunately my partner’s sister is mixed race and has a daughter. She quickly threw all of their extra creams, gels, sprays, flat irons, blow dryers and combs into a bag and brought it over. With everything else we were trying to coordinate on top of getting to know these two new people, that was a lifesaver (not to mention a money saver).

Day 1
The training process and clearance process is different from state to state. You’ll have to find that out based on where you are. Essentially, you have to be trained (anywhere from 23 to 40 hours), you have to be legally cleared, and you have to be certified. The agency will delve into every aspect of your life. We had to give letters of reference from family, friends and neighbors to back our claim, and we had to give over our financial statements and tax records. Ostensibly this is to cut down on the number of people who are in it just for the money, but I’m not convinced it works.

When you get a chil through regular foster care, you won’t know ahead of time who’s coming. It’s hard to prepare. You have to just be ready to roll with the punches.

When the child is “placed”, that means they have been put into the care of the state. This can be for a variety of reasons, which I will attempt to tackle in a future post.

In Philadelphia, the agencies are on a rotation. On any given day, different agencies are “on rotation”. The agency at the top of the list has an hour to place a child once the state calls them. They frantically start calling down their list of available parents and you have to answer *right then and there*.

If you have specific criteria, stick to your guns. If you’re doing respite, hold out for respite. If you want girls, don’t be convinced to take a boy. If you want younger kids and they offer you someone a few years above your upper limit, say no. The person calling you will try to talk you into it, and they’ll say all kinds of things to appeal to your better nature. Remember, the agency is only paid by the state depending on the number of kids they have. You, however, are the one who has to live with the kid. 

From there you’re just waiting. It could take them a half an hour or four hours, or even eight or ten hours to move the child. There is usually someone from the state who will bring them to your door. They need to make a visual inspection of the home and confirm that the children are being dropped into a safe environment. If you have a dog, be ready to put them out back and introduce them slowly once the initial chaos is over.

Don’t be surprised if the child wants to spend their first day holed up in their room. They are probably some kind of terrified. Offer them food, invite them to come down and watch TV, but don’t pressure them. Don’t try to make them do anything for at least the first 24 hours.

You may never know about their situation before they came to your house. A lot of that is not disclosed to foster parents for obvious reasons unless it looks like the home will become more permanent.

In our training they recommended not giving them house rules all at once. Saying one or two things like “we always take our shoes off at the door” and “don’t feed the dog from the table” are a good starting point. You can slowly fold out your house rules as you get used to each other. Try to get them to share what they want to eat, and do a few things right off to make them feel comfortable. Do they want to add anything to a grocery list? What kind of movies do they like? Do they play a sport?

Be supportive, but be clear about what you want and don’t want. If your house is one that has a lot of home made meals and lots of healthy fruit and vegetables, get them used to the idea that they won’t be eating processed food everyday. But you have to give in as well- negotiate what kinds of foods you’re willing to let them have on hand, and see if there’s anything that they want to eat that they can make themselves. We have figured out how to make corn dogs, water ice and fried chicken at home. It’s not the ideal of health that I would prefer, but it helps the girls feel more comfortable.

Next installment will talk about the longer term expectations.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fostering love

This week has been a major blow to our family. Joan, the child we had living with us through a kinship arrangement, was sent to a group home at her court date on Wednesday.

We had an inkling this was coming. She has run away three times and thinks that we're to blame for all of her problems. She has lashed out against us in totally understandable yet dangerous (to her) ways. Mostly, the courts found that with her constant absences and running away, the court can't be sure that she's safe. As that is our A#1 job as foster parents, and we weren't able to do that one piece of it, they decided she needed to be in an environment where they can guarantee her physical safety.

The hard part is the conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we're heartbroken that it's come to this for her. She isn't the kind of kid who will thrive in that environment. On the other hand, it's a relief to not have to stress about her constantly, worrying if she's o.k. or not. We're praying that she gets the help she needs and the kind of therapy that can help her with her emotional issues.

