Two ministries serving children are gearing up for an event this month aimed at recruiting new foster parents and volunteers to help vulnerable children seeking placement.
Nightlight Christian Adoptions and Arrow Child & Family Ministries will present “It Takes a Village: Foster Care in McLennan County,” from 2-3 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Central Library, 1717 Austin Ave.
The event is open to anyone curious about how they can make a difference in a child’s life – even if they aren’t ready for full-time fostering.
They can learn about the road to becoming a foster parent and other ways to make a difference into the lives of foster children. Attendees can enroll in a program on the spot.
“I think we leave every meeting telling people that everyone can do something,” said Chloe Smith, a foster care advocate with Nightlight Christian Adoptions. “Even if people come to the meeting and don’t feel called to be a foster parent they can be a babysitter, they can host toy drives, they can help support their church in starting a foster care ministry there. There’s so many other ways to get involved, so I think education and then obviously recruitment is a huge need.”
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The goal of foster care is to provide a stable home for children removed from their families by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, with an emphasis on reunification when possible.
Under Texas’ ongoing reforms to foster care, McLennan County is shifting to a “community-based” model meant to keep children closer to their home. That means recruiting local foster parents is more important than ever.
According to the Heart of Texas Families and Foster Care Coalition, children spend an average of 23 months in foster care, and over half of them are sent to other counties due to a shortage of local foster families.
“In theory, if Waco could have 100 more families licensed that would cover all of our bases,” said Hope Middlebrook, recruitment and retention coordinator at Arrow.
“We were at an event recently and someone was like, ‘Oh, that’s not too many,’ and I looked at her and I was like, ‘No, that’s Mount Everest.’”
Children without placement are a common problem in the foster care industry, and as agencies scramble to find homes, the children may be placed in a shelter, hotel room or oftentimes a Child Protective Services conference room, Middlebrook said. Temporary shelters offer respite for a limited time, but stable housing is needed for children removed from their homes.
“One of our police officers, he and I were chatting not too long ago and he was like, ‘I was over at CPS today and there’s just mats everywhere on the floor with kids sleeping in there,’” she said.
Middlebrook and Smith agree this is a solvable problem.
Anyone 21 years old and older can become a foster parent as long as they go through orientation, take the required classes and pass a home check. Middlebrook said she’s found that some of the best foster parents are single parents. Those in their mid-20s are the group most open to fostering teenagers, and older individuals are stepping up to the plate more and more often.
Smith said anyone with a heart and passion behind the cause would make a great fit.
“Our goal is finding more families who want to take kids, and it doesn’t require any special person, you know,” Smith said. “You don’t have to have a nice house or a nice car, make a certain income. You can be a stay-at-home mom. You can be a working mom.”
Starting next year the state will no longer be in charge of licensing foster parents, and eventually a single-source continuum contractor will take over DFPS’ role in placing children in homes, Middlebrook said. After researching their options, as each one brings something a little different to the table, prospective foster parents can choose an agency and submit their application.
Middlebrook said the application includes a person’s address history and marital history, basically enough information to look into the applicant’s criminal history.
Then the applicant will move into pre-service orientation and family home development, which Smith oversees at Nightlight. During the home development phase families participate in classes set by their agency and work toward a home study.
Middlebrook said during the home study a member of the agency will interview the prospective family for a day and write “essentially a short book” on their lifestyle and personal habits. The interview will uncover how the parent copes with their own stress and trauma to ensure they are fit to house a child and be an example of resilience.
Once prospective parents pass the home study they go on an open bed list with their agency. The entire process could take 3 to 12 months depending on the family’s pace.
The broader a family’s preferences are, the more likely they are to be matched with a child, Middlebrook said.
When DFPS does an investigation and finds a reason to remove the child from its home, the department will look at an online database of all adoption agencies to see how many beds are open that fit the child’s criteria, Smith said. Then, the department contacts individual agencies, which will then contact a family whose preferences match the child to see if they can take the child in, she said.
“If you come and call me and say ‘I have a 0-2 preference and I only want girls, single child,’ you’re never going to get a placement,” Middlebrook said. “It won’t happen. … We’re trying to find a match for you family and it could come at two in the morning. It could come at four in the afternoon. You may have two days to prepare. You may have 20 minutes.”
Smith said each child comes with a common application from the state, but oftentimes the application is left blank and there’s minimal information about their medical and academic history or likes and dislikes.
Placements could last from last two weeks up to a year and a half, but there are options for people who feel called to serve foster children without housing them long-term. People may seek out programs like short-term foster care for children who need full-time specialized care, become a court-appointed special advocate or participate in foster babysitting programs.
Smith said education and public outreach is vital to break stigmas about foster care. Many people are intimidated especially by older children and the trauma they have experienced, but oftentimes “they’re really just kids that don’t have their needs met,” she said.
“I think on paper it’s very intimidating and scary to see what these kids have gone through and some of the behaviors that they exhibit, but in reality they need a stable, loving caregiver that believes in them and trusts in them and won’t give up on them,” Smith said.