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Making young lives matter

In the conclusion of a two-part feature on foster care  JANELLE DE SOUZA highlights the work of the Children’s Authority and its efforts to place children with loving families.

When the Children’s Authority removes children their parents’ homes, it is not because they want to “take people children.” It is usually because the environment or circumstances is unsafe or unstable, and it is in the best interest of the child to do so. Usually the child is placed in a children’s home or in foster care. Foster care is intended to be a safe and nurturing, but temporary living arrangement for children who cannot live with their biological parents. During this time, the authority works with biological parents to get back on their feet so that the child can be returned where possible, appropriate, and in the child’s best interest. However, some parents do not make a real effort to regain their children, so they stay in foster care for years.

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Anjuli Tewari, the authority’s foster care team lead, told Sunday Newsday children and parents may love each other and want to be reunited but if there are no changes in circumstances and the home environment is not safe for the child, they could not return the child in good conscience. She explained that children in foster care are wards of the State, so the authority has to update the courts on the children’s progress. Part of this is offering support to biological parents. Unfortunately, she said, the parents do not always accept the help.

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“The court will say, ‘In order for you to get back your child you will need to attend weekly therapy, you will need to attend parenting classes, you will need to seek assistance for your drug addiction.’ But parents sometimes don’t adhere to those stipulations and that’s why it’s really difficult for us to consider returning (the child) … So we really want to encourage birth parents to work with us to get their children back into their care.”

September is Adoption and Foster Care Awareness Month. However, since there is no pool of children for adoption, the Children’s Authority is focussing on foster care. Tewari said the month is about raising awareness and normalising foster care since many people do not know about it and confuse it with adoption.

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“It should be that every child in TT is our (society’s) responsibility. It’s our children. We need to fix this. People need to understand that if we fix it now, it will mitigate problems later on. We won’t have so many children joining gangs, we won’t have so many adults with unresolved issues from their youth. Because in foster care they can get that love and attention and their needs met… Even if it is for a short time it could make an impact on the child’s life.”

She gave the example of a nine-year-old boy with special needs who grew up in a nursing home for the elderly. He never went to school, was never around other children, had no toys. Although he was clothed, fed and sheltered, no one interacted with him, so he never talked.

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“Within the first week of placing him in foster care we actually heard him speaking because finally someone was speaking to him… He’s not in the same foster home now but I was amazed to see the difference.”

Anjuli Tewari, foster care team lead at the Children’s Authority, explains how the foster care system works in a Newsday interview. PHOTO BY VIDYA THURAB

Tewari said while foster children may have additional needs because they possibly went through trauma, abuse, neglect, lack of education, undernourishment, or other situations, they were like any other child. She said people should not see the child as “a child with trauma” because many children with trauma are resilient. Therefore, the authority does its best to support foster parents and children both emotionally and financially

Foster parents are provided with a stipend to cover the child’s expenses which is reviewed and adjusted, according to the child’s needs. Case workers not only monitor the child but provide emotional support for both parties. In addition, if there is friction between the child and foster parents, a mediator is provided, and if therapy is needed, they are assigned to a counsellor or psychologist. If only the child needs therapy, the therapist tells the foster parents how they could support the child and give them feedback without breaking confidentiality

The authority also provides the biological family supervised access to the child, separate to the foster parents so their identity remains confidential. “We support the whole relationship with the aim of reintegration where possible.”

Tewari explained that the authority took over the adoption and fostering system when they became operational four years ago. Unlike some cases where children have been fostered for over a decade, the authority is now trying not to have children with foster parents for more than three years without securing some kind of permanency for the child

“After two to three years we need to know what’s going on. Is it that it’s still an option for the child to be returned to their home or is it that we’re looking at more permanent care arrangement, whether it’s a fit person or adoption?”

She said if a foster child were available for adoption, it was possible for a foster parent to adopt. However, it is considered on a case-by-case basis and therefore not guaranteed

“The adoption process remains independent from the foster care process, so that a foster parent will have to comply with the Authority’s adoption application process. This application will be processed just as any other application for adoption. It is important to note that foster care should not be used as a route into adoption.”

Open homes to teenagers

People do not want teenagers or children with special needs including those with development delays, physical disabilities or behavioural problems. Tewari appealed to people to consider these children as they need care the most

She added that some teenagers have seen and been through terrible things which made them very mature for their age. “If they don’t have a home to go to, a family to love them, where are we expecting our society to end up? We’re churning out people who feel they don’t have that support and love and attention. To me foster care is the way forward for teenagers.”

Another challenge is finding foster parents with the capacity to house siblings. She said although the authority tries not to split up siblings, sometimes they have no choice. However, even when this happens, they allow siblings to visit each other so they could maintain a relationship

In addition, some people have expectations, both positive and negative, that leave them disappointed, or stop them from fostering certain children. Some have concerns about becoming too attached to the children. No matter the situation, Tewari promised the authority’s training, support, and help to manage expectations

She gave the example of one parent who fostered eight children. Some stayed for a night, others for months, and two for a few years. The parent bonded with the children, so letting go of the first few were difficult. The authority provided her with therapy, and she is now happy about seeing to the children’s immediate needs and recognising how she has improved their lives. Another foster parent had more than 30 children over the years. “She finds it so rewarding because she knows when they leave her, they are in a better state than when they came.”

Becoming a foster parent

To be a foster parent a person must be 21 and over, healthy and able. Marital status is not a consideration. However, a support network for the foster parent is important so the family or household would be part of the assessment process

“That’s the thing about foster care. It’s really about having a team around the child. Even when we have single applicants, it’s never really a single person. They have a grandmother, mom, dad, sister chipping in and helping out.”

When an individual expresses interest in being a foster parent to the Authority, they are given an information package so they could decide if it is right for them. To apply several documents are needed including a medical certificate of fitness, photo identification, the names and contact information of two references, and a current certificate of character issued by the police for all members of the household over the age of 18

The information would then be reviewed and verified through background checks, interviews, home assessments, psychological assessments and reference checks. If cleared, the foster parent would then have to do basic training before being approved by the board of management of the Children’s Authority

TYPES OF FOSTER CARE

· Emergency foster care provides for the immediate needs of shelter, food, clothing, and support. This is usually for no longer than two weeks

· Medium term foster care is usually no longer than six months

· Long term foster care could be pursued for children for whom familial reunification or kinship is impossible or very difficult to achieve. This can span any period of time beyond six months

· Specialist foster care aims to serve children with unique psychological, social, physical, behavioural and emotional needs. These needs require more intensive or therapeutic services that can be provided by trained professionals or specialist foster parents

· Respite foster care is the temporary or short-term home care which aims to give parents or guardians and foster parents some support for a variety of reasons including illness of a parent, family crisis or chronic illness of a child.