Discussing truths and misconceptions about the needs and struggles of foster care
From the ashes of trauma comes an opportunity to transform a life forever. As it relates to our community’s children, this second chance comes at a high price, but nearly any willing party—even those who may not realize it—has the means to set the foundation. It all starts with a home, and all the stability, warmth and care associated with that word.
Before they even started dating, Adam and Sarah Mullins had each decided they wanted to foster one day. They knew the need, plus they each personally took to heart what they felt was a clear call from God. As their chemistry kindled and a romance blossomed, this drew them even closer together.
Things got serious, however, when as a young married couple they decided, “Why wait?,” even before having children of their own.
“Honestly,” Adam recalled, “there was no reason not to do it. We knew there was a need, a kid with emotional and physical needs who was not being loved on, cared for.”
Within Lynchburg’s community, the number of children requiring foster care fluctuates day-to-day as new cases arise and others are settled. Recently, it was around 150.
“We believe that every single child deserves a home,” said April Watson, Foster Care/Adoption Supervisor for the City of Lynchburg’s Department of Human Services. “Our goal is to find the least restrictive, most family-like setting possible.”
Where that home is varies. Sometimes a relative, neighbor or someone who has developed a relationship with the child or children offers to take them in. And while Lynchburg is fortunate in having over 90 foster homes, they fill up fast.
“I’d like more of an accessible pool at any moment,” Watson said. “We need people who are willing to take children of any age, with all kinds of needs. We need people who can take medically fragile children. We need people who can take children with behavioral concerns. We really need people who can take sibling groups. One of our biggest needs is people who will consider taking a teenager.”
Demographically, there is a need for more black foster families.
“We like the diversity,” Watson said. “Sometimes the kids are more comfortable selecting a family that looks more like them.”
At HumanKind, a nonprofit with services that include therapeutic foster care, there is a bit of a joke that they work themselves out of a job.
“We recruit foster parents,” said Ashley Freeman, Therapeutic Foster Care Caseworker for HumanKind. “Once the house fills up or they decide to adopt, we are having to find new parents. We are always looking for parents who are looking to help out the community with these children.”
Foster care is limited to a 12-month process (with some exceptions), after which the goal is a permanent, stable placement, with family if possible.
“Our primary goal is always for them to return back home,” Watson said. “And if they can’t return back home then we want to place them with family. If they can’t go back home or they can’t go back to family, then adoption becomes the goal.”
If the ideal situation (living with family) is not realistic, finding them a “forever family” becomes a priority, so that they do not become lost in the system.
Like a number of foster parents, the Mullins ended up adopting. The circumstances, however, were remarkable. The couple found out Sarah was pregnant while still training to become foster parents. Still, they soon opened their home to a pair of sibling foster children—whom they adopted a year later.
According to Virginia Performs, Virginia is the nation’s leader for lowest foster care rate (2.5 per 1,000 children). Watson has seen this firsthand; the caseload has dropped dramatically from when she started about a decade ago.
“One of our strengths is placement stability here in Lynchburg,” Watson said. “I think we do a really good job in Lynchburg of keeping kids in that one foster home and not having that revolving door.”
Even with favorable statistics, the need for more foster families remains. Not every home is a match for a given child and the goal is for not one child to be without a home.
From infants to 17 year olds there are literally children of every age in foster care. Often the most difficult to place are older—though, statistically they may be at the greatest risk. According to a University of Chicago study, youth who age out of the foster care system are more likely to end up in jail, homeless or with an unplanned child.
“A lot of people want the babies or those with zero behavioral [issues],” Freeman said, emphasizing the need for families willing to take in teenagers. Though bringing an older child into one’s home might feel more uncontrollable or scary, doing so could be the impact they need at a critical time.
“The teenagers you see who come in are usually the ones who need the most support, because they are about to enter the adult world,” Freeman explained. “They need support in the home to see what a family is but also support in the school and out in the community [influencing]how they should be socially.”
Many teens in foster care struggle with low motivation. Oftentimes this comes from a need for an advocate. Freeman recalls one teen with a poor academic record drastically improve after a previously unnoticed autism diagnosis was uncovered. With the help of an individualized education plan (IEP) the child began improving in school. It is situations like that, “where a parent can just really advocate for them and support them and help them to prepare for the real world … so this does not become a vicious cycle of them following behind the tracks of what happened to them,” that Freeman said a foster parent can make a difference in the life of a teen.
Human Services does offer resources—such as help with living and school expenses—to those who choose independent living once they turn 18, or age out of foster care, until they are 21.
