Foster care families decline in Iowa

More kids being placed with relatives

Attendees bow their heads in prayer at the start of
Attendees bow their heads in prayer at the start of "Get Lifted", Iowa KidsNet's second annual event to promote awareness of foster care at Four Oaks Bridge Dummermuth Intergenerational Center in Cedar Rapids on on May 7, 2011. (Cliff Jette/the Gazette)

“I remember sitting in the Foundation 2 office and them making dozens and dozens of calls, trying to find me a place,” said Stacey Struve of northeast Cedar Rapids.

One of those calls led Struve, 28, then a rebellious, troubled girl of about 15, to Marolyn Kelly’s home.

“I love people,” said Marolyn Kelly, a foster mother for 13 years. “Other than the color of their skin — because most of them have been Caucasian — you can’t tell my foster kids from my own kid.”

“You do it because there are kids who have needs, you don’t do it to satisfy your needs,” said Ruth Ehrhardt, who’s taken children into her southeast Cedar Rapids home for 25 years.

Iowa KidsNet, the partnership of six non-profits that manages the state’s foster programs, is always on the lookout for new households willing to take in a stranger’s child — maybe more than one — on a moment’s notice. An Iowa KidsNet informational meeting will be held 6 p.m. today in Cedar Rapids — call KidsNet 800-243-0756 for the location or visit KidsNet’s web site for more information.

KidsNet will hold another Cedar Rapids session Oct. 11.

Like its counterparts across the country, the Iowa Department of Human Services over the past decade has made placement with relatives the first choice when children must be removed from a potentially dangerous situation.

“If you can keep the child safe and the family together, that is best,” said DHS spokesman Roger Munns. “If it is not safe, then we shoot for relative placement, and if removal is required we seek a voluntary removal” before filing a petition to remove a child from parents’ custody.

That philosophy is behind the 30 percent decrease in foster placements statewide over the past five years, from 8,924 in September 2006 to 6,164 at the end of March, the most recent statistics available. The decrease in licensed foster homes has nearly matched that decline, dropping 25 percent to 2,229 over the same period.

Still, “there’s always more calls than I have bed space for,” said Ehrhardt. “That’s a need that hasn’t been met.”

Foster-family candidates must pass a background check, and take 30 hours of training over 10 weeks. The state compensates foster parents $16 for each day a child stays in their home, with higher rates for children with special needs.

Kelly, 55, a single mother who recently left the corporate world to attend nursing school, said her own daughter convinced her to make theirs a foster home.

“I was working all the time, and she was complaining about not having someone in her life,” Kelly said. “I was raised in a big family, but I had no family here. I said, ‘Wow, I have the room and I am a Christian and we are our brother’s keeper.’ It’s effortless for me, it’s just something I can do.”

Ehrhardt, a registered nurse, took foster parent training so she could take in a 10-year-old child she’d met while working in Liberia. The child needed a place to stay between treatments at the Shriners’ Burn Institute in St. Louis.

A neighbor who was a juvenile probation officer, then “kind of grabbed me and pulled me in,” convincing Ehrhardt to open her home. “I do have the resources to do that, and the space, and I want to extend that.”

Foster parents may specify preferred ages and genders. Kelly and Ehrhardt have become first calls for social workers looking to place teenage girls.

“I enjoy working with kids who are kind of pre-independent living,” said Ehrhardt. “I know there’s people who think I’m crazy for doing teenagers. I don’t do well with crying babies.”

“I didn’t want to get attached” to small children, Kelly said.

Kelly said prospective foster parents must get buy-in from all family members.

“You have to have agreement from the entire family or it doesn’t work,” she said.

Working with birth families of foster children is key.

“It’s easier and better if you can have a healthy relationship with the birth parents,” said Kelly. “You have to exercise empathy.”

“Our job is to be supportive of the children and birth family,” said Ehrhardt. “There are many things outside the control of the child, and our job is to provide a safe place for them to be while those things get worked out.”

“We don’t all hang out at holidays or anything, but throughout the process they understood she was trying to reunite the family,” Struve said of her parents. “I never really lost that relationship.”

Ehrhardt suggested those interested in fostering first volunteer for respite duty, spelling regular foster families for short, defined periods. They may even move into the regular foster family’s home a weekend or so.

Foster candidates should be realistic about the situations that bring the children to their homes

“Most of the time, we meet kids on the worst day of their lives,” said Ehrhardt. “No matter what the situation is they’ve been removed from, it was familiar. Don’t expect to be embraced by kids coming to the door. We have to earn trust.”

Longtime foster families often maintain contact with former foster children, some of which are now parents themselves.

“The daughter of my first foster child is in college in Arizona,” Ehrhardt said. “So there are those rewards.”

“I kind of feel like I have two families, the best of both worlds,” said Struve, now a team leader at GE Capital with a 7-year-old son of her own. She bought her home in Kelly’s neighborhood to stay close to her former foster mother.

“Being matched with Marolyn is one of the best things that could have happened, Struve said. “She gave me that structure. I think that mentoring is what kids look for.”

DHS Foster Stats   

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