It's hard to know how to continue. Jill and Grace are, it seems, fine with having the stress out of their lives. They have enough on their plates, looking forward to their own very stressful court date in a couple of weeks.

Here's where being a foster parent gets emotionally difficult. It's hard to live with someone, especially a young person who is vulnerable and needs extra love, without getting emotionally invested. We keep repeating to ourselves something like "we're not going to save them all, the choice is theirs to make". But that's hard to do when you see how difficult it is for them to process what's going on. Of course they love their birth family. But they like us too, and enjoy what we can offer. And on some level that feels like a betrayal to them, which can quickly become the "fault" of the foster family.

When you're dealing with older teens, you're looking at the looming 18 year deadline. In most, if not all states foster kids "age-out" at 18. That means that the support that they're getting and the stipend from the state stops. There are mechanisms in place to allow youth who haven't finished high school to stay in the system as long as they are doing well, but those mechanisms usually have a lot of strings attached and sometimes aren't offered to kids who have discipline problems or attendance issues.

So for the majority of foster teens who are still in the system when they turn 18, they have to spend the day after their 18th birthday down at the assistance office applying for Section 8, food stamps, cash assistance, medicaid and any other kinds of subsidies they might be eligible for. They may be spared this if there is a friend or extended family member willing to allow them to stay with them but they are usually expected to find a job or somehow help out financially with the running of the household. Given how difficult it is for any young person to find a job these days, and add to that the general issues with consistency, depression, anxiety, etc that foster youth have, and the outlook starts to be pretty bleak.

In PA there is an option for older youth called "PLC" for Permanent Legal Custody. This is halfway between adoption and foster care. The fostering parents become legal guardians, and the stipend continues to follow the child. The biological family retain parental rights. It's considered a great way for families to continue working towards goals of self-sufficiency without the input from the state or the foster agencies.

In order for this to happen, the youth have to ask for it. It needs to be in place before their 18th birthday.

We have extended the offer to Jill and Grace. Since finding out, their mom has been bending over backwards to show them that she's going to be a good and stable home for them. They are more conflicted and confused than ever, and we totally understand that. The next two weeks promise to be stressful, at least for them. We're trying to internalize the attitude of "we can offer the permanency, and then it's up to them". If we can keep that in our minds and in our hearts, and not take anything they yell at us too personally, we should be able to get through the court date relatively emotionally intact. I'm trying to look at it this way: If this motivates their mom to get her act together, that's ideal. Kids always do better with their birth families, as long as they are stable. If they decide to stay with us, that's great for them too as we will definitely be able to be a stable place for them.

Either way, the outlook should be good for them. We hope.

Of course, there is the risk that they'll go back to their mom's and things won't work out the way they hope they will. But we are absolutely not the people to make the decision for them. They are both old enough to work this out on their own.

We have talked about the different outcomes, Leonard and I. While we intend to always be a resource for the kids we foster, mentor or work with closely, we probably won't try to be "regular" foster parents moving forward. We'll either do respite, where we get the kid for a short period of time and can focus on having fun with them for a week or a weekend, or we'll do adoption only. We'll still focus on older kids, though older kids who come with younger siblings would be ideal.

All in all, this situation promises to be one of those "that which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger" situations. I'm going to need to do a lot of deep breathing exercises over the next two weeks.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fostering Facts #1

Fostering Facts #1                                                                

A lot of people get a glazed over look when I launch on an explanation of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it with. I say things like: “The respite provider wasn’t TFC certified so they didn’t know how to de-escalate in a therapeutic way…” and they look at me like I just broke out into song.

I’m going to spend the next few posts explaining foster care. It’s a system that most people are unfamiliar with, many people are intimidated by and a very few understand. I don’t really understand it. But I do have a working knowledge of what’s going on.

This is long. If you just want to read an update about our family, I’ll do that tomorrow. 

The way it works in PA is relatively similar to how it works in the rest of the country. Different states have different names for the processes or procedures, but for the most part it’s all similar.

