Pandemic brings challenges to foster parent recruitment
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Karen Mason and her son, Tommy Mason, at their Roanoke home. Karen adopted Tommy from foster care when he was a toddler and recently completed training to become a foster parent again. She said the pandemic did not deter her from opening up her home and she is now fostering an 8-year-old boy.
HEATHER ROUSSEAU photos, The Roanoke Times
Karen Mason and her son, Tommy Mason, play basketball together in their backyard of their Roanoke home. They decided that despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would move forward with becoming a foster family. An 8-year-old foster son recently moved into their home.
HEATHER ROUSSEAU, The Roanoke Times
Karen Mason and her 17-year-old son, Tommy Mason, decided to move ahead with becoming a foster family despite the pandemic. “Really not a whole lot has changed about my work life and availability, so it just felt like the right time,” Karen Mason said. “I wasn’t going to let COVID get in the way of what I felt was the right thing.”
HEATHER ROUSSEAU, The Roanoke Times
The coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t stop Karen Mason from becoming a foster parent.
For years, she and her son talked about opening their home to another child, but it was never the right time. Just as all of the pieces seemed to fall into place, a global pandemic settled into the Roanoke Valley.
Mason and her son, Tommy, 17, decided that despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would move forward with becoming a foster family. Mason finished her training class with the Roanoke County Department of Social Services in October and an 8-year-old foster son moved into their home soon after.
“Really not a whole lot has changed about my work life and availability, so it just felt like the right time,” Mason said. “I wasn’t going to let COVID get in the way of what I felt was the right thing.”
While some child welfare agencies across the country have been able to attract new foster parents, others have struggled as marketing, training and communication have moved entirely online. The decrease in new foster families leaves advocates worried there won’t be enough available homes for children who need care.
Those who work in foster care say potential foster families have been dissuaded from the process because of uncertainty around unemployment or taking in a child with unknown exposures to the virus, and the added stress of remote schooling.
“Virtual schooling is making foster parent recruitment extremely challenging,” said Janet Kelly, president of Virginia’s Kids Belong. “Because it’s one thing to ask a foster family to take in a child who’s not theirs, but it’s even more to ask them to also help them through school.”
Virginia does not track the number of foster parents trained by each locality or by private organizations, so it can be difficult to know exactly how the system has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Kelly, who helps recruit foster parents through her organization, said the state’s numbers may show that every kid has a placement. And adding up the number of homes from each organization may show there are enough, but some of those homes might not be willing to take older kids who are most in need of placements.
“Virginia does not have the right kinds of homes that will take the kids who need homes right now, which is older kids,” she said. “That was the same before COVID, but it’s definitely worse now.”
Intercept Health, a private foster parent licensing agency based in Richmond, often did community events and in-person outreach to recruit foster families. Natalie Elliott, Intercept’s senior director of program development, said because many of those events had to be canceled, her agency has seen its inquiry numbers drop.
She said Intercept has continued to approve new foster families during the pandemic, but the drop can be tied to fear and instability. When stimulus checks went out in March, the number of inquiries went up. When the extra federal unemployment payments stopped, the inquiries dropped.
Even so, Intercept has been able to approve 11 foster families in Rockbridge County since last November, when it launched a program called Foster Rockbridge to increase the number of families in the area by partnering with local churches. At the time, the community only had six families even though the local social services department had taken in more than 40 foster kids.
With more classes in the works, Intercept has nearly tripled the number of foster parents in the community.
One of those parents is Michael Saunders, pastor of Lexington Baptist Church. He and the pastors of three other local churches are working with Intercept to jumpstart the Foster Rockbridge program again. It received a great response earlier this year, but things shut down once the pandemic started.
“People are trying to figure out what they’re doing in their own life, let alone helping other people,” Saunders said. “We can’t do what we’d like to do, but we’re doing the best we can to remind them of the need and keep the drums rolling.”
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Local successesSocial services departments across the Roanoke and New River valleys have seen steady numbers and sometimes increases in their foster parent classes.
Roanoke’s social services department finished a training in June that included 10 new foster families. Another class wrapped up this month with another six.
Family services supervisor Kristin Rickman said the response has been surprising. She said when the pandemic first hit, her department was worried that recruitment would grind to a halt and there wouldn’t be enough placements for children who had to be removed from their homes.
“If anything, people are coming out more to meet the need,” Rickman said. “I’ve been impressed with people stepping up during the middle of a pandemic. It’s been nice to see people come together for once.”
Kelly Edmonson , director of the Montgomery County Department of Social Services, said she’s actually seen an increase in interested foster parents. She said her department typically has two to three interested families who inquire with the office every month. Lately, it’s been between five and eight new families every month since March.
Now, the department has more than 50 families ready to take in foster children.
“That’s incredible that we have that number,” Edmonson said. “I was expecting people to be more apprehensive about going through this process. I feel that maybe because life is not so chaotic — day to day, work and school — that they really are trying to serve their community.”
New challengesThe need for foster parents has continued throughout the pandemic. In Roanoke, the number of kids in foster care has stayed steady at more than 200. In Roanoke County, the number has grown from 110 children in January to 128 in October.
Many foster parent training classes were wrapping up when mandated closures and social distancing requirements went into effect. Most localities were able to end their classes in person before switching to a virtual format.
Although it is easier for parents to attend training online, virtual classes can present challenges for local departments to get to know the family and what kind of child placements will work best for them.
Edmonson said her staff have tried to make regular phone calls to their new foster parents and asked them to fill out more information about particular age ranges, behavioral issues and traumas that would challenge them during a placement. These things are typically covered in foster parent training but can often come out in small talk and side conversations.
But Elliott, who works with Intercept Health, said sometimes Zoom calls can offer an interesting glimpse into someone’s home life that trainers don’t typically get to see — kids interrupting their parents, pets coming in and out of the camera, the general noise of a home.
“You hear what’s going on, you get a sense of what their home is really like,” Elliott said. “The office training is a controlled setting. This is not a controlled setting.”
Agencies are also training parents on how to handle COVID-19 when children come in with unknown exposure levels. All local departments handle intake differently, but most of them screen for coronavirus symptoms. COVID-19 tests are administered only if children show symptoms or if there is a suspicion they might have been exposed.
So far, agencies said they have not had any trouble with foster parents being unwilling to take kids because of a fear they could be positive for COVID-19. All foster parents are expected to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and state mandates.
“We haven’t had any major emergency removal that created concern for our families,” Edmonson said. “Our foster parents are rock stars. It’s a dynamic to bring a child into your home you don’t know, but it’s amazing that they’re willing to do it during this time.”
Alison Graham is The Secular Society Investigative Fellow at The Roanoke Times.
Follow Alison Graham on Twitter at @alisonkgraham .