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Inland Journal, Sept. 18, 2019: Foster Parenting

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Today on the Inland Journal podcast, we’ll look at the growing need for foster parents in Washington and what the state is doing to recruit new people to the system.

Stacey Conner and her husband have five children, a mix of biological and adopted. With that large brood, why take on more as foster parents?

“The simple answer is we see our lives as very privileged. We have a lot and we know that when we look at the bigger world and we wanted to share that," Conner said. "The more personal reason is that, as we were creating our family, we hoped to have one more biological child and we lost a baby, late in a pregnancy and I was heartbroken. And I said, you know what, I’m going to do it. I got licensed for foster care. I’m going to hold babies until I do not want to hold babies anymore and then I’m going to move on with my life and move on to the next chapter. And I’m still holding babies, six years later.”

And, six years in, Conner is showing the way for other foster families.

“In Washington state, the Department of Children, Youth and Families has realized that foster parents need a support system when they’re caring for vulnerable kids. What they do is they hire experienced foster parents to come in and be mentors to brand new foster parents. That peer mentor will stick with a foster parent throughout the time that they’re licensed to take in children. So I’m one of those peer mentors. I’ve been a foster parent for six years in Spokane County and I now have a huge list of people, families, licensed foster families that I mentor," she said.

State officials say Washington has a greater need than ever for foster families. According to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the state has about 9,200 children placed in private and group homes and about 5,100 providers.

Recently, Secretary Ross Hunter published his agency’s plan for what he calls “improving the foster parent experience.” It’s a strategy for not only recruiting new parents, but also for retaining people like Stacey Conner. Hunter calls for better communication between foster parents and the caseworkers of the children in their homes to reduce the frustration parents sometimes feel. He hopes to simplify and speed the process of applying to become a foster parent by going from paper to online.

By improving that foster parent experience, the hope is that it will make Joni Startin’s job easier. Startin finds places for children who need temporary homes.

“We typically will read a case about the kids. We try and get as much information about the kids and then we have a data base that we call the Foster Parent Keeper that has all of our foster homes listed in it. It has all their information that we feel like we need in order to place kids in their home. What they’re licensed for. Who they currently have. Their specifications about their home, if they have animals, how many bio kids, where the kids will sleep. Do they need day care or not? So we start searching through our keeper, looking for who has available beds and are they able to take the kids we’re looking for. Then we make a phone call,” Startin said.

Sometimes that phone call leads to a placement. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“We have a hard time placing our teenage kids. They’re harder. Those kind of homes, they’re willing to take those harder kids are really needed. And even our two and three year olds, Kim, are hard. There’s kids that are hard. So skilled foster families are really needed," Startin said.

"We just welcomed a new home on the third and I think they’re taking placement of two littles tomorrow. So they open up their homes and we fill them up pretty quickly. And there are some homes that are pretty specific in what kind of kids they have. I know we look through the keeper and it seems like we have a lot of open placements, but then it just depends on the kiddo that we’re looking for and where they fit," she said.

Startin works in a unit called Home Finders. It’s supervised by Erik Larson. Larson says one of the changes the agency is considering is in the way it compensates foster parents.

Erik Larson: “Foster homes don’t get paid, they get reimbursed. There is no income made here. but they do get a reimbursement from the state. That just depends on the age of the child and if there are any behaviors or excessive needs that go along with the child, that they can get reimbursed for their time. That money is used to get school clothes and supplies for the child. Maybe sign them up for sports.”
Doug: “Are there limitations to those reimbursements? You probably couldn’t go crazy and lavish a child with a whole bunch of stuff.”
Erik Larson: “Correct. Every child that comes into care has what’s done as a rate assessment done on them. Our rate assessor meets with the foster family and they talk about the child and there’s certain domains that we’re looking at. That gets put into the rate assessment. That determines how much the foster parent will get reimbursed. So it’s a set rate and, and every six months, we’re looking at is that rate still applicable or does it need to be raised or does it need to be lowered?”
Doug: “Is this system pretty much the same that it’s been for a generation or two or is this a system that evolves with the changing times, so to speak?”
Erik Larson: “I would say, unfortunately, it’s the same. Right now is kind of an exciting time for our department. We’ve recently become a brand new agency. We’re now called the Department of Children, Youth and Families, previously known as the Department of Social and Health Services. We’ve kind of been cut out of DSHS and made our own Department of Children, Youth and Families. Our new secretary, Ross Hunter, is dedicated and wanting to see the growth within our foster care system and to see changes. So, for example, one of the things we’re looking at right now is our rate study to determine is the reimbursement amount we’re getting, foster parents are getting, is that adequate or does that need to be raised? That hasn’t been looked at in years.”

