Finding Homes for Rural Foster Children

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

Our hearts ache for the families who have missing children, and for children who have been removed from their own homes.  But do they ache enough to help them?

There were 400,540 children in foster care in the United States in 2011. These are children who have been abused and/or neglected, removed from their homes.  About half of these children are intended to return home when their families are better, while one-fourth (106,345) are waiting to be adopted. They vary by age, race, ethnicity, and the problems they face. They have all surely suffered trauma, both at home, and because of removal from their homes.  While some children have such serious emotional and behavioral issues requiring more intensive treatment than even a therapeutic foster home could provide, many of them could be cared for by normal families with the required pre-service training.  They are in need of good homes in which they are safe, in which they can become healthy, learning, thriving children.

“Sarah” and “Ben,” for example (mythical but representative), are 11 and 8.   Sarah has just started band, and Ben is playing soccer.  They both love their school, even though they often don’t have clothes, notebooks and backpacks that others might have.  They get both breakfast and lunch at school, and the teachers are very helpful. They have friends in their school, and look forward to coming back after weekends at home.  Their parents support themselves by making and selling meth.  One day, police raid their home.  In the space of a few short hours, the children and their few belongings are removed from their home.  A friendly caseworker takes them to the home of the Duncan family, a kind couple with two children.  The Duncans, a licensed foster home, are there for Sarah and Ben until either the parents are able to provide a safe home for them, or until they are adopted.

But if Sarah and Ben’s family live in a rural area, things might be different.  All foster parents must be licensed and approved to care for children, which requires background checks, TB tests, home inspections and sometimes modifications. These tests and modifications can be expensive and, at times, are not affordable for rural foster families. To care for children in the child welfare system the foster parents have to receive weeks of pre-service training to learn about working with the child welfare system, the birth family and traumatized children.  But this kind of training for weeks on end is probably not offered in their town if they are rural, since it is almost impossibly expensive to hold it for only one or two families. The potential foster parents will probably be required to make sure that the children can visit their parents, and that they receive the resources they need, such as specialized counseling or health treatment. In a rural area, this may require both the time and expense of driving the children to a city at some distance where specialists can be found, and possibly where their parents may be in treatment. And finally, since foster home recruiters and trainers often are not local, the Duncans in small towns may not even know about the need for foster homes, or how to apply to become a foster family.

In rural America, all too often Sarah and Ben would leave their home in their small community.  They would be gone one day, perhaps without saying goodbye to their friends, their teachers in the school they love, the small streets where they knew everyone. They would be driven far away from their own home to a city, and may even have to be in separate homes, all alone, which could add to their trauma, no matter how thoughtful and loving their new foster family.

The fact is that rural America needs foster and adoptive homes, and we may not have the resources to be getting the “word” out to all of our small communities.  We need families in each community, trained, licensed and ready to care for the town’s own children if the need ever arises, so that they won’t have to leave everything they know when they have to leave their parents.  We need churches, civic groups, and the counties themselves to support the families by paying for the background checks, home modifications, etc.  While some states and jurisdictions have funds to pay for home repairs and the equipment necessary to foster (from state or county budgets, individual grants, etc.), others, particularly those in remote areas, do not have those resources.  Some foster parent associations raise funds locally to support foster children and reduce the burden of fostering, but there are many rural areas without foster parent associations, without local pre-service training, without connections to outside funders, without support from the state, particularly as states feel the effects of budget crunches.

Because of economies of scale, many rural areas may be at a disadvantage in understanding the local need for families and in organizing supports for families who do step up to care for suffering children. Some of these supports could be provided by national organizations, foundations and even businesses.  Perhaps one of the many national stores that sell building supplies could be sure that every foster family had a voucher for free fire extinguishers.  Perhaps a national university could collaborate with a foundation and the federal Children’s Bureau to provide free online courses on specific issues faced by foster families, to supplement local training and reduce the burden on both families and rural child welfare systems.  Perhaps national church affiliations could provide tip sheets to all their members on how to support local foster and adoptive families, how to host foster parent meetings in their churches, how to be licensed to provide families with respite (temporary care) or to care for children for a “foster parents’ night out.”  Perhaps national educational foundations could provide free online tutoring for foster children in subjects that are challenging, particularly when changing schools, with a personal mentor as a support.

Fostering and adopting rural children can be difficult, but also rewarding.  As one foster parent told me: “I know why I am on this earth, and I have many [foster] children who remind me.”  And for those of us not in the position to care for the children in our own homes, perhaps we can make a more concerted effort to help the families who do.

To find information about fostering and adopting, visit AdoptUSKids or contact child welfare officials in your state.

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, co-chair of Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

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