(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about foster care and the need for resource parents in Bradley County.)
States across the country have joined together to proclaim May “Foster Care Month,” an effort to support foster parents and bring awareness to the cause.
There are currently more than 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report released in July 2012.
Youth placed in foster care are often there by no choice of their own. Actions a parent or primary caregiver has committed to land the child in foster care include physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, medical neglect, incarceration, abandonment or truancy.
Youth who have had repeated run-ins with law enforcement may also be placed in foster care. Legal issues sometimes reveal the minor’s parents are unable to properly manage their child’s behavior.
The death of a parent or primary caregiver has also been known to land children in foster care. This is rare, as there are usually relatives willing to take custody of the children.
The amount of time foster children stay in the system is determined on a case-by-case basis.
According to the AFCARS report from July 2012, of the estimated 404,540 children in foster care, roughly 45 percent of the children had been there for less than a year.
Additional numbers reported 23 percent had a one to two years’ history; 11 percent had been in care for two to three years; 10 percent had been in the system for three to four years; and 10 had been in care for five years or more.
Children are placed in homes through the Department of Children Services for either foster homes or contracted residential services.
Organizations DCS partners with can either be profit or nonprofit entities.
“We always need more because in looking at statistics, Bradley County always falls just behind Hamilton County with the number of children in care in the Tennessee Valley,” said Jennifer Davis of Chambliss Center for Children. “We have to turn away referrals daily.”
Bradley County foster parents and children are a part of DCS’s Tennessee Valley Region. Other counties included in the region are Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie.
Foster care organizations look for a variety of parents so they will have someone to fit children’s needs. They do not have a preference of married or single, said Kristen Stucker, foster parent recruiter and trainer for Youth Villages.
As Davis explained, “There is a huge need for diversity.”
Foster parents often describe the position as a calling. Denise Kelly, a former social services worker, said she has always wanted to be a foster parent.
She and her husband have fostered 22 kids since they entered the program four years ago.
“I felt like the need was there and I just wanted to do it,” Kelly said. “You don’t know what you are getting with DCS. They bring them in and you take them and they become yours. It’s just whoever they bring to you.”
Kelly described being a foster parent as, “The greatest thing you’ll ever do because you are actually giving hope and you are loving and giving your time.”
The Kellys prefer fostering sibling groups. This is another reason for the high number of foster children placed in their home.
“Sibling groups are harder to place. I don’t have an extremely large house, but it is a good size,” Kelly said. “Most of the time [DCS] will divide them up if they cannot find one home for them. That is heartbreaking.”
Kelly continued, “You are pulled out of your home and then all of the sudden you are pulled away from your siblings, as well? That is just cruel.”
She said part of her role as a foster parent is to build a relationship with the children’s parents or primary caregivers, as well.
Kelly said foster parents often lead by example. Parents of children placed in the system can learn how to nurture and manage their children by following the foster parents’ actions.
DCS maintains its goal is to reunite foster children with their parents.