Each month we are bringing you a community spotlight focused on the organizations, businesses and people of Winchester and the surrounding area that make our community what it is. This month we spent a lot of time with a few members of CFW, the cross county organization that helps DSS provide services through the foster parenting system. CFW serves Winchester city, as well as Frederick and Clarke counties in a unique way. We sat down to discuss what it takes to be a foster parent and how you can get involved in other ways besides fostering, as it really does take a village to raise healthy, happy children!

You can download an information sheet by texting FOSTER to 540-318-1902 to get news on updated foster parenting classes and items you can donate. See the full transcript after the video!

Hi everyone, we are here today to discuss the foster care system in Winchester and how you can get involved. We have Denise with CFW, Judy with CFW as well, and Angie Jones with Clark County social services, so welcome to our community spotlight today!

Can you please explain what agencies are involved in the process and how a decision is made to put a child in foster care?

I am Angie Jones with Clarke County social services and I have been in that position for the last 29 years, I’m getting ready to start my 30th year. Probably 12 years ago we joined Winchester and Frederick Counties on a Tri County Area because what we had found previously was that we were continually borrowing each other’s homes. So then we just decided we should pool our resources and recruit from those three jurisdictions to have foster parents, and so we have done that and that’s what is now known as CFW the Clarke, Frederick, Winchester Foster Care Association.

We recruit from the communities and we try to keep children within their community if we can, to stay with the same school system, but sometimes if you have little children that’s not so critical or are so important. So we recruit and that is Judy and Denise’s job, to train those families. We have a fairly extensive training program which is called Pride which I will let them speak to a little later, that tries to help families decide if this something that you can really do. To be very upfront and honest about what’s involved in being a foster parent. I think many people have the concept it’s just like parenting your own children, and while there are many similarities, being a foster parent, it is somebody else’s child. I often say that when you’re involved with the Department of Social Services it is an agency, and it has many rules and regulations that don’t apply to the normal public. People have to be willing to accept that, so that’s part of the training process.

In terms of why children come into foster care at all, the Department of Social Services is charged with investigating complaints of child abuse. We have a 24-hour hotline that people can call and make an honest report. People can call the local Department of Social Services and what that sets in motion is social workers going out and assessing the situation. Essentially what every worker has to come to the conclusion at the end of that assessment is, is the child safe to remain in their own home, or is the situation such that we believe that the child is not safe, in which case we have the legal authority to actually assume custody which can mean removing that child from the house.

Then what that sets in motion is the whole foster care process, because if you remove a child from their home we literally have to have a place for the child to lay their head that’s nice. Things work very quickly, it’s a very chaotic environment usually when that happens, it’s very upsetting to the birth parents, it’s upsetting to the children that are being removed. They’re essentially going to strangers. Often times in Virginia we believe very strongly to try to maintain children within their own birth and bio connection, and so first we look to see are there other family members that might be able to step up to the plate and provide at least shelter and housing for that night. Although they typically have not been approved at this point, they do have to go through that same process but we have some leeway and being able to place with family members if they meet a certain minimum safety requirement.

But then sometimes we don’t know who they are, where they are, and we are looking to place them in the CFW system where they would go to a family that has already been through the process, had all their initial background checks, so that’s really what we are in very dire need of at this point. We are literally filling up our homes as quickly as we can get approved, and so it’s really critical that we get the word out that there is a tremendous need in this area for the Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke area.

That is a perfect segue to the next question, what would be the process for becoming a foster parent and what are you looking for in potential applicants that would make a great foster parent?

So if people are interested in becoming foster parents they should contact CFW, we typically do an intake when we get their contact information, talk with them about the training we do, and that is in person as well as online. The pre-service training, that is five in person sessions as well as four online, all are required and there’s also a good bit of paperwork. The first initial packet consists of background information and then there’s a lot of other information such as medical, financial, autobiographical information, driving record, home safety there are three in person home visits at least required as part of the process.

As far as what makes a good foster parent and you touched on it before, that even if you’re parenting your own child this requires something a little bit more than that, because when you parent your own child you have a relationship with them from birth. When you parent any foster child you are sort of coming into that relationship after they have already bonded with their own family, and no matter what these children have been through they love their families. Many times they are going through difficult things, you have to respond during difficult times, flexibility is important, some ability to be able to understand the child will often tell their feelings through their behaviors. Some behaviors are difficult to deal with but they need somebody that can stick by them, support them. Commitment is big, the family really does need commitment. They will learn through the process and it can be difficult, but the families who are most successful are going to stick in there regardless. There are things that happen that maybe the family cannot stick in there, but for the most part it’s helpful for families to be committed, flexible and resilient, and grow with the child. That is really what we need.

I think one of the things that people don’t think about as well is that you are trying to reunite the child with their family, whereas previously kids were kind of separated from their birth family, siblings were even sent to different homes. Now you try to keep them together and the foster parents have to be involved with the birth parents. So how do you guys handle that and teach them how to relate to them and get everyone back together?

