Human Services looks to raise awareness during National Foster Care Month
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on foster care in central Wisconsin. Part two will focus on a specific set of foster parents and their story.)
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — On an average day, there are about 8,000 children living with foster families across the state of Wisconsin. About 5,100 families are currently licensed to be foster care providers statewide, according to information provided by Wood County Human Services. May is National Foster Care Month, an effort to recognize the efforts of current caregivers, child welfare professionals, and others who help children in need find homes.
Merrisa Touray, a resource unit supervisor with Wood County Human Services, helps the foster care coordinators she manages recruit and retain foster parents. Wood County Human Services works to have prospective foster parents become licensed and support foster parents once they have children placed in their homes.
Touray said that her department does a good deal of community outreach to get the message out that foster parents are needed and to help people understand what being a foster parent truly means. She said retaining current foster parents is crucial.
“The biggest thing that helps us is positive word of mouth. So if we are kind and good to the foster parents that we have, they’re more likely to tell other people that they’re having a positive experience working with us,” Touray said.
In 2014, 186 children were in the foster care system in Wood County with 63 foster homes available to them, Touray said. The shortage of available foster parents limits the county’s ability to match children with caregivers who would be the best fit for a child’s specific personality and interests.
“We have more kids in care than we do have homes,” Touray said. “It would be nice to have more resources, to have more options,” she said referring to having more choices in choosing a good match between a foster child and his or her foster home. She added that receiving homes, which are homes that provide emergency care for children, are also a pressing need.
Touray noted that barriers to attracting more foster care parents are commonly held misconceptions about the process, for example that foster parents need to be married, own a home, or that they must have their own children or may not have their own children.
According to information provided by Wood County Human Services, “In reality people from all walks of life can be a foster parent. You can be young or old, homeowner or renter, married or single, work in or outside the home or with or without children of your own.”
Another challenge is the misconception that there is not a pressing need for foster parents in central Wisconsin.
“I think that people are shocked when they hear this is happening in our community. I think that there is a lack of knowledge about what is actually happening in the community, and not on purpose, but I think it does exist,” Touray said.
Respite care providers are also needed. These care providers step in for a few days at a time to give a break to foster care parents that may want to go on a vacation or take a weekend trip.
Nine to 18 months is a rough estimate of how long a child might be in the foster care system, and by the 15th month in care, Wood County is finalizing plans to find a permanent residence for the child, whether that be through reunification with the biological parents or adoption. According to information from Wood County Human Services, most children in the foster care program are not available for adoption, but when they are, foster parents are eligible to apply to be adoptive parents.
Foster parents becoming adoptive parents can present a challenge for the county because when foster homes become full and those parents intend to adopt those children, they may drop out of the system and not be available for future foster children.
Parental neglect; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; drug issues; and mental health issues are common reasons why a child ends up in foster care, Touray said. She added that the most likely result, if a biological parent is willing to work with his or her issues, is to reunify the foster child with his or her biological parent.
“We’re not going to keep your child from you if you actually made the changes to be able to keep them safe,” Touray said. She added that the majority of cases she sees involve parents that are at or near the poverty line.
While there are undoubtedly challenges to being a foster parent, from the licensing process to caring for a child from a potentially difficult background, Touray said, “I think just like being a social worker it is a really hard job, but it is highly rewarding, so the benefits I think outweigh the struggles.” She added, “I think if you have any interest in helping others and you want to make a difference in the world, being a foster parent is a wonderful way to do it.”
For more information on the foster care system or if you have interest in being a foster parent, call Grace Bauer at Wood County Human Services at 715-387-6374 (North Wood County) or Jean Rader at 715-421-8643 (South Wood County) or visit co.wood.wi.us/Departments/HumanServices/ChildrenLivingOutOfTheHome.aspx.