If you've ever considered becoming a foster parent, did doubts hold you back? Maybe raising a traumatized youngster sounded daunting. Maybe you'd heard that DSHS Children's Administration (CA), which oversees and supports foster care in Washington, is hampered by inadequate funding, big-bureaucracy delays and overworked staff. Maybe parenting without a nearby surrogate grandparent, aunt or uncle for the youngster sounded like a fast track to burnout.
In short, you didn't want to fail a vulnerable child.
But the current shortage of foster homes means we're collectively failing thousands of children. According to Beth Canfield, who is co-president of Foster Parents Association of Washington State (FPAWS) with her husband, Mike, the number of state-licensed foster homes held fairly steady at about 9,000 for most of their 30 years as foster parents. Now it has shrunk to 5,100 — for the 10,000 children whose parents can't take care of them. It's a crisis.
The crisis can’t be remedied by the system in its present form, says The Mockingbird Society's executive director, Jim Theofelis. The number of foster parents is unlikely to rise unless interested adults can be reasonably confident they won’t end up struggling alone and ill-supported.
But what if people knew that several foster caregivers who lived near them would be available to listen, empathize, share parenting tips? And what if this constellation of foster households was linked to a “hub” home staffed by an experienced foster parent, a deft system navigator who knows about resources that a frazzled caseworker forgot to tell a client about? This is the Mockingbird Family Model (MFM).
In an MFM constellation of foster homes, kids can stay at the hub home when a foster caregiver wants an occasional weekend off. A teenager, instead of running away when he's fed up with mom or dad (as many foster teens do), can chill for a few nights at the hub home, where every child keeps an extra toothbrush and the veteran foster parent knows that teenager's needs.
Theofilis views the Mockingbird model as a retention and recruitment tool that will increase the number of foster homes. “The better we hold on to caregivers, the better recruitment they can be for families and friends,” he says. “Billboards don’t work. Of the band of folks considering [foster parenting], more are likely to come in when they hear, at their kid's baseball game or swimming meet, about support from the MFM.” Solid caregiver backup is a magnet, and supporting the adults who care for kids is good for the kids.
Just ask Degale Cooper, the hub parent in the Columbia City constellation. She hosts informal dinners and monthly meetings where families deal with issues big and small, from engaging the children in discussions about bullying and how to stop it, to finding an affordable summer camp. If the children aren’t participating in the conversation, they go play together in the hub home yard or rec room. On weekends a group of the families might go camping or boating.
Credit: Jack Hunter
It’s like an extended family. “My house is 'Auntie's house,'” says Cooper (above). “The kids are comfortable coming and going. Maybe a parent will call me in the middle of the night: 'I'm tearing my hair out! She's trashing her room. Can you come get her?'” At such times Cooper's home becomes a refuge for the child, a place where he or she can get some coaching about healthier behavior by an adult who's familiar, trusted and skilled at resolving conflicts and cooling tempers.
Yossi and Gitit Banai, MSM foster parents in an Eastside constellation, are also raising three biological children. When their 12-year-old foster son heard that his biological parents had made him legally eligible for adoption by giving up their parental rights, he announced that he wanted to move out immediately — even though no adoptive parents had yet been found — and started acting out in ways that disturbed and disrupted the whole family.
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