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Bridge over troubled waters: What are the costs if we don't do enough?

Foster parents describe the joys of providing a safe haven, while emphasizing the need for community involvement.

There's a common misconception about foster children, says Becki Snellenberg, a Mercer Island resident who has foster-parented 10 children over a span of 26 years. Many people think foster children's circumstances are their fault. "More often than not, usually something is wrong with the adults in the kids' life," Snellenberg says. "The child needs a safe place until the adults work things out. We are basically a bridge to get the children into adopting homes -- into stable, loving, caring places."

In Washington state, there are 11,000 children in foster care, one-third of whom can't safely return home. That's a lot of kids needing a bridge to a better situation, whether a temporary placement in a foster home and perhaps returning to their parents, or a permanent new home: adoption. Foster parents, adoptive parents and community advocates emphasize the urgent need for more foster families and volunteers.

Foster and adoptive families describe their experiences as fulfilling and a growth experience, despite the accompanying challenges. Snellenberg began foster parenting by chance, when an acquaintance was found neglecting her infant daughter. In addition to Snellenberg's 20-year-old son, she and her husband Doug Fraser adopted three foster children, now-27-year-old Tamara, and biological brothers Michael, 8, and Carlos, 7.

Snellenberg is licensed to foster-parent children aged 0 to 6. She enjoys helping children feel welcome and protected and, particularly with infants, develop attachment. "They may never remember it or you, but you enable them to bond. They will transfer the bond later," she says. "That affects their ability to form relationships in the future and the ability to empathize."

Providing stability for foster children is a major concern for Ann Lokey, who came to foster parenting through a decade of work as a board member of the Northwest Children's Fund (NWCF). During childhood and adolescence, it's not unusual for a foster child to have 15 to 20 placements, Lokey says, and kids can lose up to four months of academic progress -- in addition to friends, toys and confidence -- with each move.

Lokey emphasizes the importance of foster-parent networking to help kids stay in their home communities. Her first foster child came through her children's school, West Mercer Elementary on Mercer Island, when she offered to let an uprooted fifth-grade boy stay with her family for six months. The placement, a boy with severe behavioral problems, was a difficult match. Lokey's second foster child, a 9-year-old girl, is a healthier match with the family, and Lokey and her husband Mark Clausen plan to adopt her. "It's a great fit, she needs a home and we love her," Lokey says. "Why not?"

Lokey says if you enjoy parenting, foster parenting is rewarding. Whether it's a child's first taste of salmon, jump off a diving board or family vacation, Lokey says, it's joyful to share these experiences. Meanwhile, during her year and a half of foster parenting, there have been challenges. With the first placement, Lokey's sons, now 13 and 11, had to strategize to cope with their foster brother's troubles. In addition, Lokey says, "One of my children had trouble sharing his mom."

Cheryl Pomp King never intended to adopt a foster child. Infertility led her down the road to adoption, and gradually she let go of her mental picture of starting parenthood with a baby. Reluctantly, she attended a party for older foster kids -- aged roughly 4 to 14 -- where possible adoption was the barely concealed agenda. "This will be sad," she predicted. "I'll want to take them all home."

At the party, then-7-year-old Camron was shooting baskets, and Cheryl's husband, Eddie King, joined him. The chemistry between the boy and the couple was so strong that by the end of the party, Pomp King says, "We knew we needed to have that little boy in our family."

A year later, Pomp King is thoroughly enjoying her new family but also acknowledges the small frustrations: the bittersweet feeling of not automatically knowing her son's preferences in a restaurant, not having baby pictures and delayed admission to what she calls "the moms club," the network of families who have been together since kindergarten. As an adoptive family, she says, "You find out you don't belong."

Mary Herrick, who spent her adolescence in foster care and now counsels college-bound foster youth as a social worker with the Washington Education Foundation, says, "Whatever brings someone into foster care is not easy. Moving in with a family of strangers, that's certainly trying. Then there's the impermanency. You may never have a family who feels devoted to you and you feel especially a connection with. It's a very stigmatizing, lonely experience."

