GREENSBURG – Indiana is currently facing a dire shortage of foster parents, meaning that thousands of Hoosier children are being left without homes, and sometimes even without a bed to sleep in, after being separated from their families.
For a child, being separated from their family, often the only family they’ve even known, is traumatic in and of itself, and that doesn’t take into account whatever situation led to the separation. According to the group Children's Rights, there are nearly 428,000 children in the foster care system in America on any given day. Those numbers swelled to 670,000 in 2015.
In 2016, 2.4% of the approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 in Indiana were foster children, or otherwise unrelated to the family, according to the Indiana Youth Institute. Julie Thomas, Assistant Executive Director of Indiana National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP), said there were 8,144 children in Indiana foster care in December of 2016. For some of them, reunification is a possibility, but for many others, a home must be found until permanent placement can be established.
“Foster care provides a safe, nurturing, stable, and temporary environment for children who can no longer remain in their own homes due to the risk of abuse or neglect,” said Michelle Smoot, Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) Regional Foster Care Specialist Supervisor for Region 15. “This care may be provided by unlicensed or licensed relatives, as well as licensed non-relative foster parents.”
Smoot said people have misconceptions about what it means to be a foster parent and what kind of effect it has on the family if/when the child is reunited with their birth family.
“It’s true some families have a harder time than others,” Smoot said. “And yes, if you have a child live with you for a while and you invest time, energy and love into that child, it will hurt when that child leaves. But you have instilled in them that there are people out there who can love unconditionally and give their time and home to help others. Foster parents grieve the loss of the child, but then realize that there are other kids out there that need the help that you gave that child that is now leaving.”
Local Children in Need
In July alone, Decatur County had 134 children placed in out-of-home care, according to Smoot. While children are placed in close proximity to their families whenever possible, only 56% of the Decatur County children in need of foster care were placed locally.
“They likely had a disruption in their support system/friends, had to change schools, had to form relationships in a new community, made seeing their parents more difficult, etc…” Smoot said. “With additional homes, not only does it give us the opportunity to place children in their own community but it also affords us the opportunity to place siblings together. The majority of the homes in our area are at capacity so siblings have to be split up, creating another traumatic experience for them. Usually, siblings are the only stable relationship or bond kids in our care have had in their lifetime.”
Smoot added that of the children placed in out-of-home care in July, 42 cases involved multiple children being separated from their families, 14 of which resulted in siblings being split apart.
“As you can see, there is a very high need for foster homes in Decatur County and throughout the state of Indiana. If you or someone you know are interested in becoming a foster parent, please call 812-663-6768 or 888-631-9510,” Smoot said.
Smoot said there are some group homes that can take children on an emergency basis. According to the IN.gov website, the average foster care stay in Indiana is 363 days. Thomas said kids all over the state are sleeping in DCS offices overnight and some particularly overwhelmed offices have taken to stocking cots.
“There’s just so much need,” Thomas said. “The foster system is in crisis from a lack of homes.”
Someone Else Will Do It
“I think some people are afraid that foster parenting is too hard or that someone one will do it. It is hard, that’s true, but it’s also very rewarding to be able to help a child and family in need, to be selfless and give your time, home, money and love to others,” Smoot said. “These children do not come into these situations through any fault of their own and they are the ones who suffer. It’s amazing to be able to show children that have grown up a certain way in an environment that is not nurturing that there is another way to live and that people do care about them, regardless of their age.”
The lack of local foster homes means children are being placed further and further from their homes and all that is familiar to them. Thomas attributes the increase in need for foster parents largely to substance abuse, which she said often leads to a variety of abuse. The heroin epidemic is particularly problematic at the moment, leading to many children being removed from their homes. This is leading to a change in the needs of foster children as well.
“A lot of the kids have more severe needs at younger ages. Previously, we had homes that were sitting empty, waiting for placements,” Thomas said. “Now most of our offices are at capacity. And we’re seeing younger and younger kids.”
It is not just the young children that need homes though. Smooth said they often get teenagers and “people are afraid to foster teens.” Smoot said many people have a preconceived notion that most teenagers are “bad” and have been through and seen a lot. This may be true, especially with teens in the foster system, but she added that it can be rewarding to work with a young person and help them prepare for a life of independence. Even a stay of one or two nights can make a significant impact on the child.
“The need for foster homes is so great across the state because of the increase in drug use by parents,” Smoot said. “We see the majority of cases have something to do with drugs. Either babies who are born positive for drugs or parents are neglectful to their children because they are using.”
Foster Family Resources
There are several local resources for more information about foster care in addition to the Department of Child Services, including numerous online resources. The National Youth Advocate Program (NYAP), 3544 W. Two Mile House Rd., Columbus, can be reached at 812-342-4220. Benchmark Family Services, 3042 State St., Columbus, can be reached at 812-799-0871.
Thomas said one of the main differences between organizations like NYAP and DCS is the level of personal service they are able to provide. DCS handles the entire case regarding each child, while fostering agencies only address the foster family, the child, and the needs of both.
When a foster family is licensed through NYAP and a foster child is placed in the home, the family is assigned a trained worker to help support whatever needs the family and children have. This includes weekly visits for the first three months, no matter the age of the child, to help stabilize the family and its new member.
Thomas added that foster parents licensed through NYAP can recruit other families and receive a recruitment bonus if the second family becomes licensed as well. The need is so great, anyone who has ever considered becoming a foster parent is encouraged to reach out and learn more.
Thomas said NYAP also offers a service DCS sometimes utilizes called Resource Parent Services, which allows NYAP workers to offer extra support to DCS foster cases. NYAP offers multiple in-home services, making it easier for the family to receive the services they need.
“A family is best-served by one agency,” Thomas said, adding that working with more than one agency, particularly for home-based services, can quickly become overwhelming.
Love, and a Home to Give
When it comes to foster care, there are really only two questions that one needs to ask themselves – Do I have a place for this child? And can I love this child as my own? If the answer to both of those questions is, “yes,” than the rest can likely be worked out along the way.
When asked what makes a good foster parent, Thomas said, “Honestly, just accepting the child into their home and treating them as part of the family, treating them as their own child. Not giving up on them or expecting them to be thankful.”
Foster children can share a room with other children in the home, but they must have adequate space of their own. Financial assistance is available for foster families, though the amount is decided on a case by case basis depending on the child’s age and need level.
Smoot suggested any prospective foster parents first ensure they have a good support system in place because, “You cannot do this alone. This is hard work and you will need someone to talk to and express how you feel about things. Working with the department of child services and providers can be frustrating. Sometimes things move at a slow pace and foster parents have to have a lot of patience and flexibility.”
“You don’t have to be married, own your home or have your own kids. We have foster parents who are single male or females, same sex couples, older retired couples and everything you can think of!” Smoot said. “Not only are we looking for foster homes for longer term placements but we also need homes that are emergency or short term placements (where kids may only stay a few days at a time while we look for something more permanent).”
Smooth suggested anyone considering becoming a foster parent speak to a current or former foster parent about their experiences.
“Call the department of child services and speak to a licensing worker. Go online to our website (www.in.gov/dcs) and there are several resources there about foster care and adoption,” Smoot said.