2017-03-30 / Front Page

'Helping Children be Part of a Family'

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Foster parents, Mike and Rebecca Miller say, "We always wanted to give a child a permanent home and to be there for a child when they have no one else to care for them." (Photo contributed) Foster parents, Mike and Rebecca Miller say, "We always wanted to give a child a permanent home and to be there for a child when they have no one else to care for them." (Photo contributed) Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a foster parent? If you had the opportunity to provide a young child or adolescent with the chance for a more secure and stable life, would you take it on?

With those questions in mind, Child & Family Services in Middletown launched Foster Hope last winter, a public education campaign designed to heighten awareness of the challenges and rewards, and to dispel the myths, of foster parenting. The sessions, which meet on the first Tuesday of the month, are set up to connect the curious with the committed.

According to Child & Family Foster Care Director Melissa Aguiar Rivard, there is a “significant need” for potential parents to welcome the nearly 900 displaced adolescents living around the state in group homes and place them into a stable family environment.

"You want this to be a win-win situation," say foster parents Jason Heywood and Jonathan Brown Henry, 'for the child finally finding a safe and loving home and for you as you expand your family." "You want this to be a win-win situation," say foster parents Jason Heywood and Jonathan Brown Henry, 'for the child finally finding a safe and loving home and for you as you expand your family." “The number of children being removed from the Newport area,” says Child & Family Vice President of Operations Sandra Pyram-Loyer, “is dramatically higher than the number of foster homes in the communities that the children are coming from.”

In other words, there is a shortage of foster families in Rhode Island, and the organization is doing its best to attract qualified and loving homes. For a teenager approaching adulthood, the support system provided by such a home base is critical.

Recent changes at the State House, starting with the January appointment by Gov. Gina Raimondo of Trista Piccola as director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, have been aimed at bolstering support for agencies in the state placing children. In January, the Providence Journal reported that Piccola’s to-do list included increased foster and kinship placements, and that “an additional $1 million was put into this year's budget to further support and recruit foster families.”

Fostering to Adopt

With one seven-year-old and a baby on the way, Mike and Rebecca Miller of Newport have been fostering a toddler for six months. Their goal is permanency, fostering to adopt. Mike is the CEO of the Newport County YMCA and Rebecca is a skin care consultant with Rodan + Fields. They shared their experience on "They Said Yes!" a blog launched by Child & Family to both highlight and support the Foster Hope initiative. “Our experience has been great,” they wrote. “It can be overwhelming at times, from getting certified and finally having a child moving into your home. You have to be your own advocate and do your own research."

Go in with a plan, the Millers advise. “When looking to foster to adopt you have to know there is a chance the child will be reunified with their birth parent … There will be meetings with social workers, court dates, and parent visits. Ultimately you want what is going to be best for the child …You have to go in with the 'if it’s meant to be it will be' mindset and just love that child as much as you can.”

The stepped-up effort on the part of Child & Family is to heighten awareness of the need for foster homes in the area, and to educate potential parents on every aspect of the rewards and challenges of being foster parents.

Yet behind the amplified presence lies a stark reality. “There is an urgent need [for us] to take on more families,” says Aguiar-Rivard. The Foster Hope program, she explains, also reflects a recent spike in the number of 13-to-18 year olds who have transitioned to group homes, but are still in need of the stabilizing influence of a home life.

“They are out of the family situation,” she says. The goal, in professional parlance, is to “step the children down,” back into a family setting, while the situation with their biological family is being resolved.

“The most important thing,” she adds, “is helping the children be part of a family.”

According to the figures in the 2016 Rhode Island Kids Count report, which tracks everything affecting the lives of children under 18 years of age, from health to education to living situations, a total of 2,953 children in the state live with foster families or other non-relative heads of household. The report also listed 878 youths living in group residences.

Foster Hope also provides support and guidance throughout the application process, which, according to Aguiar-Rivard, can take from six to nine months. Candidate assessment digs deep. It involves a “pretty lengthy” background check, includes a four- to eight-week home study, visits and conversations, and a 10-week training process. Residences must be declared fire-safe and lead-free if built prior to 1998. A social worker is tasked with determining family readiness and commitment, and works to reunite the child with his or her family, if deemed appropriate.

There are subtler aspects to the stability of a home life that often go undetected, Aguiar-Rivard points out. Another goal for the teens is to help them establish a “permanency plan.” Foster youths don’t have the experience of parental uber-focus on making plans for the future. Even though most adolescents find this unbearable, it is a helpful, grounding navigational tool that most young adults take for granted, according to Aguiar-Rivard.

The emotional requirements of fostering can be equally as daunting, and Child & Family offers training in dealing with the many facets of trauma. “Most foster children blame themselves,” the Rhode Island DCYF application explains, “because they have to leave home. Some fear all adults are abusive. Some have kept secrets about abuse for so long that they may have difficulty being open and honest."

Whether one is fostering an infant or a young teenager, Foster Hope is set up to make the unfamiliar familiar. By answering questions and the sharing of experiences, Child & Family hopes to open the door for prospective parents.

Turnout at the monthly meetings has been lighter than they'd hoped. Aguiar-Rivard acknowledges that “group care can have scary connotations,” and remains optimistic for the teens, some of whose lives she knows well. The value of the monthly open houses is to change that perception, she says.

“How do we explain how great it can be?” she asks. “We adore our teenagers. Some of them feel like forgotten kids, and we want them to know we’re working hard.”

Aguiar-Rivard also described respite foster care, which is the opportunity to spend a day, or a weekend, with a family. “Sometimes kids just need a respite,” she said.

What they are really trying to do is educate parents. The sessions are an opportunity for people to share concerns and information and get a sense of the potential to make a difference in a child’s life. ”There is a lot of support,” she explained. “Sharing of experience is crucial.”

The journey to fostering “can be hard and complicated,” she adds, but it can be a wonderful experience.”

Foster Hope meets the first Tuesday of the month at Child & Family’s Middletown Community Center. There is an information session at 5 p.m. and a support group session at 6 p.m. For information, and to find out how to support C&F, email foster@child&familyri.org or visit the website at childandfamilyri.org.

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