There is a great need for loving foster homes in the Bronx. May is Foster Care Month and the Children’s Aid Society, located at 1515 Southern Boulevard, is stepping up recruitment efforts.
Placing kids appropriately, while keeping them geographically close to both their birth family and the safety net of important health care, child care and social services offered by a supervising foster care agency, is no simple task.
The numbers reinforce a sense of how vast the need — and how arduous the challenge — is. In 2008 the Bronx led the city with approximately 33 percent of total foster care placements, said Richard Buery Jr., president and CEO of the Children’s Aid Society.
“In January 2010, the Administration for Children’s Services received nearly 1,800 cases for investigations in the Bronx, the highest [figure] in New York that month. A number of these children [are] already in foster care, and others may still need placement.”
On average, one third of the cases (currently around 1,500 per month) need foster care intervention. Buery called the “caring people” who open their door to these children “the bedrock of our work.” Large siblings groups, teens and children with emotional or medical issues remain the most difficult to place.
But how complex is the process? What are the difficulties and the rewards of foster care, and what should people know about it to decide if that’s how they want to contribute to a child’s safety and well being? These are the two primary functions of being foster parents.
According to Michael Wagner, the Children’s Aid Society director of permanency, foster care and adoption in the Bronx, “the biggest challenge for foster parents is to have a big enough ‘heart of a family,’ to include not only the child, but all the people that come with that child.”
Home finding, or the screening that foster care applicants must undergo to demonstrate fitness for the role, is only the beginning of a process that includes 30 hours of orientation and training meant to acquire much needed emotional and practical awareness of what’s ahead.
In its initial stages, the work done by the agency is designed to determine if applicants can offer a safe and welcoming home for a child. That includes assessing if potential foster parents are healthy enough for the job, if they have enough money to care for an additional family member and, of course, if they have any records of child abuse, neglect or a criminal history — especially against children — that would disqualify them. The family home is inspected and all the members living in it are interviewed, regardless of age. Those above 18-years-old are fingerprinted as well, in order to perform criminal background screenings.
If the family is certified, it becomes available for placement, and its status re-evaluated every two-years. The ability to comprehend loss in children, however, and foster parents’ capacity to communicate well not only with the child, but also with everyone concerned with his or her life — from the birth family, to the foster care agency, the school and the community at large – plays a major role in the selection process.
“It’s important for foster parents to understand that they’re going to be working with grief,” said Wagner, referring both to the child’s suffering for being separated from his birth parents, and the foster family’s broken heart if the child returns home or is adopted by a family member.
”Lots of folks who become foster parents recognize that, as soon as a child comes into their home, they fall in love! And they should, because kids need parents who love them, and are willing to do anything to take care of them.”
Children who have previously gone through a few placements (because birth parents struggle to regain control of their lives, problems with the foster family or issues that they bring with themselves) may also pose the added challenge of a badly bruised sense of trust.
“At first it was difficult because I couldn’t stand David blending with the sofa,” said Alba and Luis (full names cannot be disclosed to protect privacy), first time foster parents who welcomed the 15-year-old in their Bronx home a year ago.
“[We] would hug and kiss him, but he wouldn’t respond. He was angry because he wanted to be with his father,” continued the couple, adding that the Children’s Aid Society was very responsive to their calls for help. David, who sees his dad on weekends, will ultimately return to his father as soon as circumstances will allow permanency, the magic word and desired outcome of foster care efforts.
“We want [children] to leave foster care and enter a family that is forever,” explained Wagner of the spirit behind the search for good and lasting placements. Interacting with the birth family, helping to heal the broken bond, is part of the awareness that foster parents must incorporate in their role.
“You need a good relationship with everybody,” said Elvira, a veteran foster mother who actively talks to people about becoming foster parents, in her Crotona Park South neighborhood.
Permanency, however, can be an elusive target. Especially if the scenario of adoption by a foster family, sometimes the long term solution, is weighted against the pressure of a federal law that may sever birth parents’ legal rights if they don’t demonstrate stable improvement within 15 months of their child entering the system.
The situation in the Bronx is aggravated by the lack of spacious homes in needy areas (primarily the South Central and South West areas of the borough), site lower incomes and the increased severity of kids’ problems when they enter foster care. As a consequence, they’re harder to place within proximity of their original family and, for children with siblings, to be kept together.
Then there’s the tricky issue of money.
“One of the really important things that we need people to understand clearly is that foster parenting is a volunteer activity, not a career,” stressed Wagner.
Board payments are set by New York State and are the same in the five boroughs. They vary by age group and the severity of a child’s needs ranging from nearly $500 monthly to approximately $1,700, for kids who require 24-hour care. (Rates do not include clothing replacement subsidies.)
“A lot of people think ‘I’ll do this and I’ll be paid for,’ but board payments defray some of costs. It costs more to raise kids.”
But no matter the odds, realizing the life changing impact that a caring foster family can have on a child’s future is a profoundly rewarding experience.
“We didn’t want David to be another statistic,” said Alba. “He’s very well adjusted now, and he can eat!”
Knowing the child well, training for the role, not taking things personally and being patient are the tools necessary for success.
“Without families in the Bronx to step forward, the Bronx only gets weaker,” said Wagner.
For more on Foster Care Month and the Children’s Aid Society/Bronx Family Center, 1515 Southern Blvd. Bronx, NY 10460, or call 718-589-3400 log on www.childr
©2010 Community News Group