No Place Like a Foster Home for the Holidays
By Richard A. Hooks Wayman
I have been a foster and adoptive parent for over 11 years. In that time, my husband and I have raised three foster care daughters (older adolescents into their young adult years) and have adopted four younger children (one daughter and three sons between 2 and 9). I also serve as the CEO of a community- based child welfare and social services agency in Central Massachusetts, LUK Inc. LUK administers over 100 foster homes and three residential programs, and each year we serve over 460 children and youth who are involved with the child welfare system.
As your readers know, 2014 has not been a good year for the child welfare system in Massachusetts. The Department of Children and Families has seen a tremendous shake up in its leadership, endured significant press scrutiny, and been subjected to an assessment and state report by the Child Welfare League of America.
The good news is that DCF, the governor, and the Legislature have committed significant, new resources to expand hiring of social workers, enhance training to child welfare professionals, and upgraded technology for front-line workers. On the flip side, DCF has lost a significant portion of its professional team to early retirement, remains without a permanent commissioner and has seen a tremendous growth in the number of children coming into out-of-home placements.
As more children enter the foster care and residential treatment services, the state has been unable to adequately cope with securing safe and nurturing community placements for children. Put simply, Massachusetts has a critical and pressing need for more foster homes and adoptive parents.
Every day my agency is called upon to find a "bed space" for a child. We turn most of the requests down because we have run out of beds. Children and youth with histories of abuse or neglect deserve love and support, the kind of nurturing that can't come from a social worker or case manager.
As the holiday season descends upon us, how do foster children feel knowing that there is no home to go back to and no family member safe enough to visit? Every holiday season, LUK serves youth and children who cannot return home. They celebrate the holidays and New Year in a group home or foster family, surrounded by caring staff but without people that hold their lifetime memories.
What's it like to light another family's menorah or open Christmas gifts brought by an agency? What does it feel like to sit down for a large dinner with other children who have nowhere to go? What do I feel when I watch the New Year arrive but am not aware of where I will live in the next year? How do I navigate a home that does not fully comprehend Three Kings Day, and I don't get to enjoy my grandmother's cooking?
We know that foster parents can be that bridge between having no one, and having a forever family for many youth. But when children are discharged from our care or age out of the child welfare system I worry about their ability to navigate life without consistent adults in their lives.
In 2012 (the most recent data reported by DCF), there were over 1,250 children in out-of-home placements in Worcester County alone. Out of this group, over 274 children were open for adoption, but only 84 found their "forever family."
The lack of foster care parents, means that homes are not available in the child's hometown or city, often times forcing changes of schools and creating barriers to visits with siblings. Further, given the over representation of youth of color in our state's child welfare system (in 2012, 45 percent of all children involved with DCF services were children of color as compared to 22 percent in the general population), the commonwealth is in need of foster homes that reflect the demographics and cultures of the children we serve.
As we enter 2015, I continue to hold out hope that more people in central Massachusetts consider becoming a foster parent or an adoptive parent. As a foster/adoptive father, I know that raising a family is not easy. However, I know that my life has been transformed by my children, and I can't imagine life without my husband or children. I hope you will reach out to us if you have questions about becoming a foster parent or are seeking resources toward adoption.
Children in state care can't wait. Children and youth continue to grow physically, socially, and psychologically while the adults try to figure out better systems of care. The social workers and administrators of DCF deserve our support and expanded state investments. But without more individuals and couples willing to offer their unconditional love, too many children will spend another year waiting for someone to be their bridge or to hold and cherish them forever.