By RENEE FITE
The state of Oklahoma has more than 10,000 children in foster care, an increase of nearly 2,000 in just the past two years.
These children are placed under the supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. OKDHS has now contracted with private agencies to help meet the needs of these children.
“The goal of the contracts between OKDHS and the private agencies is to increase the number of foster homes by 1,000 across the state, in all communities, so that children can stay in their home communities when they enter care,” said Sherlyn Conlan, child placement manager with Eckerd, one of the contract agencies.
Eckerd is a national nonprofit organization that has given second chances to more than 150,000 children and families since 1968, Conlan said.
A goal of the program is to reach the youth who are most at risk of aging out of foster care, turning 18, with no family connections and nowhere to go, and help them establish supportive relationships with responsible adults before they turn 18, Conlan said.
On any given day, Dana Rogers, child welfare specialist with the Bridges Resource Unit said she receives about 20 or more requests from across the state looking for placement.
Many babies never go home from the hospital with their birth mother, said Rogers.
“At least once a week, a baby addicted to meth is taken from the hospital to a foster home,” Rogers said. “We’ve had an insurgence of new babies born in the hospital addicted to meth.”
OKDHS also rescues children from unsafe home environments.
“I am shocked daily at the things these children have endured and the fact that they are often unaware that what they have been subjected to is not the norm” Rogers said.
Foster families, also called resource families they save lives everyday, one child at a time, by opening their homes and hearts. Quality of caring and willingness to help merit more than financial resources or a large home, according to experts.
“Having a lot of money is not one of the requirements,” said Rogers.
Families need to be financially stable, and good at budgeting what they have, Rogers said.
Once children are picked up, they’re often scared and uncertain about what is happening to them and their parents, she said.
“First and foremost, as much as possible, is kinship placement with family or friends of family,” Rogers said, “I that’s not possible, they’re put in a home with the least amount of moving.”
About 80 percent of all placements are in kinship homes, she said.
“Families are stepping up, taking care of their own and learning to have and enforce boundaries with the family member who is the natural parent,” she said.
“We work toward reunification, with the understanding that the natural parents must change the behavior that lead to the child coming into custody prior to the child being returned. The amount of time a child is in OKDHS custody depends on the actions of the parents.”
Successful foster parents come from all walks of life, Conlan said.
“They share a love for children, a desire to make an impact on the life of a child, and are willing to make a commitment to be there as long as the child needs them,” Conlan said.
A foster parent can be single or married, have a family of his own or be an “empty-nester,” Conlan said.
“You need to be at least 21 years old, have appropriate housing and be able to pass a background screening,” said Conlan.
“You must have adequate space and be able to provide for your family now – although you will receive financial assistance to help care for the child, you cannot rely on this to pay your bills.”
Rogers, and her co-workers, interview new foster families and get a match best suited to them, such as a preference for babies or gender, young children or teens.
“You need to have room in your home, but an extra bedroom is not always needed. Babies can sleep in your room until they’re a year old,” Rogers said. “And you have to be willing to help with transportation.”
We have to make contact with applicants within three days of their applying, said Rogers.
“Anyone interested in being a resource family can call the hot-line number,” Rogers said. “I encourage people to come in and see us, but we turn in their information to the department that assigns them to a supervisor.”
The DHS hot-line for recruitment of resource families (866) 612-2565.
Foster families, including all family members 18 and older have to attend 27 hours of training. It can be a three-day training or spread out over a longer time. An additional 12 hours of training is required each year.