It's an experience that led 13 former or current foster children to sue the State of Washington. In the case Braam v. State of Washington, the children asserted that the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) delivered inadequate services while the children were in foster care. As part of the settlement, the state agreed to do major reforms to the child-welfare system, what it calls the Kids Come First initiative. But Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge says that this settlement "will only be a win for kids if adults follow through with what the settlement requires."

With its emphasis on reducing multiple moves from one foster home to another and improving services, the Braam settlement makes huge strides in addressing safety and security in the foster care system. But the child-welfare system in Washington is underfunded, foster parents and advocates say, and it's unlikely that the state will ever offer everything kids need.

Foster children will again be in the spotlight during the upcoming session of the Washington State Legislature, says Janis Avery, executive director of the nonprofit agency Treehouse, which serves approximately 3,000 foster children in King County. On the agenda will be Kids Come First II, a proposal for state Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) reforms in light of a failed federal audit earlier this year. "DCFS has developed a reform strategy that encompasses meeting federal expectations with developing an excellent child welfare system that will deliver better results for children," she notes.

Avery, who along with her partner adopted two former foster children, says foster kids are stressed out by the volatility they have faced. Avery's two children, a son now 12 and a daughter now 14, came to their family when they were 4 and 6. Avery remembers the principal calling regularly when her son was in kindergarten, because of behavior problems.

"I started crying when I heard his voice," she says. Because Avery and the school administration were trying to make a plan that worked for her son, that added even more pressure: "Strange children in your home who are cranky because of all the trouble in their lives."

Today, for this reason, Treehouse widens the circle of support for foster families by sending an educational advocate with the foster parent to the child's school.

Avery has been foster parenting for eight years, and the experience has been dense with rewards and challenges. "We've had a lot of struggles together," Avery says of her children. The last six to nine months have been the calmest yet, she says, as the family is coping with issues more related to normal development.

"The many challenges that came with them are finally falling away," Avery says. "My youngest had a lot of aggressive outbursts for years, causing trouble at home and school. That seems to have completely stopped. My eldest one, she was angry at home. She would hit family members. That has also stopped. We have gone over some hurdles with both of them that are very important."

Even with the hard work, Avery says the foster parenting experience is one to cherish. "The children in your life are teachers," Avery says. "We have learned a lot about love and compassion I'm not sure I'd have learned any place else."

Her passion about foster parenting is evident through the services that Treehouse provides. Foster families often have tight budgets, because many of them have two to four foster kids in addition to their biological children, Avery says. "The foster care stipend just barely covers the room and board side of child rearing,"

The state allocates only $100 a year for each foster child's clothing. To help stretch the family dollar, Treehouse provides eligible families with quarterly shopping trips to its Wearhouse, a mock retail store stocked with clothes, school supplies and personal care items to help foster kids fit in. Through its Little Wishes program, Treehouse pays for extracurricular activities; it also funds summer camp, which gives foster kids a lift and gives their families a burnout-preventing break.

"The state is obligated to provide respite care for foster families, but there aren't enough families," Avery says.

With that in mind, a nonprofit agency called the Mockingbird Society pioneered a new model in foster care and kinship care (children living with relatives such as a grandparent) with its Foster Family Constellation Project. For its pilot program, the agency formed a community of four to six foster families who support one another like an extended family. The families are matched with a "hub" home, a private residence that is licensed as a foster home, with respite caregivers who behave almost like an aunt or uncle. The hub home has two extra beds available 24-7 so the foster children can stay there for a sleepover or have a place to sleep in case of an emergency, or just give their foster mom a well-earned break. If the at-risk kids want to discuss their troubles, it's OK, and if they don't, that's fine.

Degale Cooper, one of the respite caregivers, says the hub home offers kids a sense of permanency and belonging. "When they come into our home, they know it's their home. They know their bedroom is their bedroom, they know they can leave something" and it will still be there.

The Mockingbird Society also addresses a child-welfare missing link: Foster children who "age out" of the system at age 18. Many of these young adults have missed developmental milestones and they've had disrupted school experiences. And, like many 18-year-olds in healthier circumstances, they lack adequate skills or preparation to earn a living, advocates say. (The DSHS reform plan proposes expanding foster care to age 21.)

