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Providing stable foster homes comes down to more families, more understanding

Iowa continues to struggle with federal stability target

Noah, 6 (left), and Oliver, 3, bounce on the trampoline with their mom Holly Bourget in Amana on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The Bourgets have four biological children and currently have two foster children. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Noah, 6 (left), and Oliver, 3, bounce on the trampoline with their mom Holly Bourget in Amana on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The Bourgets have four biological children and currently have two foster children. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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With inappropriate Internet use, missed curfews and substance abuse, foster children have pushed Tige and Holly Bourget to the limit several times.

But the Amana couple — who both were foster children themselves — have seldom given up, fostering a dozen teenagers or preteen children in the past 10 years.

“I’ve called my social workers crying,” said Holly Bourget. “But they know if I don’t say I’m going to give a 10-day notice, I will push through. You’ve got to make a commitment to kids.”

Foster children removed from their biological families because of abuse often feel rejection, even though the problems that led to their removal aren’t their fault. Keeping a child in his or her first foster family — rather than bouncing them from home to home — limits damage to a child’s health, school performance and lifelong success.

Iowa met the federal standards for stability in 2014 for the first time in four years when 85 percent of first-time foster children stayed in one foster home for at least four months or were reunited with family.

Still, finding foster parents with the right skill sets — especially in rural areas — continues to pose trouble. And foster parents worry haste to find a match sometimes leads to poor pairings.

Last year, there were 125 first-time foster children who were moved at least once in the first four months of placement.

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“Placement stability continues to be a challenge,” said Julie Allison, chief of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Welfare and Protective Services Bureau.

Instability hurts children

Foster children who are moved from home to home are more likely to experience stress, mental health issues and behavioral problems, research shows. Frequent moves have been found to increase production of cortisol, a stress hormone that, with prolonged release, can affect brain performance, bone density, blood pressure and immunity.

Children without stable placements also are more likely to switch schools, which can lead to lower academic performance.

Disruptive behavior or aggression are among the top reasons foster parents give for requesting removal of a foster child — with 70 percent of removals happening within the first six months of placement, according to the 2008 PATH Bremer Project prepared by the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.

“Even for children who do not exhibit behavior problems initially, an increased number of placements predicts an increase in behavior problems,” the report stated.

Cris Beam, author of “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care,” describes how her foster daughter, then 17, accompanied her best friend when she stole a car and ended up spending a night in jail.

“That kid will test you, even if it’s a good fit,” Beam told The Gazette.

Beam was teaching high school in Los Angeles when Christina, a transgender student, was removed from the one group home that served trans children. As Christina’s only other option was juvenile detention, Beam invited the teen to stay with her.

Beam never adopted Christina, now 31, because Christina wanted to keep open the possibility of reconnecting with her biological mother. But they still talk every day on the phone.

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“When a person takes in a child, a person needs to commit for the rest of their lives — even if the child goes back home,” Beam said. “You’ve got a very fragile psyche on your hands.”

Family shortage

The reasons for foster home instability are complex, but at least part of the problem is a shortage of foster families.

About 9,200 Iowa children were the victims of abuse in fiscal 2014 and received child welfare services, including placement in foster care, DHS reported. There were 2,141 foster families in Iowa during the same period.

Many foster families have age or space restrictions that limit which children they can take. Or the families with skills that match the child’s needs already have full houses or aren’t located nearby. DHS strives to keep foster children within 20 miles of their birth families.

The organization charged with recruiting, screening and matching Iowa foster families with children in need is Iowa KidsNet, a statewide collaboration of agencies led by Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids.

KidsNet uses computer software to match children with foster parents and make recommendations to DHS about placement. The goal is to find several qualified families who would be good matches for the child in need, but on occasion — especially in rural areas — the options are limited.

“Sometimes we have only two foster families in one county,” said Hiliary Burns, training coordinator for the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.

Speed Versus Fit

Several Corridor foster parents said they think the shortage of foster families, combined with tight deadlines for making placements, may lead to hasty matches that don’t last.

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“Sometimes they just place the kids to place them instead of looking for the right situation,” said Sarah Sparks, 37, of Marion. “They would call me for kiddos I hadn’t even agreed to. I’ve been told they know the kiddo isn’t part of my criteria, but because of orders, they have to call everyone.”

