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New RI initiative to increase the number of foster families

With 250 children in need of foster homes right now, RI is starting a new initiative to attract people to become foster parents.

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By Susan Gale, Publisher, Kidoinfo.com

There are presently 250 children in Rhode Island who need a foster home with a loving, stable family. Most of them are living in group homes. Some of them may even be placed out of state.

Two years ago, the Anne E. Casey Foundation found RI to be nearly the worst among the 50 states in its over-reliance on congregate care for children who need to be removed from their birth families due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Foster care is a short-term placement as the state’s Department of Youth and Families (DCYF) works to reunite the children with their family. DCYF refers to foster parents as “resource families.”

But with nearly half of children living in group homes eligible to go to individual foster homes, the state sees an urgent need to increase the number of foster parents now. To do this, a new state-wide initiative called “Be An Anchor” aims to change the numbers, and more importantly, make a difference in the lives of many RI kids.

Be an Anchor

With a $70,000 grant from the RI Foundation and a $25,000 grant from the Casey Foundation, the state is trying a new approach to licensing foster families – taking a 10-week, 30-hour training program and completing 16 to 20 hours of it during one weekend.

Up to 200 families who want to foster will join together at a hotel and spend March 9-11, 2018, in trainings, making contacts with each other and DCYF staff, and getting a head start on the rest of the requirements for being a foster family, which include a home visit and fire safety inspection.

“We’re making it as easy as it’s ever been,” said Governor Gina Raimondo, as she announced the program. “At the end of the day, kids need a home. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just loving and stable.”

DCYF will track how many families go on to be licensed after the retreat and assess the methodology used to continue to improve the program, said Kerri White, DCYF Communications Director.

The Governor also announced that she is including an additional $1.36 M in her fiscal year 2019 budget proposal to help improve the foster care system, including raising stipends paid to foster parents to bring them in line with neighboring states. Those stipends have not been increased since 2001. Raimondo’s budget will go to the General Assembly who will ultimately negotiate the final numbers.

“I’m trying to send a strong signal that, as a state, we are committed to our kids,” she said.

Improvements since 2015

There have been improvements since the state was found to be second to last in terms of over using congregate care. According to Eric J Beane, RI Secretary of Health and Human Services, since 2015, the number of children placed in group homes has dropped by 25% and the number placed out of state has dropped by 50%.

He also said the state has revamped internal processes and procedures, including bringing the child placement assessment process in-house to DCYF to better ensure that children are always given the best placement for their needs.

“Consider being an anchor to child in need,” he said at the press conference referring to DCYF’s name for the foster program. “We need to try to keep kids in their own community. We need solutions community by community.”

The power of being a foster parent

“I will never be able to convey what it is like to be a resource family in three minutes,” said Kim Zandy, a well-known morning DJ on 92 PRO-FM, to the crowded room at the press conference. “The numbers only tell part of the story. Because of privacy issues, we can’t often tell stories about individual (children).”

Zandy figured she would become a parent after marrying and getting the “white picket fence.” When things didn’t go according to plan, she considered other methods of becoming pregnant but, in the end, decided to be a foster parent. She spoke about her first foster child who was eventually reunited with her birth mother.

“It’s beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time,” Zandy said. “She taught me I can do it though. We get through grief. Life if full of grief, why are we avoiding it? She taught me a lot about myself.”

For Zandy, fostering did lead to a permanent family when she adopted two other foster children – siblings, a boy and girl.

She wanted to counterbalance what she called the myths of fostering – that you have to have a lot of money to foster or that your foster children’s birth parents will harass you. While Zandy has adopted her children, they still see their birth family regularly and Zandy considers their relationship to be strong.

She spoke about the foster system and acknowledged that it is complicated and sometimes frustrating.

“It’s never going to be perfect,” she said. “But we have good people in place now. It’s frustrating when the caseworker is overloaded and you don’t get a call back right away. But I’ve seen them put their own money out. Social workers, staff, buying clothing, whatever is needed. Nobody needs it [the system] to be about rainbows but we don’t need to perpetrate that it’s crazy horrible either.”

For Zandy, the value of being a foster parent can be summed up in the morning ritual of her son. She gets up early for her radio job.

“My son comes in the morning, he’s acclimated to my schedule, and says, ‘Mom, let’s snuggle.’ What’s better than that?” she said. “I feel so full of joy I have this family and so full of joy with how I got this family.”

How to become a foster parent

There is especially a need for Latino foster families as well as those who would care for teenagers, multiple siblings, and children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT).

According to Foster Forward, to become a foster parent, you must be at least 21 years old and there are no minimum income guidelines. You can rent or own your home and must have a background free of child abuse, neglect, and serious police charges.

According to the group, applications are welcomed from couples of both same sex and opposite sex partners; with or without children; single adults of either gender or sexual identity; and all religious denominations and all races.

If you are interested in being a foster family, here are some steps you can take to explore the opportunity:

The retreat is designed for families that have made the decision to foster so there is no guarantee you will be able to attend this retreat. But the need for foster families in RI is great, so if you even think you might be interested, check out the resources above to explore the possibilities. Hundreds of local children in need of safe, happy homes will thank you!

Susan Gale is Publisher of Kidoinfo.com.