Thanks to the recent legal settlement and the state's plan for reforms in the foster-care system, change seems to be underway. But advocates say individual community members must also contribute to fulfill the needs of all children. What are the consequences if we don't do enough or don't get it right? "A tragic waste of human potential and a tragic cost to society," Lokey says.

Justice Bridge is optimistic: "If we can realize even half the outcome of the Kids Come First initiative, we will have made a difference in thousands of lives."™

Get involved

Foster parents and community advocates emphasize that helping foster families is a responsibility best met by all of us. "Once a judge says a child is not safe at home, they become our mutual responsibility as our community's children," says Janis Avery of Treehouse.

Here is a sampling of the myriad ways to contribute time or resources, and many worthy venues.

  • Volunteer for agencies that support foster families.
  • Donate money or items to non-profit agencies that support foster children (such as Medina, Treehouse). Think: bikes, books, school supplies.
  • Sponsor a child's participation in summer camp, sports, music or school activities.
  • Become a tutor, mentor or child advocate.
  • Be a child's advocate in court.
  • Become a foster or permanent adoptive parent for a child.
  • Provide respite care -- even a weekend -- to give foster parent some time off.

Places that need help/volunteers:

  • Court Appointed Special Advocates

    CASA volunteers are trained to represent the best interests of children in the dependency court system. They are assigned to cases of abused and neglected children, meet all the parties and monitor the proceedings, and make recommendations to the court.

  • Families for Kids Recruitment Services

    Helps find families for abused and neglected children. Provides free information on what it is like to be a foster or adoptive parent and support through the decision-making and licensing process. (Affiliated with Lutheran Community Services.)

  • Lutheran Community Services
    433 Minor Ave. N.
    Seattle, WA 98109

    Offers a unique foster care/adoption placement program, including concurrent services to children and their birth parents.

  • Medina Children's Services
    123 - 16th Ave.
    Seattle, WA 98122

    Provides foster and adoptive care, with a focus on children of color, older children, sibling groups and children with special physical and emotional needs.

  • Treehouse
    2100 24th Ave. S
    Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98144

    Offers education and enrichment programs: Tutoring, educational advocacy, Little Wishes, summer camps and clothing allowances. Treehouse matches high school students with mentors, including a Coaching-to-College program that helps middle and high school students navigate the application process.

  • Olive Crest
    515 116th Ave. N.E., Suite 174
    Bellevue, WA 98004

    Focus: prevention and treatment of child abuse. Olive Crest operates residential homes, foster family and adoption agencies, and children's centers for high-risk youth.

  • YMCA Transitions
    A program of the Downtown Seattle YMCA
    2100 24th Ave. S, Suite 250
    Seattle, WA

    Provides supportive periods after young people leave foster care, offering career development skills and subsidized housing.

Michelle Feder writes about a wide range of subjects and has a 2 1/2-year-old son.

Teen novel shines: light on foster kids

Want to get a look inside the world of a foster child? The Last Chance Texaco, by Tacoma author Brent Hartinger, is a great read for both teens and adults.

Hartinger, himself a former group home counselor for troubled teens in Bellingham, tells the story of Lucy Pitt, a 15-year-old who has spent the past eight years moving from one foster home to another.

Lucy ends up at Kindle Home, a group home for the foster care system's most difficult cases. The kids who live there call it The Last Chance Texaco, because it's the last opportunity these teens have for redemption: One more slip-up means they are shipped to Rabbit Island, a high-security juvenile detention facility.

The book is more than a story about group homes, though. It is a fast-paced mystery -- someone is setting fires in the neighborhood and Lucy is determined to find the culprit -- that is sure to grab and hold the attention of any teen reader.

"I hope my book might give teenagers and adults some insight into the challenges that a lot of foster kids face, maybe see the world from a perspective they don't often encounter," Hartinger says.

The Last Chance Texaco, recommended for readers 12 and up, is a 2005 American Library Association "Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers" nominee.

Teresa Wippel

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