May is Foster Care Awareness Month, and more foster homes are needed in this region.

"Unfortunately, children are still coming into foster care even during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are new homes being approved during this time, but it is not enough to cover the need of keeping children in their home county," said Rick Hensley with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services recruitment and development unit covering Adair, Cherokee, and Sequoyah counties.

In Cherokee County, 99 children are in foster care. Due to the lack of foster homes, 55 children had to be placed outside of Cherokee County, and 22 could not be placed with their siblings. For Adair County, there are 45 children in foster care, 15 not with their siblings, and eight placed out of the county. Sequoyah County has 113 children in foster care, 35 of those not placed with siblings, and 74 in another county.

"It is very important to keep children with their siblings and in their home counties, as it has been shown this helps increase the likelihood of family reunification occurring," said Hensley. "By staying in their home county, it also helps children stay connected to family, friends, and school."

Hensley said people are often afraid of becoming too attached to their foster children, and he used to feel the same way.

"I later learned I was holding onto my feelings so tight that I was not able to grasp the opportunities that brought a lot of blessings. It is not easy letting go of a child you built a bond with, but it is worth it to see a family restored," said Hensley. "Before you say, 'I cannot be a foster parent because I will get too attached,' please ask yourself, 'Can I allow myself to hurt a little bit to allow a child who is hurting a lot to feel safe and loved?'"

When children are taken from their families, the first option for placement would be a relative or family friend, according to Jason Grewe, recruiter with TFI Family Connections. If there is no kinship placement, it goes to traditional placement through DHS or a private agency, such as TFI or Circle of Care.

TFI Family Connections, a private, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that provides services and care for the children and families, is a subcontractor of DHS. Private agencies take on 50 percent of the traditional foster home cases in Oklahoma, and there are about 15-16 private agencies in the area.

"Our job is similar to DHS; we recruit, train, and place foster families. Some people like having a separate agency outside of DHS," said Grewe. "There are great workers in every agency, but private agencies typically have a lower case rate. In theory, that means better customer service or support system."

When people decide to become foster parents, they choose if they want to go through DHS or a private agency. Many times, foster parents can have preferences on the children they want placed in their homes. Grewe said TFI uses a program to make that easier.

"We have a system called ECAP: every child a priority. It's like Match.com for child placement. The family will write down what they are willing to work with in the home, such as ages, known behaviors, medical conditions, etc.," he said. "We've had a lot of success with that."

Foster parents do not have to own homes. Hensley said there may be upfront costs in ensuring a home is ready to care for a child. Married couples and divorced or single people can apply. Tribal members can be certified to take in both tribal and nontribal children.

One question recruiters hear a lot is, "Do I make enough money?"

"As long as you are able to pay all of your bills and expenses and have enough money left over to provide for an additional child, you can be approved. You will just need to be able to cover the expenses for a month until the maintenance payment arrives," Hensley said.

Foster parents receive a monthly maintenance payment that helps cover most, if not all, of the cost of an additional child. The child also receives medical insurance through SoonerCare.

Applicants must be 21 or older; be legal residents; be in good physical and mental health to provide for the needs of the child; have sufficient income to meet current expenses; provide sufficient beds and bedrooms; submit to a search of all OKDHS records, including Child Welfare records; provide acceptable transportation; and have a telephone. No member of the applicant's household can have a prior conviction of any sexual offense, and all those 18 years and older have to submit fingerprints for a state and national criminal history records search.

"Applicants must have the ability to love, understand, care for and accept a child to whom they did not give birth," said Hensley.

The foster home assessment and training is provided at no charge, according to Hensley. DHS applicants must complete 27 hours of pre-service training.

"It is our intent to support you in being as successful as possible. Some of the ways we may support you include regular contact with agency staff, respite (as appropriate), ongoing training, support groups, child care for foster children, home visits, team meetings, phone consultation, and a formal process for sharing your concerns," said Hensley.

Foster parents help the child maintain connections to people who matter to them, according to Hensley. Depending on the situation and relationship, foster parents find ways to make sure the children and their families see one another, and this type of contact is approved through the worker. They may talk to the birth families about how the child is doing, and if the relationship grows, the families could visit one another's homes.

Foster parents may often support or model parenting for birth families during visits and interactions.

"If you have ever thought about being a foster parent, ask yourself these questions: 'Am I a safe person? Is my house safe? Can I provide love and stability for these kids?'" said Grewe. "We all want these kids to be safe."

Check it out

To learn more about traditional foster care, visit okfosters.org/foster-care, or call 800-376-9729 for information. To learn more about helping a Cherokee child or sibling group, visit www.Cherokeekids.org or call 918-458-6900.

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