Fostering future generations

The Washington State Department of Social & Health Services is looking for a few good families in Clallam County.

There is, according to Martha Hastings, foster home licenser, a shortage of foster homes willing to house teenagers in the area.

Clallam County has about 120 children in foster care and 75 foster homes licensed by the Children’s Administration Division of Licensed Resources. Homes are located from Sequim to Neah Bay. Only 12 of the 75 homes accept teenagers, six of which are full.

“In the last couple of months we have had requests to find foster homes for at least nine teenagers in Clallam County,” Hastings said. “Thanks to the hard work of our social workers, those teens are in good homes with relatives, foster parents or other families who meet special requirements. Nevertheless, finding a home for a teen foster child is a daunting task because our options are so limited.”

Unless more homes become available teenagers may be sent to live out of the area, Hastings said.

Sending teens out of the area is a last resort, according to Colleen Robinson, foster and adoption parent recruitment and retention specialist. The preferred line of action is for more teenage-friendly homes to become licensed.

“Imagine being a teenager in your junior or senior year and having to move,” she said. “It would be devastating.”

Becoming a foster parent is simple. Applicants must be 21 years of age or older, have no criminal history or a history of child abuse and neglect, have a regular source of income, complete the required number of training hours, complete CPR, first aid and HIV/AIDS awareness training, be tuberculosis free and meet minimum licensing requirements. It doesn’t matter if a person is single, married, divorced, widowed, gay or lesbian.

From the time an application is submitted, the licensing process takes less than 90 days.

“It’s definitely a special calling,” Robinson said about fostering teenagers in particular. “It’s one thing to bring in a baby or toddler — you know what you are getting into. But taking in a teen who has been in and out of foster care for years or maybe who is in the system for the first time is a whole other situation.”

“You have to have a sense of humor, be flexible and be willing to work as a team with caseworkers, court appointed special advocates and biological parents,” she continued. “Most importantly, no matter what age of child you take into your home, you have to have a heart and passion for children.”

Hastings agrees with Robinson that fostering teenagers takes a special kind of person.

“In my opinion, families who seem to work well with teens are those who have raised their own teenagers or new parents who are willing to take parenting classes about teenage issues,” Hastings said. “It helps if families have a good support network of extended family, friends or others who will lend an ear if things get rough.”

Children’s Administration employees aren’t allowed to foster children — it’s a conflict of interest — but Hastings has a teenage daughter of her own and can relate with struggling foster parents.

“Teens can be quite challenging but at the same time the experience can be hugely rewarding,” she said. “My daughter is more clever and complicated than I ever imagined. I have taken three parenting classes and read several books on the topic of teenage issues, yet when trouble arises, I am at a loss for words and wish I was a veteran parent or perhaps a child psychologist.”

“The popular culture of today paints a picture of teens as scary, defiant and selfish,” Hastings continued. “While there may be a grain of truth in (those) images, teens are people who need love, support and a family who will accept them. Teen foster children are especially vulnerable and benefit from a solid family who will love them no matter what happens.”

More than 500,000 children are in foster care nationwide, which breaks down to more than 10,000 children in Washington state — a 22-percent increase over the past two years. Statistics project an even greater increase over the next five years.

Most children are placed temporarily in foster care because of parental abuse or neglect. The average stay for children in out-of-home care in July 2007 was 536 days or about 17 months.

Foster parents receive a monthly reimbursement based on the child’s age. The funds are provided for child-care related costs such as food, clothing and housing. Foster children also are eligible for state-funded medical and dental care.

“Foster parents are not paid,” Robinson said, clearing up what she described as a common misconception. “They are reimbursed for the children in their care. It is volunteer work, there’s no doubt about that.”

For more information about becoming a foster parent, call licenser Martha Hastings at 565-2256.

Straight from the heart

A Port Angeles man and woman, who wish to remain anonymous for the sake of the foster children in their care, have been licensed foster parents for 22 years. The couple has custody of three teenagers but has had more children in and out of their home over the past two decades than they can remember.

“Our philosophy has always been to do the best to treat the kids like they are our own because they don’t deserve what has gone wrong in their lives,” the woman said. “They’ve experienced things in their young lives that I will never experience in my entire life.”

Teenagers are, in her experience, the most difficult cases, the woman said. “Teenagers that come into foster care are used to freedom because they’ve been on their own a lot. So when you start telling them what to do and how to do it, they rebel.”

Another concern with teenagers, the woman said, is drugs. “You have to worry are they or will they be involved in drugs? That’s a reality.”

Fostering teenagers has its positives.

“I can honestly say that every child we’ve brought into our home has taught me something new,” the woman said via cell phone while driving to pick up one of the children in her care. “Each child has touched our lives and I hope they can say the same about us.”

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