After adopting two foster children, and having two biological children as well, the Mullins family was not looking to foster again anytime soon. But after discovering a need (and making sure it was a good fit), they welcomed a 17-year-old into their home last year, even as they were adjusting to a newborn. At 18, that child has now become a part of their family and defied statistics by choosing to remain with the foster family.
The first step might be the most daunting, but the barriers before it are not as great as they seem. For one, many do not realize that they can foster.
“They can be single, married, divorced, cohabitating,” Freeman said. “They can be renting [their home].”
Anyone who is willing, has the extra space and can pass extensive background checks and a home study can participate. One does not need a partner to foster and one is not too old to foster.
“We have older parents and some who are single who are amazing,” Freeman said.
Another barrier Freeman often encounters is the fear of having to say goodbye.
“When a child returns back to their parent, that is a win,” Freeman said, noting those who helped along the way realize the “amazing feeling is that they helped this child.”
“Sometimes people come into this thinking, ‘I want to adopt a child,’” Watson added. While that can happen, that is not the goal of foster care. “You have to go into it being willing to work with the birth family, knowing that this may not be your child forever. … One misconception is that there are children standing here waiting. We have some that need adoptive homes but there are not tons and they are not babies; they are typically older kids or sibling groups or kids with special needs.”
People have to understand going in that it will be difficult.
“Foster care is loss; it is trauma; it is grief,” Watson said. “The trauma that the child has gone through, having to walk them through that, is hard. But it is worthwhile.”
That is not to say that all kids in foster care are “bad.” Freeman said that those with unmanageable behavioral challenges are a “slim percentage of children” and that in a structured environment behavior can improve in many cases.
Sarah Mullins tells new foster parents to expect a lot of running around.
“There are a million appointments you are responsible for, especially when you first get your kids into foster care,” she said. “Doctor visits and therapy; so many reviews and appointments that keep you on the road. Especially those first few months.”
One misconception is that once you agree to foster you will have to take a child. Families know what they can handle, Watson explained, and the system trusts them to “say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ when they can.”
“Social Services does not just drop a kid off and see you later,” Adam Mullins said. “[Even] if it doesn’t work out, they can find a home that works better, an environment that fits their needs more.”
It was a tough transition for Sarah coming off of a pregnancy while finalizing the adoption of two children. Out of the blue, she received a call from a lady with Social Services.
“She spent two hours on the phone with me, talking about my fears and concerns,” Sarah Mullins recalled. “They were just incredibly supportive.”
Watson said that many of the daycare, transportation, medical/counseling services and other expenses are covered to help alleviate the burden on foster parents.
“Having children is expensive,” she said. “It is important to know that upfront we will cover most of those expenses. We will take care of those things so that you can just parent. We try to take away the barriers; we want people from all over the community, from every neighborhood, to foster.”
Freeman emphasized the commitment that caseworkers make in offering support, even when circumstances are tough.
“As caseworkers we are here to support the families any time, any day,” she said.
In that regard, the Mullins’ expectations were exceeded.
“I feel like we were more supported than I thought we would have been,” Adam Mullins said. “I kind of pictured it as you go through this class and then you just get a kid and they are like, ‘good luck.’ [But] we were just surrounded by support. The social workers, the City, they were all there emotionally, they were there for physical needs, they made sure we had everything we needed for the kids.”
There are also a number of churches and charity groups that work to help foster parents. Brentwood Church (the Mullins’ home church), for example, has a program, Mosaic, specifically focused on serving foster and adoptive families, whether or not they are affiliated with the (or a) church. This includes bringing warm meals to families, helping them stock up on frozen meals and offering special nights with free childcare for parents to go out. Mosaic also delivers backpacks—filled with clothes and other necessities that they might not have had time to collect before being moved—to each foster child for their first night in the new home, offering a ray of warmth in an uncertain time.
“For those people who may not have the greatest support systems, there are groups out there that support them and love them if they reach out to them,” Sarah Mullins said.
Fostering is not for everyone. Still, there are ways for anyone to get involved—from donating money, gift cards, toiletries or other necessities to volunteering some time, just getting to know and support families. Watson encourages people to be active in their neighborhoods, to help mentor at-risk children, because we are all better for it if we build up our community.
“I’d like to see the community step up and take care of these kids,” Watson said.
To foster, offer support or for more information, contact Human Services at (434) 455-5718 or online at LynchburgVA.gov/Department-Human-Services.