System-wide management structure
Currently, each state manages their own child welfare system. They may call it Child Protective Services, or Department of Human Services, or Family Services or any number of other similar titles. I'll just call it "The State". This is a state and federally funded agency that is tasked with caring for the children who are identified as being “in the system”. Depending on how well or how poorly your state runs its agencies, your particular agency will work efficiently or not. In our case, we’re in PA so it runs very inefficiently.

Because the day to day management of something like this is time consuming and very costly, that aspect is distributed out to different agencies. Many of these agencies have some religious affiliation. All of them are non-profits. They may be state-wide, they may operate only in a certain geographical area, they may have alliances with agencies in near-by states. They may be well run or poorly run. If you are looking to become a foster parent, it will be up to you to figure out the best agency. It’s best to ask around and find out what experiences other families have had with different agencies.

Role of the Agency
Because these agencies are not run by The State, they get to do whatever they want to within the parameters that the state system sets. These parameters are by necessity kind of loose. The agencies basically need to make sure that the families they certify are a) stable (financially and emotionally) and b) willing and c) haven’t been charged with child endangerment in the past. These guidelines are VERY LOOSE. That is how you get foster families that are really just in it for the money. If your agency is no good, they’re not going to follow up with the families to make sure that what’s going on is in the best interest of the child placed there.

The agencies manage all aspects of the day to day of the child. They will coordinate with the foster family to get school registrations done, medical visits scheduled, getting emotional support or therapeutic services taken care of, etc. As a foster parent, you don’t have the right to change their doctor, change their school or do anything that has a long term effect on the child’s life. The social worker from the agency can, with the express permission of the DHS worker assigned to the case.

Generally you will have this team of people:
Agency social worker
That social worker’s supervisor
Department social worker
That social worker’s supervisor
Therapeutic/psychological services staff

Any of these people need to be able to have access to your child at any time they need it. That means that if you have multiple children who are not on the same “case” (generally those who are not coming from the same home) or if you have children who have higher levels of need, you may have a different worker in your home every day of the week.

Role of the foster family
Your primary responsibility as a foster parent is to keep the children in your care safe. This includes keeping them fed, clothed, in school, going to appointments and keeping them away from dangerous situations. For that purpose, anyone in your house may be subjected to a criminal background check.  In PA that goes by age, so anyone over the age of 14 who will spend more than a cumulative 2 weeks sleeping in your home needs to be checked. That includes State and Federal background checks. The agency should pay for those, and if they don’t, that’s a sign you need to get a different agency.

Medical insurance is paid by the state. In PA, foster children are totally covered at 100%.

Levels of foster care
There are different levels of care. Most children are just “regular” foster care. They may have some issues, and the agency will either have a therapy team on staff or will help you get them into therapy. Anything more than that, and you may be dealing with a “Therapeutic Foster Care” situation. The acronym TFC is used in a lot of states and may have different words attached to them, but basically means the same thing. TFC placement homes require more training and are expected to do more. A child may be TFC for medical reasons or emotional/behavior reasons. It generally means that you have to do considerably more work, and do more one on one work. In PA, they don’t put more than 2 TFC children in a home together, and that’s only if they are siblings or otherwise emotionally connected. It is nearly impossible to be an effective TFC home if all adults are working full time or if you have multiple children in the house.

A very common kind of care is called “Kinship” care. This means that the child has a previous connection to the family. You don’t have to be biologically related, though they do look for a family placement first. In the last 10 years or so there has been a huge push to keep children in their biological families and in their home environments. In the past, many foster situations ended up putting children in homes that were dramatically different than what they were used to, which caused certain kinds of trauma. With kinship, many of the rules get bent. You can have more TFC children in the home if there is kinship. You can have the child placed before you finish your training in kinship care. The rules about what kinds of sleeping arrangements are needed can be waived or bent for kinship care. That is up to each state, and can even be different from worker to worker.

