In light of National Foster Care Month ending Friday, advocates are imploring people to open their doors a little bit wider and make their families a little bit bigger.
“I think one of the most important things for people to know and understand is that many of these kids just want to be in a safe, stable, loving environment,” said General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. “So many of these kids are just looking for a home where there is a schedule, there is no chaos and there is structure.”
Bailey said that the number of children placed in foster care in Greene County jumped from 125 to 135 in 2018. In Tennessee, the most typical reason a child is removed from a home is parents’ drug abuse.
According to Bailey, 42 out of every 1,000 children born in Greene County are addicted to opioids. That’s 317 percent higher than the state average.
“Any time that I am asked to remove a child from their home and family it is a tough decision,” said Bailey. “However, the idea of using methamphetamine and parenting children are not two things that occur at the same time. The tougher cases are when a parent has a limited education. Even though they may be trying hard, they just can’t provide a good, safe home for the child.”
Other reasons for removing a child include physical or sexual abuse and neglect of basic necessities — food, water and livable residence.
One Greeneville family began their fostering journey in 2011 by taking a foster parent training course, called PATH. They housed 11 children over the course of five years, resulting in the adoption of two children in March 2017. The Greeneville Sun is not identifying her in order to protect the confidentiality of her children.
“The experience we have had has mostly been parents who have been drug users,” she said. “Several of the birth parents of the children we fostered were also in the foster care system as children, so I do not think they had good role models for parenting and a strong sense of family.”
The ultimate goal for the Department of Child Services is to reunify families in an environment that is better than it was before. But that isn’t always possible.
“It is never ‘cut and dry,’” she said. “In all the families we interacted with, never did I feel the birth parent did not love their child! They were in a bad situation and were struggling with their decisions. I witnessed shame, sorrow and sadness when they were not able to make better decisions and make a better life for their family. It is heartbreaking.”
All but two of her foster children were siblings. So she and her husband typically housed more than one child at the same time. While this creates a stretch in space, resources and time, she said that it was imperative for siblings to stay together throughout their foster care experience.
“They are the one constant in each other’s lives, and having someone who knows what they are going through is important,” she said.
According to the National Foster Youth Institute, a negative fostering experience can result in developmental delays in young children, as well as low academic achievement. High school dropout rates are three times higher for teens in foster care, and fewer than 3 percent graduate from a four-year university.
“A bad foster care experience can have a devastating impact on a child,” said Bailey. “Unfortunately through the years we have had a couple of cases where I believe that we made the situation worse for the child by placing the child in foster care.”
The institute also says there is a higher risk of teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and drug or alcohol abuse later in life.
But those outcomes don’t have to be the case, according to the Greeneville parent. She said that she considers all of the children who have been in her care to be success stories.
“Each situation had its ups and downs, but the children were able to have love and stability while the adults worked through the process,” she said. “We have witnessed children being successful in school, make new friends, enjoy new experiences and learn how to cope with negative behavior. It is our hope that each child who lived in our home will remember something from that experience in a positive way and carry that with them in the future.”
A prospective foster parent does have to meet certain criteria in order to fill the need for children. Requirements depend on the agency, but the Department of Children’s Services says all applicants must be at least 21 years of age. Background checks, fingerprinting, course training, home studies and a health exam are also required, and foster parents must provide proof of a steady income.
Applicants may be single or married, with or without other children.
“These kids just need a chance, but they need foster parents who won’t give up on them,” said Bailey. “We are in need of more foster parents — for kids of all ages — not just babies and toddlers.”
When the Greeneville family received their first call to foster, it was 7 p.m. The children had been removed from their family that day during a court hearing and spent the rest of their time at the DCS office waiting for their caseworkers to find a placement for them.
“We had no idea of the sheer number of children who were needing placement,” she said. “It is overwhelming.”
Luckily, there is an action plan in progress for such situations. Ronda Paulson, a resident of Carter County, founded the Isaiah 117 House after her own experiences with the foster care system. The Isaiah 117 House provides a place for children to stay while they wait to be placed with a foster family.
“Several of the children who have been placed in our home spent hours in the DCS office until a placement was found,” said the Greeneville mother. “The children have already been removed from their families and homes. They are in shock. Having a comfortable place to stay with toys, games and books is so important.”
The Isaiah 117 House also has a fully stocked kitchen, closets full of outfits for all ages and multiple beds for children to rest.
Over $108,000 has been raised to bring the ministry to Greene County. The land for the new home has been purchased, and the Greene County committee hopes to have it up and running by the end of 2019.
While providing and “in between” space for a child is important, Greene County has an intense need for foster parents who will love and care for children, often on a long-term basis.
“I remember thinking that I knew the need was there, but there was no way I could get close with a child and then have to say goodbye and return them to a situation that I thought was less than ideal,” said the Greeneville foster parent.
Then a friend of hers, who also had experience as a foster parent, asked her a question.
“Would you rather have your heart break because you loved a child and had to say goodbye to them, or have a child live in a situation that never showed them love?” she said. “It’s not about me or my feelings at all; it’s about helping and supporting a child who needs a steady, loving environment.”