The process of becoming a foster parent is rigorous, says Melissa Fielding. Fielding is a regional licensing supervisor for the Department of Children, Youth and Families. She says applicants, whether married or unmarried couples or single people, are asked to provide a hefty amount of information.

“The paperwork is designed to (A) sort of apprise you of what’s required and (B) it allows us to get to know you. You would submit that to the state and/or your child placing agency if you wanted to go through a private agency and then get assigned a licensor," she said.

There are home inspections and home studies. Applicants are required to take at least 24 hours of basic training.

“You get trained on working all the ins and outs of working with children with trauma, working with kids in the foster care system, as well as the dependency process, what it means to be a dependent of the state of Washington, how you work with families and really a lot on how we prefer that you interact with our kids. We have some requirements about the discipline that’s involved, things you can and can’t do with our foster kids. Twenty-four hours is not going to train you to be an expert foster parent, but it’s designed to give you some basics," Fielding said.

And then, if all goes well, three or four months after you start the process, you get a license to be a foster parent and you can begin accepting children into your home. Sometimes along the way, Fielding says prospective parents find this wasn’t a good idea for them after all.

“I think the best foster parents are people that truly just like kids in general, like different varieties of children. And by different varieties I mean age ranges and behaviors and they can take a kid that’s kind of quirky and they can take a child that isn’t going to be homework-inclined versus wanting to take a child who’s going to mold into their family. That’s more problematic," she said. "If you’re looking for a cookie cutter of your own children, that doesn’t usually lend itself well to the foster care system.”

We circle back to Stacey Conner. She says being a foster parent has given her experiences she’d never have otherwise had and friends she treasures.  

Stacey Conner: “And then, on a deeper level, when we look around the world and we see things we don’t like or we see things we want to change or we see homelessness or drug use, the best to get involved with that is to get involved locally. There’s nothing more meaningful you can do than take in a child whose family, whose biological family, is struggling with those kind of issues and show them how a more stable family operates and then, ultimately, the goal in Washington state is always reunification and that involves being able to be a support system often for a family that’s getting back on their feet or that’s recovering from addiction and it’s pretty cool.”

Stacey Conner: “We’ve gotten to the point where our environmental are pretty self sufficient and it’s really hard to let people in and it’s particularly hard to let messy things in because it’s stressful and we can’t control it and it makes us sad and we have to grieve when it doesn’t go the way we were hoping or when a child has to go home. I get how traumatic that is to let into your home the idea of loving a child and letting them go or the idea of a child who has behaviors you’ve never seen before. It’s one of the reasons I’m here. It’s one of the reasons I love this job. People call me at 10 o’clock at night because they’re dealing with something that they’re not sure how to handle and we talk and we get through it and we process it. That’s the mentor role that I’m in as a foster peer mentor and it brings us closer and hopefully helps them get through the situation. That’s the solution to that but the problem is that letting something that messy into your life is hard and I think people, they don’t want to do it because it’s scary. I think the other thing that is hard is that there are a lot of rules and regulations. There are a lot of standards to be met and it’s scary when the state says that it’s been alleged that you’ve been doing something wrong. We like to talk about sensational cases, like a foster parent who’s hurting a child. That is the rare, rare case. What is far more common is that a foster parent is alleged to be doing something, usually not something that is hurtful to the child, usually something that violates a rule in terms of how we care for children in our homes and then that has to be investigated. All allegations against foster parents are investigated; 95% are unfounded. That’s a huge number, but that’s a scary process. I think people hear that and they hear about it and it’s terrifying to them. I know, for instance, my husband has a professional license and we’ve been investigated twice for breaking rules. Both times it was unfounded. But I can tell you I shed a lot of tears and it was very stressful and I think that’s super hard for people to accept that risk in their homes and in their families.”

Stacey Conner is a peer mentor to foster families in Washington. If you’re interested in becoming a foster parent in Washington, learn more here

You’ve been listening to Spokane Public Radio’s public affairs radio program and podcast, Inland Journal. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play or hear it at the Spokane Public Radio website.