fostercarecrisis (1)

Part One

‘Our goal is to reduce trauma to children’

By JOHN McBRYDE

This story is the first in a Home Page Media Group series on the issue of foster care in Tennessee and, more specifically, in Williamson County. Future stories will look at the roles of faith-based communities, businesses and volunteers, as well as profiles of some of the area’s foster families. We would like to hear from you, too, about any experiences you have to share about fostering.

In the world of foster care and adoption, the younger the child, the better chance of being taken in by a foster family. The general perception is that teenagers are too set in their ways, but Lisa Brookover, regional director for the Mid-Cumberland region of the Department of Children’s Services, said that’s simply not the case.

“I think there is a stigma around foster children, especially our teens,” she said. “People think they’ve done something bad or they’re uncontrollable, or there’s something wrong with them. So we do like to get the word out about what our need is, what some of the challenges we have, and … that there are benefits to being a foster parent and taking foster children into your home. We have teens in foster care that are kind of like average teenagers. They’re not perfect, but I don’t know a teenager that is. But they deserve a family and deserve support.

“One of the biggest messages we want people to understand is, we may have a teenager that’s 16 or 17 years old, but they’re not too old to be adopted. Young adults need families just like babies need families.”

The challenge is that the majority of those homes are not willing to take teens or large sibling sets. Brookover said DCS is generally successful at sending two or three to the same home, but keeping larger groups of brothers and sisters together can get tricky.

“We absolutely believe in keeping sibling groups together,” she said. “We feel that’s a great way to reduce trauma. Lots of times siblings rely on each other, and it’s very difficult on them if they’re separated. Historically, we do a pretty good job of keeping siblings together. We do have challenges, though, when we have very large sibling groups.”

Placing foster children

When a child is taken into custody from their birth family by DCS, the first option for placement of the child is not with a foster family.

In fact, a good deal of time and energy are expended to find a place where a child won’t be further upset by moving into a home full of strangers. The DCS placement team works diligently to find a relative or someone else that has close association with the child or his or her family, according to Brookover.

“Our goal is to reduce trauma to children, and we know that even when children are unsafe with their birth family, it’s traumatic to be brought into foster care and to suddenly go live with strangers and not always have immediate contact with their families,” said Brookover, whose region includes Williamson County and seven other counties in the Greater Nashville area.

“So if we can locate family members, friends, church members, teachers — somebody that child has some sort of relationship with — we can go and assess that family very quickly to see if they would be an appropriate placement for that child rather than placing them in what we would call traditional foster care.”

Make no mistake, though. While traditional foster care may not be the initial preference in many cases, it’s an option that’s sorely necessary for the health and wellbeing of thousands of kids in the foster care system in Tennessee and scores in Williamson County alone. There are approximately 8,000 children in the state’s foster care system, and around 350 of those are legally free to be adopted.

Some 60% of children that have been taken into custody are eventually returned to their birth families, but that leaves a sizable number that will need a forever home quite likely through a foster family that, ideally, is also ready and willing to adopt.

“We realize that foster care is a complex issue, but we think it’s solvable,” said Kalie Printz, who works with churches on foster care through her position with the Franklin nonprofit Tennessee Kids Belong. “We believe those 350 kids who are waiting for a forever home, that’s a solvable issue. Those kids just need to be connected with families.”

Most custody cases are results of drug abuse 

The process toward foster care begins with a child being taken into custody by DCS, and in recent years that initial step has been enlarged by drug addiction.

“The opioid crisis really started an increase in our custody numbers,” Brookover said. “It has had a huge impact in East Tennessee, but we do see it here as well. … We’re seeing more parents overdose and die. It has definitely had an impact. The vast majority in our custody is due to drug abuse of a parent.”

When a home is deemed unfit or even too dangerous for a child’s welfare, DCS begins the process that involves legal consultation and information gathering on the child, the family, medical, educational and other details. Those facts are sent to the department’s placement team, which then searches for relatives or family friends for a place where the child can temporarily stay. If an arrangement can’t be made in that regard, then the child or children will be brought to the DCS office or, in Williamson County, to a safe house at a church in Thompson’s Station.

The department will then send out a placement packet to DCS-managed foster homes as well as private provider homes within a particular county or area. In Williamson, there are 51 DCS homes and 49 private homes, making for 100 homes in which families have met state requirements to foster.

To qualify as a foster-ready home, an individual or a family must:

  • be at least 21 years old;
  • be fingerprinted and pass a background check;
  • participate in an informational meeting;
  • complete a training program called PATH (Parents as Tender Healers);
  • participate in a home study;
  • provide documentation of a sufficient income;
  • complete a health exam.

Fostering takes a well-rounded effort

At Church of the City in Franklin, Pastor Darren Whitehead and his wife, Brandy Whitehead, began a ministry on foster care about four years ago. They had recognized that Williamson County was insufficient in the number of homes available for foster children in need.

Whitehead will often address the topic in a sermon, and the church provides a venue for PATH (Parents as Tender Healers) classes and has also established a wrap-around ministry that provides support in a variety of ways.

“I think people without awareness [of foster care] think the government’s got this,” said Brandy Whitehead, who has a background in social work. “We don’t have enough foster families in Williamson County. We’re just passionate to get that information out there, because I know there are loving people that would take a child in.”

In addition to the government and the faith-based communities, businesses are also becoming involved in foster care by offering discounts on items for foster families or with employers providing flexibility for employees who foster. The creative community is doing its part as well, with, for instance, videographers traveling across the state to shoot videos of available foster children for the Tennessee Kids Belong website.

“There’s a lot of good going on,” Emily Tardy, who handles strategic partnerships for Tennessee Kids Belong, said. “And we can actually solve the crisis and have kids in homes rather than waiting on homes.”

Upcoming events, classes, discussions

  • The Department of Children’s Services will hold an informational meeting on foster parenting at Church of the City Sept. 28 from 9-11 a.m. Also, another round of PATH classes begins Oct. 5 and runs through Nov. 2.
  • Tennessee Kids Belong is hosting a series of roundtable discussions titled Foster Care and Your Church, giving participants an opportunity to better understand the role of the church in solving the foster care crisis. Upcoming topics are Foster Parent Support Groups (Oct. 16) and Intentionally Caring for Foster Families (Nov. 20). Click here to register.
  • The annual fundraiser for Tennessee Kids Belong will be held Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. at The Lodge, 1229 Lakeview Drive in Franklin.

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