Foster parenting poses many tough questions

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

Does your home have a working carbon monoxide detector? If children are allowed to play in the basement, is there a direct escape to the outside?

These are among the easier questions people must answer if they are contemplating becoming foster parents.

A little tougher: Are you willing to commit to not using any form of physical punishment with a foster child in your care? Do you know of ways other than spanking to discipline and guide children?

Now for the tough ones: Are you willing to consider being a foster parent to a child who is a fire starter, who steals food from your cupboard and hoards it, who is known to have gang involvement?

How about a child who is infected with AIDS, is blind or visually impaired, or is medically fragile?

About a dozen Kenai Peninsula residents attending a "Resource Family Orientation" presented by the Office of Children's Services in Kenai Tuesday night faced those harsh realities.

"I don't want to scare you away," said community care licensing specialist Holly Mercado during the two-hour orientation.

The need for foster families on the Kenai Peninsula is great, she said.

Currently the peninsula has 120 approved foster homes. Seventy-two children are in foster care.

At a glance, that would appear to be a surplus of foster homes, but in fact not every foster home is suitable for every child.

"A lot of families will not take teenagers," Mercado said, as one example of why more foster families are needed.

"Around Christmas, I could not find a home for a 6-year-old boy," she said, adding a number of potential foster families had travel plans or other valid reasons for not taking in the child at that time.

Conducted monthly at the old courthouse building on Main Street Loop in Kenai, the orientations give potential foster families an opportunity to ask questions about foster parenting to help them decide whether or not it's for them.

The training also gives OCS a chance to let people know how the agency needs and uses resource families, Mercado said, defining resource families as those providing foster care, foster and adoptive care, adoption, guardianship, care for relatives and tribally licensed homes.

Several people attending the orientation said they were there for information. One man said he knows some kids who need a foster family; one couple said they had been foster parents before on a temporary basis and would like to be foster parents again; one woman said her daughter is experiencing difficulty in trying to foster adopt; and another couple said they were curious about the needs for Alaska children.

The mission of OCS, Mercado said, is to provide safety and permanency for children in its care.

"Safety means we need to keep the kiddos safe from abuse," Mercado said. "Permanency means we would either return the child to their family or establish a foster family."

Typically, a child comes to OCS through the courts, Mercado said. OCS has 30 days to evaluate the child and find suitable foster care, after which the case goes back before the court, which then decides if the child returns to the birth family.

"In that first 30 days, you need to talk a lot to the child to really get to know them," Mercado told the orientation participants. "You need to arrange for schools, arrange for transportation, have visitation appointments, get a developmental evaluation, get medical and dental exams and shots.

"A lot of people don't realize how many appointments they need in that first 30 days," she said. "A lot of times they say, 'I work. I can't make all those appointments.'"

Additionally, a licensing worker will visit the home to do a physical inspection, assuring the home is equipped with smoke and CO detectors, has fire extinguishers, and that the window size allows for a child to escape in case of emergency.

Again, not wanting to discourage participants from going forward, Mercado said, "If you're willing to foster, your chances of adoption are much better."

She also outlined the monetary stipends paid on a daily basis by the state to help provide for foster children, and said the Alaska Center for Resource Families provides information resources and training on "anything a child could have been through fetal alcohol syndrome, physical abuse, substance abuse."

Though the orientations are conducted each month, Mercado said the group of inquiring parents Tuesday was "the largest group that's been through here in years.

"This is really great. There's a real need for foster parents," she said.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at

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