May 17 2016
Like many communities, Austin faces a huge need for more local foster families, especially families willing to take on larger siblings groups or children with high needs, medically or behaviorally. This is why we see many children being placed far away across the state, or in shelters or group homes, or sometimes even sleeping at the CPS offices as opposed to being placed locally with an available family. We talked with CASA’s Chief Program Officer Sarah Christofferson and Director of Advocacy Stephanie Weiss about this issue.
Sarah says this is a real problem because without the option of a local foster home “kids are not as easily able to stay in their home community. This disrupts their schooling, friendships, activities and associated connections… everything that they’re familiar with, which compounds the sense of loss. Distance also makes it harder to keep children closely connected to parents. If children have been removed because of safety concerns, we certainly want to put services in place to help the parents make changes, but we still want to maintain a connection between the children and their parents while working toward reunification. Children being placed far outside of Austin adds unnecessary strain and stress to families who are trying to heal.”
Sarah and Stephanie agree that foster parenting is not for everyone, but for those that are equipped and committed, the role is a vital and important one. For many children and families, a great foster home can make all of the difference. Stephanie noted that, at times, “unrealistic expectations and a lack of adequate support and education for foster families can be a barrier that leads to burn-out, but supports and trainings are ever-evolving.” Stephanie would love to see all foster families go through Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) training to learn how to handle challenging behaviors and help kids heal, as well as receive ongoing support, mentorship and a parenting coach to support families fostering for the first time. Parenting is hard work. And foster-parenting is no exception. It also brings with it additional challenges. “You’re trying to create a parent-child relationship that hasn’t existed before,” said Stephanie. “Coaching and a strong support system are essential.”
Sarah shares that in addition to children being placed outside of their home community ”the lack of available foster homes leads to a number of children being placed temporarily in emergency shelters, which is far from ideal. A shelter is not a home and is certainly not conducive to raising kids – it’s hourly staff versus a parent.”
When asked if the lack of foster homes is a newer problem in the area, Sarah said that part of the challenge is the growing number of children coming into CPS care, but that at the same time there is “a growing awareness on our part of the importance of keeping kids in their communities and connected to their families, relatives, and network. It may be that we’re identifying this as a problem more often than we did before.” Stephanie says there are ways for CASA to work around kids being placed far away: “We have a lot of technology – Skype, Facetime – to communicate with kids, but technology has it’s limits. To truly get to know a child, face to face interactions are key. And the longer the distance, the more time and resource this requires. Both CASA and CPS often have to make use of a courtesy caseworker or volunteer from another city who has no firsthand knowledge of the rest of the family for regular information. This just alienates the child even further.”
Ultimately, we need more support for people interested in fostering, and more people willing to step up and serve as foster parents in the Austin and Central Texas area who understand the challenges and are up to being that temporary parent… just like we need more people to become CASA volunteers. The challenge is you cannot do both at the same time, so we understand that asking people to take on one role takes away someone who might be able to do the other. But we also understand that in order for this system to truly work best for children, to help them and their families heal and hopefully reunite, we need the entire system to be at its best and work collaboratively. We need everyone in the community to come to the table and help in whichever way works best for them.
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