Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Does Blaine County need more foster care?

Children can find hope in temporary situations

Express Staff Writer

Mary Poppen and her adopted daughter, Jacqueline, who is 2-and-a-half years old, spend their days at The Music Garden in Ketchum. Photo by Willy Cook

The good and giving part in all of us is attracted to the idea of adopting an unwanted or orphaned child. "Have one, adopt one," is not an uncommon idea, and it's all with the best intentions. As it happens, November is National Adoption Month.

But what is not promoted as well is the foster-parenting angle. Fostering kids can be as rewarding as actually adopting a child and because a family can do it over and over the possibility of touching many young lives is increased.

Foster care seeks to protect children who are abused, neglected or abandoned or whose parents are unable to parent or meet those obligations due to illness, emotional problems or a host of other reasons.

Unlike an adoptive family, which has the same parental rights and obligations as a birth parent, a foster family defers many decisions about a child's welfare to a state or county social worker. A child may remain in a foster home for as short as a few days to years. The state can remove them for a variety of reasons, while an adopted child can only be removed for the same reasons as a birth child.

The average age for foster children is about 9 years old. In Idaho, white children constitute 77 percent of the foster care population while Hispanic children represent 12 percent. Alaskan Native/American Indian children account for 9 percent, and black children constitute the remaining 2 percent.

"In 2003 there were 2,382 foster children in the system. The last fiscal year, which ended July 30, 3,335 kids came into care throughout the year. On any given day, there are 1,800 in foster care. That's a pretty good indicator," said Tom Shanahan, Idaho Health & Welfare public information manager. "A lot of the foster care is connected to the meth use. That's really impacted foster care tremendously statewide."

In Blaine County, there are few foster families. A Hailey woman, whose name can't be used because of the sensitive nature of her case, has been a foster parent for five years.

"I entered as a foster/adoption candidate," she said. "You choose the priorities. I had two failed marriages but realized that I wanted to have a family despite that. I went into it to try to find a child that would stay with me. My goal was to commit to a family member."

An individual or family must be fully certified as a foster family to be able to adopt through Idaho's Children and Family Services.

"If a child is in our system for adoption, we have a period of six months before it can be finalized," said Ann Peckenpaugh, human services supervisor for Permanency Planning and Licensing of Children and Family Services. "During that time, according to the federal government, a child must be with a licensed foster family. If they're not a foster family, they have to become one."

Until this fall, all the Foster Family PRIDE (Parent Resource for Information, Development, Education) training was done in Twin Falls, but it is now also offered in Shoshone and in Burley. The training sessions run over the course of six weeks.

Let's say you want to help with needy children but are worried about the time constraints, or how a troubled child might affect your own children.

"People who have good boundaries and can provide nurturing and care for a child make the best foster caregivers," Peckenpaugh said. Prospective foster parents should be aware that these children won't necessarily be able to adhere to very strict rules and regulations, she added.

"Our kids come from trauma. They don't understand. Foster parents need to be able to give unconditional love, be patient and be an advocate for the child in the school systems and with service providers."

She said there are no family situations, race, gender or age exceptions (other than being over 18) to becoming a foster parent. But all adults must provide personal references and subject themselves to medical and criminal background checks.

In Idaho's Region 5, which encompasses eight counties, including Blaine, there are 172 foster families, Peckenpaugh said.

"Our county, like every other, has a huge need," said certified foster parent Mary Poppen, the director of The Music Garden, a pre-school in Ketchum.

"It's raising exponentially, especially with methamphetine use. I've been told that's the No. 1 reason for placement now nationwide. The numbers are staggering. They say 60 percent of foster kids will never be placed. Currently, I have another child that I've had for four months and who will probably be with me another six to eight months."

The anonymous foster mother in Hailey agreed.

"Short- and long-term support is needed. To be able to spend one or six months with a child and make a difference is an amazing gift. At the foster parent conferences and in training, the stories and inspirations from the people who have had 400 to 600 children over a lifetime are very inspiring. They've had former foster children come back and say, 'I was with you for three months and witnessed a family life and gained insight into what was possible. Now I'm married and have kids.'

"The reason these stories are valuable is that when the children are with you it's challenging. It feels at that moment that you don't have the ability to make change. They do end up with lifetime scars, but they can also end up with a lifetime of hope.

"I've had as young as 3 months and as old as 12, but I have a special needs child, a son who I adopted.

"You don't go into it without knowing there'll be risk. Training gives you enough warning, but you brace yourself, like when a loved one is ill. Even if you're prepared there is heartbreak. The thing I have found is it always ends up working out for the best. It's an incredible gift. I remind myself not to whine anymore."

Poppen also went into foster care because of her desire to be a parent.

"I thought maybe foster care would be the way I was going to be a parent in this lifetime," Poppen said. "I went through the six-week PRIDE Training and at the last class I was told about my first foster child and asked if I could take her. I was also told about 8-month-old Jacqueline, who I ended up adopting. She was with another family, then I got her at 11 months old.

"They have to do family search to make sure the infant doesn't have a relative who wants them. They search that out very carefully first and go through the process of the termination of the parent's rights."

Poppen, who is around children every day, has had seven foster children in two years and said she'll continue with it until more people become certified.

"Every situation is so different, you have to go in open-minded and open-hearted. The thing people may not understand is that you can specify ages and gender and specify long-term or short-term. You are never obligated to say yes, you can always say no."

Miranda and Nathan Taylor have two children, 4 and 6 years old, and live in Ketchum. They have one foster child living with them now.

"My cousin did it in Wyoming, and my aunt had fostered a Down syndrome kid," Miranda Taylor said. "We thought that was awesome. Usually we have a month in between, and we took the last months off. It's kind of draining. Mostly they have been teenage girls, some toddlers and babies. Two sisters were with us, and then their other sister came for a time. If there are siblings, they try to keep them together as much as possible. We took the three sisters out to lunch a month ago in Twin where they live.

"It's challenging working with the kids and then letting them go. Even though we work towards when they do go home, it's sad when they go.

"We're planning on adopting in the future, from Haiti," she said. "We've been drawn to it. I'm in touch with an adoption agency down there."

For more information on foster care, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare operates a CareLine at (800) 926-2588, and a separate foster care hotline at (866) 4ID-KIDS.

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