A respite care provider is actually (in my opinion) a great place to start on the foster care journey. Respite providers have homes available for foster children while their foster families go on vacation or just need a break. It can be tricky bringing children out of state, so respite providers are like pure gold. It is also a great way for new foster families to give it a whirl because you can work out some of the kinks, like chore expectations, travel coordination, socializing the rest of your family, etc. It can also be fun because if you have a kid for the weekend, you get a chance to spoil them a little bit. Take ‘em to the zoo. Go get their hair done. It’s all good. As a respite provider, you still get paid the daily rate for their care.

Next installment will talk more about what you as a foster parent can expect right off the bat.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Today is the first day of the rest of our family

Tonight I finally got some time in the "Quiet Room". The baby is asleep, the girls are doing their own thing, Leonard's out with friends. I kept remembering things I needed like my glass of water, the computer cord, etc. I finally got in the room.

I put my water on the table, plugged the fan in, sat down on the recliner. No sooner had my back touched the chair than I heard Jill calling my name
"Yes honey"
 "Kitty, look. I found more of my books."
"That's great. Are these library books or books you're planning to read?"
"Ima read these when I'm done with the other two. But look, see?" She fanned them out for me to see. Yup, they're books. Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird and Speak. An average High School reading list.
 "That's great, hon. I'm glad you found them. Now I'm going to have a little time in here, ok?"
"Ok Kitty. But you know that if the curtain is open even a little bit it's o.k. to come in and talk to you, right?"

 I didn't know that. Good to know.

 It's been over a week since I've had time alone in our crowded little house. It's a typical three bedroom row home, but downscaled to be around 1,000 square feet. When we decided to become foster parents, we envisioned some younger teens sharing the space in the back room, probably on a respite basis at first and then maybe working towards permanent placement. We imagined that we'd do respite for a while, and then take on the full time gig, and then work our way up to adoption.

That didn't happen. There is some background at this page: youcaring.com/fosterfamilyinneed.  It feels very strange trying to do a fundraising campaign for our family. We generally don't ask for help, sometimes to a fault. But now that we have the girls to take care of, it's clear that we need more help than we thought we would.

It really is different being a foster parent vs. being a biological parent, especially when you bring a kid into your family who's essentially already a fully grown human. Jill is 17 and Grace is 15. They've lived in more homes than they can list, and each been to over 10 schools.

 Schooling is what's on my mind these days. The superintendent just announced that unless $50 million shows up by the end of the day tomorrow, they won't be able to open Philadelphia schools on time. That's crazy making. See, with our son we have the luxury to take some time in the decision making process. We can work on him with early literacy, make sure we're reading to him, make sure he's being talked to using big words all the time. We can take him to enriching museums and events, get him science kits if he's interested in them or toy kitchens or whatever. We can encourage his brain to think and analyze. We can plan whether he'll go to a charter school or a homeschool, or even a private school. We have that luxury.

 With Jill and Grace we absolutely do not have that luxury. Every time a kid moves schools, they loose approximately 6 months of education. They are both functioning way below their age, and one of them is dragging around a woefully outdated IEP to boot. Neither one of them can handle adversity very well. The slightest bit of bad news can spark a days long thunderstorm of moodiness and anger. But now that the schools are slated to open late and understaffed, we have to make some decisions. Leonard will be taking two classes, and otherwise will be home with the baby. But he's got his own schoolwork to manage, not to mention caring for the baby. Does he have time and tools to tutor and work with two kids who need extreme academic support? Probably not. I teach all day, and really would rather not come home to a second shift. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place where they could go and be taught by people who are trained to do this, in rooms full of other kids who are also learning the same things? Oh, right.

 I just saw this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324823804579014773649474290.html

So our broke as a joke city is going to divert the funding into the schools so they can open with a skeleton staff "on time". I never thought of myself as the kind of person who would flee the city to the 'burbs. But the Philadelphia schools have been under State control since 2001, since before these girls were going to school. And if I know PSD hasn't been able to educate them thus far, how am I to trust that they can fix the mess they've made in the next few years? Nope. We gotta get to a better school district. One more thing to worry about.

The good news is that the grey hair is all coming in in one spot. If I'm lucky, I'll get a nice Bride of Frankenstein look going on...