“You always checked to see if my bathwater was too hot or too cold.”
To one little girl in foster care in Vancouver, this simple act of kindness by her foster mother, Kimarie Glover, meant a lot.
“It was something automatic for me,” said Glover, who is also a liaison for Families for Kids (FFK), a nonprofit organization that contracts with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to find and retain foster parents. “But to her it was a big thing – it meant I cared about her.”
According to data from the “Timeliness of Dependency Case Processing in Washington State – 2011 Annual Report,” the number of dependency cases (children legally removed from their birth home) in Clark County rose from 212 in 2008 to 360 in 2011. Statewide, dependency filings increased 33 percent from 2009 to 2010, setting an all-time high, but decreased 8 percent in 2011.
In Clark County, more than 630 children are in foster care, said Cindy Hardcastle, area administrator for the Children and Family Services arm of DSHS. But there are only about 430 active foster homes in the county. Tina Day, supervisor for the Cowlitz Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, said there are about 200 children in the program, but according to Jeanmarie Moore, a recruitment and retention specialist for FFK, there are only about 100 foster homes, down from 150 prior to the recession.
Because of the poor economy, “we’ve lost a lot of good foster homes,” said Moore, herself a foster parent for nine years. “People aren’t sure what they’ll be doing, and it’s gotten much harder to recruit foster parents.” Skamania County also has a poor ratio of foster homes to needy children, said Hardcastle – about 20 children and only 12 foster homes.
“Our number-one challenge,” said Rachael Curtin, foster care placement coordinator for Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, “is lack of licensed foster parents – it’s hard to keep sibling groups together.”
Budget cuts to Washington’s child welfare system aren’t helping matters. Day estimates that DSHS has seen about a 30 percent reduction in staff and finances.
“The foster care system is underfunded,” said Laura Osburn, executive director of Family Solutions in Vancouver, a nonprofit mental health organization that treats many children in foster care. “People’s caseloads are enormous.”
Kim Lawrence, another Clark County FFK liaison as well as foster parent for 11 years, said that because social workers’ caseloads have increased, foster parents must “advocate for themselves without a lot of communication. We need families that understand kids’ needs independent of the social workers.”
Unfortunately, said Lawrence, these needs, such as counseling and medical care, are increasing. She said that in years past, neglect was more a problem than actual abuse, but these days “we are seeing severe abuse issues, a lot of which are caused by drugs.”
Osburn has seen the same trend, stating that “kids come in in much worse shape [now] because there is such an epidemic of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.”
The poor economy also is contributing to a worsening of the situation, said Osburn. For example, there are many eligible families who could benefit from Family Solutions’ services, but who cannot afford the gas money to come to the clinic.
The foster care system is also receiving more older children than previously, when newborns were prevalent.
“We’re in desperate need of foster parents for teenagers,” said Hardcastle.
Lawrence said that many foster parents were “afraid to take teens,” but that in her experience, she has had more trouble with her own teenage children than with fostered teens.
But whatever age, what foster kids need most, said Glover, is commitment. “There are kids out there who have been let down time and time again. We need committed families,” she stressed. For example, Glover once fostered a 4-year-old girl who had already been in 11 different homes.
Unfortunately, 19.7 percent of Clark County dependency cases that are successfully reunited with their birth home re-enter foster care within 12 months, compared to a national median rate of 15 percent and a state average rate of 13.8 percent. Cowlitz County’s re-entry rate is 35.8 percent.
Moore said that on average, a Southwest Washington foster child moves three times, and added that studies have shown that each time a child changes schools, the child experiences three to six months of academic decline.
“Knowing exactly why the re-entry rate for Cowlitz County is so high is a tough question – there are a lot of factors that play into it.”
One major contributing factor, she said, was that maintaining long-term sobriety was a challenge.
“When we saw the numbers,” said Tina Day, “we asked ourselves, ‘What are we not doing that we should be? How can we get a better handle on this?’”
Curtin encouraged people to consider becoming foster parents, and clarified that parents can choose which kids to foster based on age, gender, and behavioral issues that fit best in their home. The most important thing, she said, was to be “willing to pick up the pieces for a little person in trauma.”
How to get involved
Department of Social and Health Services. General questions about foster care for Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania, and Wahkiakum Counties: Giselle Reyes 360-993-7947. For all other Region 6 counties: Wendi Pumphrey-Rios 360-725-6701
Court-Appointed Special Advocate program. Nonprofit organization needs volunteers to help make recommendations for what is in the child’s best interest, for children legally removed from their birth home. ywcaclarkcounty.com/volunteer/casa
Families for Kids. Foster care, respite care, babysitting, and transportation – provide an hour or a weekend of foster care, or a ride to a doctor’s appointment, to give foster parents a break.
Clark & Skamania: Kim Lawrence at 360-448-0861 or Kim Glover at 360-326-3864; Regional: 360-430-1510
Foster Grandparenting. In this federal program in its 47th year, seniors provide one-on-one emotional support, mentoring, and tutoring for children from preschool age to 18 years at schools and other sites in Clark and Pacific counties. Must be 55+, meet certain income level standards, and be willing to volunteer about 20 hours per week. Marianne Falbee at 360-448-9653
Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest. Mentoring Youth in Foster Care program provides children in foster placement with a caring, consistent big brother or big sister that can enrich their lives culturally, socially and academically. www.bbbsnorthwest.org. Cowlitz: 360-636-2765; Clark: 360-891-8382; Skamania: 509-427-8904
Donations may also be made to many of these organizations.