Foster Care Awareness Month is recognized each May.
According to Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care, there are about 10,000 children in Oklahoma's foster care system, and, on any given day, there are 150 children in need of a foster home. The Cherokee Nation claims that there are more than 1,550 Cherokee youth in need of qualified foster families.
Other than certain tribal regulations and cases, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is responsible for deciding if children are taken out of their homes, as well as for the placement of those children who need safe housing. But there are agencies - private, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations - that have contracts through DHS to provide services to recruit, train, and give support to foster parents.
Tahlequah resident Jeromy Klinger previously worked for DHS and now is family resource worker at TFI Family Connections.
"Both TFI and DHS, as well as numerous other agencies, all work together to ensure children are safe. Private agencies such as TFI give an extra support to the foster homes taking care of children in custody while trying to locate and certify more homes for DHS," said Klinger. "We act as workers for the foster parents and ensure they meet DHS standards while providing them with the training and support they need."
TFI is a statewide not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Lawton. It has several approved homes in the Tahlequah area, and recently hosted a bingo fundraiser in town.
"We are always doing fundraisers in the communities we serve to help the children placed in our homes," he said. "I love working for TFI. I get to help out those taking care of the people who take in Oklahoma's most vulnerable children."
According to okdhs.org, there are four types of foster care: Family foster care, therapeutic foster care, tribal foster care, and the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.
"There are different levels. In emergency care, the foster home provides short-term care until placement can be made. In traditional care, they stay in the home as long as the family is working on the treatment plan - until they can go back home or are adopted," said Jeff Diltz, TFI community liaison coordinator.
Family foster care is where children birth-18 years old are placed in a home with 24-hour care and support.
"The first option is kinship placement such as with a family member or someone with prior relationship with the child - a teacher, coach, or someone from their church. It's less traumatic," said Jason Grewe, TFI fund development specialist. "The goal is child reunification. They are going to go back home where it is safe. DHS works up a treatment plan with the family. The child is in foster home until it is safe."
Tribal foster care works in compliance to federal, state, and tribal Indian Child Welfare Acts. As stated on www.cherokeekids.org, the state is required under law and contract to provide Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare with any and all information regarding the investigation of a Cherokee child. Federal law requires that a Native child be placed in a Native foster home, if one is available. If one is not available, the child will be placed in a non-Native home until a Native one is available.
"We need more Native families to step up. If there is no kinship or tribal, they go into traditional foster care, which is basically a perfect stranger who has been trained, vetted and background checked," said Grewe.
Grewe said TFI has a good working relationship with Cherokee Nation, and they have had trainings and collaborations together. People can become certified with the tribe and other agencies, so that they may be able to take care of both Native and non-Native children.
The TFI representatives said they need about 20-25 homes for children in Cherokee County.
"If there are not enough homes in the county, then we will find the best foster home in the state. That could be an hour or three hours away. It makes it difficult for visits," said Grewe. "A low-income, single parent couldn't necessarily go three hours for a visit."
He said that, in Oklahoma, children usually end up in foster care because of abuse or neglect, and usually the neglect is due to an income issue rather than a lack of desire to raise the child.
Certain requirements must be met by those considering fostering. The person must be at least 21. Marital status and home ownership is not a factor. Some faith-based organizations may now, due to a new law, be able to refuse same-sex couple or homosexuals from becoming foster parents. DHS and other types of organizations, such as TFI Family Connections, do not discriminate.
People of all income levels may apply to be foster parents.
"We do a financial check, but it isn't to determine if you have too much debt. If you can pay your monthly bills, you're going to be fine. The monthly stipend is to benefit the child, not pay your cell phone overage," said Diltz.
Foster parents must have a working phone and vehicle.
All residents of the household over the age of 18 will have to complete background checks, and none of them can have a sexual offense conviction.
To become certified foster parents, applicants will complete the forms, be fingerprinted, have a background check, take 27 hours of training, and have their homes inspected.
DHS and agencies take into consideration the foster parents wishes of the type of child they are willing or able to live with such as age, gender, and known behaviors. For example, if a family has a son and one bedroom for children, they would probably prefer to foster a boy. Or, some may prefer to help children of the same heritage or race.
TFI uses what Grewe called "match.com for foster parents" to find good matches between children and foster families.
"The last thing we want is to get a bad fit. That would be one more traumatic experience for the child. If it's a better fit, the child will stay in the home longer," said Grewe.
The United Methodist Home in Tahlequah and the United Methodist Boys Ranch in Gore offer campus-based foster care. The homes on the campuses are lived in by certified foster parents - who may or may not have their own children - and children in foster care.
Therapeutic foster care is designed to serve children ages 3-18 who have special psychological, social, behavioral, and emotional needs.
Placements through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children are made only in the event that an appropriate placement cannot be found in the home state and there exists an appropriate out-of-state placement with which the child has an existing connection, be it family member or other individual with close kinship ties, according to DHS.
Grewe compared the step to becoming a foster parent to planning an out-of-country dream trip.
"The application is your passport. It doesn't mean you have to take a trip with foster care; it doesn't mean you have to take a child. DHS and TFI can't force you to take a child," he said.
Some people are afraid to be foster parents because they worry they will become too attached to the children, said Diltz, but those are the type of people the agencies want; they know those caregivers have heart and will give children a good home.
"Foster care is a calling," he said. "People hear about this seven times before they take a step to get information."