Steve and Lisa Goodanew of Marion prefer fostering young children because Lisa operates an in-home day care center. The one teenager they fostered ran away twice in the first week.

And yet, Lisa Goodanew said, “I’ve been called a few times this week about teenagers.”

Bourget, the Amana mom, said social workers often neglect to tell foster parents important information about children’s backgrounds, possibly to persuade them to say yes to the placement.

“Sometimes I feel like there’s so much pressure to get a match, information that is important to to know isn’t passed on or taken lightly,” she said.

On the other hand, when Bourget was a foster child herself, she was glad to start fresh in a new foster home after another experience went sour.

“I wasn’t living with the stigma,” she recalled.

Bourget paused, then said, “I don’t know that there’s an ideal way to match a kid.”

The state pays Iowa KidsNet $5.3 million a year for recruitment, screening and licensing of foster parents as well as $692,000 for post-adoption support. This money comes from the state and federal government.

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On top of the base pay, KidsNet can earn bonuses for meeting DHS goals that include stability and match speed.

About one-quarter of KidsNet matches in fiscal 2014 were urgent, meaning KidsNet was tasked with finding at least one matching family within two hours. These urgent requests most often occur when children were present in a law enforcement situation, such as a drug bust or domestic-abuse call.

Other matches must be made in a specified time frame — between two hours and five days — five days or 30 days.

Iowa KidsNet earned an extra $98,300 in fiscal 2014 for meeting most of the match speed goals.

The agency didn’t do so well, however, at keeping kids in their foster homes.

DHS wants 90 percent of first-time foster children to be in the same place four months after their initial placement or be reunited with their families. The KidsNet average for fiscal 2014 was 73 percent. Only one of five geographic service areas met the stability goal for one quarter in fiscal 2014.

“The baselines are challenging, and they are based on the need to reduce any moves a child experiences to the absolute minimum,” DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said. “Iowa KidsNet, DHS and other providers look at the data and strategize ways to improve stability for children.”

Keeping Kids in Place

When a foster family sounds alarm bells indicating they are reaching the end of their rope, support staff kick into gear to provide support. One of these supports is helping foster families find respite, which could be something like the foster child staying with another foster family for a short time.

“Sometimes our parents just need little reminders that things will pick up,” said KidsNet Director Theresa Lewis, who is a foster parent herself. “We contact local support staff to see if we can keep that child in the home. Concurrently, we do a search” for a new family match.

KidsNet is constantly recruiting new foster families, with special efforts to bring in minority families.

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The organization recruited 640 new families in fiscal 2014. But 620 families dropped out in the same period — indicating the dual challenge of retention.

“I am confident the families we recruit today in Iowa are better prepared,” said Kelli Malone, Four Oaks chief program officer. “They understand the role of foster parents with birthparents, know the types of children coming into foster care, and understand the foster care system’s intent is to find the best foster family for each child versus family’s searching for a child to meet their needs.

“So yes, numbers of foster parents is very important, but so is having the ‘right’ families to care for the types of children coming into care.”

How to help

Foster care needs

Anyone with a safe home who can provide a nurturing environment can be a foster parent.

Iowa’s particular needs include families willing to host sibling groups, teens, infants and LGBT children. Black or Latino families are also in demand.

To get started, go to: https://www.iowakidsnet.com/content/start-process or call (800) 243-0756.

Licensing

To become a licensed foster parent, people must attend an informational session and complete a 10-week training session.

The free 30-hour, interactive group training helps families learn to build positive relationships with birthparents, understand behavioral problems foster children may experience and think about the effect fostering may have on their own families.

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Prospective foster families also must undergo criminal background checks and a home study. Licensing typically takes between six to nine months. Licensed families must complete six hours of training each year following licensure.

Payment

The basic pay rate for fostering a child is about $500 a month for a child up to age six. The basic rate goes up with the age of the child, topping out at $580 a month for children ages 16 to 20. The state allots extra money for children with significant health or behavior needs, which could require additional doctor’s appointments or house modifications. The largest payment is $1,013 a month for fostering a child with the highest level of needs.

Numbers

The maximum number of children a family may have, between birth children and foster children, is five, unless the DHS grants a variance as it did in the case of the Bourget family.

Foster families may apply for financial assistance for extras, such as sports registration fees, swimming lessons or graduation costs that aren’t factored into the basic pay rate.

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