Learning About Foster Care

Marty and Mary Smith consider themselves lucky and blessed to have found Baby M. Baby M. does not talk yet, but if he could he would probably tell you he considers himself lucky and blessed to have found Marty and Mary Smith. They have been living together as a family for eight months now and any second thoughts or concerns that originally existed have dissipated long ago.

The fifty-something empty-nesters had toyed with the idea of becoming foster parents several years ago. They had seen the joy and fulfillment that fostering and adoption had provided to their friend, Sister Maggie, who had fostered and adopted several children over the years. Sister Maggie was very forthcoming about all the pleasure as well as the difficulties with fostering. This only strengthened the Smith’s resolve to proceed with their mission.

Mary felt that they had been blessed over the years. Their two children were grown and on their own, and she felt they still had a lot left to give back to someone in need. Marty very quickly was on board with this idea too. Their daughter, Molly, had encouraged them to look into taking in a child in foster care and the couple eventually became introduced to the foster and adoption service staff at Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services (CCDCFS). They went through the three month program, which included classroom training, background checks and fingerprinting. They also heard from foster children who gave accounts of their experience with placement. During the home study phase of the licensing, they had their home inspected by the Fire Department and went through a series of interviews and reference checks. Marty was very impressed with the professionalism and organization of the agency and felt the training they received was outstanding. They continue to go to classes for 20 hours per year to maintain their license.

The Smiths have recently partnered with Pamela Taylor as co-facilitators of the Pathfinders Cluster, the local foster/adopt/kinship parent support group. Pamela is a veteran of thirty years of fostering and has fostered six children over the years in three different states. After her 14 year old daughter was reunified last summer with her bio family, Pamela next accepted the placement of a 14 week old baby.

Like the Smiths she says, “That fostering has been a calling. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now.” If she ever had any doubt about this calling, it was put to rest when Michael, the first child she fostered in Massachusetts made contact with her several years after his placement in Taylor’s home. As an adult, it was clear that he had many positive memories of the year he lived with the family. Now at age 33 and with a family of his own, he continues to stay in touch.

Pamela has seen many changes in the way fostering has evolved and progressed over the years. When she started in 1982 there was very minimal training, county follow up or support networking in place to address the on-going needs of the foster family, the bio family, or the children in protective custody. Today the process is more involved and prospective parents are well screened and prepared for an eventual placement. The monthly support group meetings help fostering parents become connected, further their training and share experiences and respite.

There are 16 cluster groups in Cuyahoga County, and they serve as support networks for foster, adoptive and kinship families, providing care, safety, and a loving home environment to children in protective custody whose lives would otherwise lack the fundamentals of nourishment, security, and love. The Pathfinders Cluster provides this sharing of experiences and information to foster parents in Cleveland’s near west side, including parts of Lakewood, Parma, Wet Park, Rocky River and other neighboring communities.

Pamela believes there are many misconceptions about protective services and fostering. Often in the media fostering has been given many negative connotations. She believes movies like “The Blind Side” and “Martian Child” have helped put a much needed positive image on fostering and give a more balanced view of the fostering experience.

When the Smiths decided to proceed with fostering, they were hesitant about telling their friends and family of their intentions. They felt that others would not understand their calling and give them the kind of support necessary to get them through the training. When they completed the licensing process and began to talk about their intentions to foster many people questioned their plans. Questions were raised about their age, and ability to look after a young child, financial concerns as well as both of them continuing to work full time. They remained undeterred and were just waiting for a child to be placed with them.

Originally the Smiths had planned on taking in a child in the 6-12 age range and had even bought bunk beds in preparation for an eventual placement. While attending a Pathfinders meeting, they were asked about the possibility of taking in a baby as there was a great need for foster parents for infants at that time. The Smiths thought they could handle that challenge and agreed to be considered. By the end of the week they had three requests for taking in a baby. Baby M. was the first and they agreed to take him. Three days later, ten day old Baby M. was discharged from the NICU at Metro Hospital and came to stay with his new temporary family. As a preemie, Baby M. came with special instructions for feeding and ongoing care with follow-up doctor appointments.

Although it had been many years since the Smiths had the responsibility of taking care of a newborn, old instincts quickly kicked in as they began to make the adjustments that all new parents go through after bringing home a new baby. Mary, a nurse at Metro Hospital, was pleased to learn that she was entitled to three months of FMLA, and that was beneficial in helping them through the early stages and provide time for bonding with Baby M. Since both Marty and Mary are able to work with their employers about flexing their schedules they have been able to maintain full time employment and still provide continuous care for Baby M. The family has added a network of friends and family to help with respite care for Baby M. on the few occasions when they are not able to be there for him. All of these alternate caregivers had to be approved by the agency after undergoing background checks and finger printing.

So what happened to all the family and friends who questioned the Smiths for wanting to foster a child, and a baby at that? “Everyone just loves Baby M.,” says Mary. “He has a nice personality and temperament and everyone wants to be around him.” Some of the naysayers are now even helping with his care.

Just like the foster training classes, the support and communications with CCDCFS has also improved over the years. The foster family receives a monthly visit from their family Resource Manager, who provides direct support. The foster children also have their own County Case Workers who visit monthly to check on their care, provide information regarding the status of the placement and progress with the bio family if they are involved. There are court hearings and regularly scheduled reviews to note the progress of all participants in the case plan.

CCDCFS’s goal is to reunite children with their birth parents. Often the foster parents help to facilitate this process. The bio families have a case plan to complete that may be for a short length of time, or sometimes can last for several years. If they fail to comply with this plan and the court grants permanent custody to the county, alternate plans including adoption become possible. Pamela counsels, “It can be an emotional roller coaster but it’s knowing that I have left a positive impression with a child during the time they are with me that supports my view of fostering as a valuable personal calling.”

The County continues to have temporary custody of Baby M. and he visits with his birth mother twice a week for a two hour supervised visit. Although the case plan is for him to eventually be reunited with his mother, alternate plans have to be in place also. The Smiths have very quickly bonded with Baby M. and are prepared to adopt him if the opportunity arises. Although it is not clear what developments lie ahead for Baby M. and the Smiths, they enjoy each day that they are able to be together.

When asked about any advice they would give to anyone considering fostering or adoption, Marty says, “Do it if you’re thinking about it. Keep an open mind. These kids need us and we feel lucky to have Baby M.” I think Baby M. would have to agree with him.

If you are considering becoming an adoptive or foster parent or would like more information, please contact Molly Smith at Lakewood’s Division of Youth at (216) 529-6108.

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Volume 6, Issue 16, Posted 8:28 AM, 08.11.2010