“I wasn’t there when you came into the earth
Your first word, your first step
That was another world.”
“You be You” — Benjamin Chase
I wrote the above lyrics as part of a song that I wrote and performed for my children’s baptism in December of 2019. If you’ve read this column frequently, you may know that my wife and I have been blessed to adopt four children through the foster care system.
After a multi-year, winding path to get to the point of adoption, having all three of my brothers in one place at one time to celebrate a mass baptism was the final culmination of our long journey.
Governor Kristi Noem has named the month of May as Foster Parent Appreciation Month in South Dakota, and as part of her campaign since coming into office, she is pushing to recruit more foster families across the state.
While signing new foster families up is all well and good, retaining quality foster families within the system is imperative as well, and one thing the state has struggled with in recent years is a notable amount of drain, with families leaving the system at a fairly high rate over the last five years.
From a numbers perspective, Noem’s “Stronger Families Together” program has reported more than 259 new foster families since its inception. However, the total number of licensed foster homes in the state has stayed virtually the same, with 816 licensed foster homes reported to the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) in 2018, and 828 reported to AFCARS in 2021.
To put those numbers into explanation, the reported statistics would indicate that roughly 245 families have discontinued offering foster care, despite the public efforts of the Stronger Families Together program.
There’s a reason that appreciating foster parents often misses the mark.
When my wife and I were doing foster care, we were often asked how we could handle the emotional toil of devoting ourselves to a child and then having that child taken away after weeks, months, or even years in our home.
The truth is that a foster parent should come into foster care with the knowledge that the intent of foster care is to reunite parents and children. For the time that the child is in your home, you can and should provide all the comforts of home and treat the child as one of your own, of course, but understand that the goal of the foster care system is, first and foremost, to reunite parents and children.
Will that make parting with a child that has been in your home for significant time easier, knowing that you’re simply doing the “job” that the program is set up to do?
No, not at all.
It shouldn’t be.
If you have a heart, losing someone that has been a part of your family for any amount of time will be difficult.
This is why it is vital for foster parents to have excellent support systems in place. Facebook support groups for fellow foster parents, supportive family members, friends, and faith communities that can lift up in those down times are vital before getting started with foster parenting.
The other end of things that must be considered is working with employers.
While most employers would understand the need for a day off or time off to address your biological or adoptive children and have policies to allow for such, talking with multiple former foster parents, their employer’s lack of flexibility in addressing the immediate response issues that will inevitably come with foster parenting ended up becoming an issue of choosing a job or fostering.
Exceptional foster parents love on the children and work with the parents, as much as is safe and allowed through Department of Social Services.
I am aware of foster parents who have developed long-term relationships with parents of children in their care to be available and help those parents going forward with needs.
The goals of Stronger Families Together are admirable and could have an impact on the youth in care in the state. According to AFCARS, the number of youth served by foster care have been as high as 1,683 in 2020 statewide. Nationally, at any given time, there are in excess of 400,000 children in the foster care system and more than 600,000 children are served by the foster care system over the course of a year.
The need is absolutely present in the Huron community as well.
Children of all races, income levels, and backgrounds end up in the foster system locally for myriad reasons.
According to the South Dakota Department of Social Services, the Huron Child Protective Services office (the Huron office serves a six-county area) served 26 children in 2021, with 32 licensed foster families available to the Huron office, 18 of whom live within Beadle County. Four of those families are new since the launch of the Stronger Families Together initiative.
On the national numbers, less than 30% of foster children have a case plan that would indicate adoption at any time, so the heavy majority of parents who participate in foster care are doing so in order to provide a loving, stable, but temporary home for a child during an unstable, potentially traumatic time in that child’s life.
During Foster Parent Appreciation month, we should not just take the time to thank those parents who have stepped forward to offer their homes as a safe and loving environment, but also creating more hospitable workplaces and better support systems for those who choose to be that lifeline for a child should be a significant priority.
Hopefully, employers take time to review policies this month to ensure foster parents have all the same childcare coverage and privileges as any other parent within company policies. Hopefully, those foster parents who are struggling with recent reunifications that left their home empty can find the support needed.
That would be a true month of appreciation and recognition for those who offer so much.