For children removed from their parents or primary caregivers, foster parents fill a crucial role, helping to bridge the gap between a child's removal and permanent placement. Your heart may be big and your desire to help strong, but is foster parenting right for you?
By the numbers
According to Mid-Hudson Valley Community Profiles - a regional, philanthropic agency that provides comparative information on Dutchess, Orange and Ulster Counties - over 400 children in the three counties were placed into foster care in 2015.
Some children are removed by a court order (the child has been, or is at risk to be, abused or neglected) or surrendered voluntarily (the parents are temporarily unable to care for a child due to illness or finances). Parents who cannot care for their children have some work to do - via a court-ordered service plan that may include parenting classes, addiction counseling and more - to have their children returned.
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But in that interim, their children still need a safe place to live, which is where foster care comes in - providing a temporary home to kids while their parents are unable to care for them. At the end of a specified period, the court decides if it is in the best interest of the child to return home, remain in foster care, or be freed for adoption.
Foster parents may or may not adopt the child in their care, but adoption costs are covered if a foster parent decides to adopt a child who is freed for adoption while in the foster care system. "I wanted to have and help a child," says Vickie Obermeyer, a New Paltz resident who fostered a child that she and her husband eventually adopted.
"Fostering seemed like the best of both worlds." Because the goal of the foster care system is to bring the family back together and return the child to the parent, there are no guarantees that the child may be freed for adoption. It can be traumatic for everyone to give the child back. "It's an exercise in being in the moment," says Obermeyer. "You can't worry about the future, just give the child love. That's the most important thing."
Ins and outs
In New York, foster care is coordinated by the state Office of Children and Family Services and administered by each county's social or community and family services department. Programs provide stipends (which are set according to the child's age to reimburse foster parents for the costs associated with day-to-day care), training and support to help foster parents adequately provide for the children.
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There is a great need for loving adults of any race, creed or gender who can provide temporary, safe, and stable homes to children whose biological parents are unfit or unable to do so. Almost by definition, children in the foster care system have undergone trauma. There is a reason - be it physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect - that they were taken out of the home. But that doesn't spare them the trauma of leaving the home itself, regardless of how abusive their home life was.
Part of the foster parent role is to function as part of a "team" with the birth parents, the child, the caseworker, and the law guardian (attorney for the child). Obermeyer says she was required to take her foster child to visit her birth mother and siblings every week until adoption. "These visits were often traumatic, "she says. "But even after we adopted, we negotiated an agreement for her birth mother to have annual visits. Even though our daughter was now legally ours, we felt it was better for her to be able to see that she was not given up because she wasn't loved, but because her birth mother wasn't capable of taking care of her."
"It breaks your heart, but you can't expect the kids to be grateful that you've taken them in," says Lauranne Billus, a foster parent from Staatsburg. "In their eyes you haven't rescued them...you've taken them away from the only life they have ever known, from their friends and family. Most of the time the kids want to believe that things will be great if they just get to go back home." "It's a bad situation that never goes away," Obermeyer adds. "It is a life issue for the child when your primary caregiver leaves you at an early age. It's a lifelong adjustment."
What it takes
Foster parents go through a 10- week classroom training, annual recertification, home visits, and background checks. For those who are unable to attend the training, home-study options are available. The Department of Family and Children Services in Poughkeepsie tries hard to match up foster parents and children that meet each other's needs.
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In one recent foster care training program there was a couple who had difficulty conceiving and wanted a baby, a number of couples who had children and wanted to expand their families, and three single women. Foster care is ideal for those who just enjoy helping kids through a difficult time and are happy with its temporary nature. "We waited two years for a healthy child who was already freed for adoption," says Obermeyer. "Finally we relented and said we would take one at any stage. Shortly thereafter we got a call and, with just two hours' notice, she was brought to us directly from the courtroom with nothing but the clothes on her back."
"I had thought about becoming a foster parent for years," says Billus. "I had a house and room and I knew the need was great, that there is an epidemic of heroin use in our area. But I was afraid to commit because of a lack of a support network. It would be just me.
Then I turned fifty and realized I was giving all my energy and time to work. I could foster a child." Billus started the process in August and completed it by Thanksgiving. She welcomed a pair of siblings into her home the following May. The pair had been in and out of the system for over 10 years. They had relocated states, been returned and removed again, and suffered a bad foster care placement.
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"You are just another person they have to deal with before they can go home and then everything will be good," Billus says. "The smart thing is to recognize that you need help and reach out to the people who can provide assistance." "You can't really be prepared no matter how much training. Every child is unique. Every situation is different," Obermeyer says. "Being a parent is always a thankless job. And no child, whether biologically yours or not, comes with a guarantee. I feel she was meant to be our child."
Linda Freeman is a freelance writer in Marlboro.