We do a lot of that in the training, we talk a lot in the Pride training about working with a birth family, the expectation that that is going to happen. You’re going to be with them in meetings, see them during visits, more and more focus in recent years on those two families, foster and birth working together. Often times we have the foster parents who end up mentoring or being models for those birth families, and helping them become a really good strong connection, and when the kids return home they maintain that relationship and show support to those birth families which is phenomenal. It really is the most beautiful outcome.

Often if you hear about the situation of the birth family a lot of times people go to stereotypes that they have. Once they have that child in their home they see this child and see the importance of the parents to them, and the opportunity they have to support that relationship becomes more three-dimensional. That makes a huge difference in the process. The families that have been able to support and mentor have made a powerful bond that they develop, they end up feeling like they’re really rooting for the family and they want that to work out.

We have had families who were not able to keep themselves from judging the birth family and that can result in a negative ending because those families sometimes can give up on the child, and give up on the family and the child may experience another move, another loss, another sense of rejection. So as much as families maybe want to adopt or don’t want to see the child return to the home, they really have to maintain that openness and ability to be optimistic and positive, and hold hope for the family. And for the child so that the best outcome can occur, whether it’s go home and that family is supported or they remain in care and become adopted, then that child has a relationship with the family.

What are the resources that the department can provide the family to help them through the things that might need to occur in the situation?

To follow up on Denise, people often ask me if it’s been so bad that the department feels that they have to remove the child, which is a very lengthy court process that is subject to review, and it should be. It should not be easy to go in and take someone’s child away from them. But the law says, and this is covered in the training and it’s part of what foster families need to understand, the law says that the department will make a good faith effort to try and help the birth parents overcome whatever their issues were. If it was drug addiction or alcohol addiction, if there’s domestic violence, there’s chronic poverty, the department is charged with working with that family to try and get that family back on the right track. So with that, resources that we have are considerable, there is a great deal of financial support that can be given to families in the sense that if a parent needs to go to drug or alcohol treatment, or if they need some sort of job training because of chronic homelessness that is part of the issue, if there is medication management, oftentimes our families come and they may have significant mental health issues that impair their ability to parent. So we might be hooking them up with treatment, offering transportation to make sure that they can get that support there, and on the other hand we are also working with the children.

Children have experienced trauma within their home family if they’ve been witnessing parents who were using drugs, or parents fighting between themselves, or literally not knowing where they’re going to sleep. They’re bouncing from couch to couch, school issues. The children themselves, some of that can be normal to them because that is all that they have known, and then in that situation the children love their parents. DSS is a stranger to them, they’re coming in and they’re taking them away, and they’re taking them to another set of strangers. Depending on the age of a child they have no concept of what that means, all they know is they have lost their family that’s familiar to them. When I talk to families I ask do you have children? Most people do, and I say ‘can you imagine if someone came in and took your child, took your three-year-old away from you, what your child would feel? Do you think they wouldn’t miss you, do you think they wouldn’t be upset, do you think they’re not looking for you?’ They have no concept of why everyone else thinks this is such a dangerous situation. All they know is their parents are gone and it is very upsetting to them, and that is part of the resources that we offer to help foster parents deal with that. Because just like your child is probably not going to run up to the foster parents with open arms and want to be hugged, neither will these children. They love their parents.

So that’s a long way of saying the department has to work to try and help those parents overcome their barriers. One of the big reasons, we didn’t used to do that practice 29 years ago, we kept foster parents separate from birth families. Which when I think back was pretty ludicrous because Clarke County is small and there was nowhere to go, chances are you were going to run into them at the Walmart, and although we’ve grown we are still not that large of a community that that’s not going to happen. Children that have grown in foster care and aged out of the system have come back, and this is across the nation, and professionals have asked them what was your experience like, tell us what we could have done differently. One of the things they say is the tension between foster families and birth families, they felt very torn almost like any divorce that didn’t go well, or there are competing loyalties for children. The other thing that they really miss was being separated from their brothers and sisters. That is something that the department really struggles with because we try to keep brothers and sisters together and that is very difficult because as you can imagine yourself if someone calls and says I have 4 children that I need to bring you right now sometimes families just don’t physically have the space to do that. But that is what children that have grown up, have lost their families and it’s almost heartbreaking for them as they lost their parents or their brothers and sisters. So what we’re asking is for families to commit that if we do have to separate children, foster families are expected to make the effort to assist with making sure they get to see one another.

It’s a lot to think about, but the department can provide many many things to people to help them overcome those issues. You can imagine it entails developing trust with the social worker and also trust with a foster parent. They are strangers and they are raising your children and we hope foster families, through the training and the basic decency of people believe that no one is beyond redemption, they can make changes and we hope everyone works together and that can happen.

So really being a foster parent is a huge responsibility and we’ve talked a little bit about what the steps are to get approved, what if the foster family needs to go to work or go a dinner date, what are the processes or what is different about it, obviously I can’t just call Susie down the street to babysit. What are those processes to get someone approved to help out the foster family so they can maintain normal day-to-day functions?

The department does provide child care, most of our families are working families. As part of the approval process, during the approval process we try to help the families look at their natural support, and there are some background checks and paperwork that goes along with that so that they can get approval for those folks that will be their natural support because that is very important. We encourage them as part of their being able to continue to do this work, is that they have some normality to their life, they have the opportunity to do things that will replenish them and support them, and so that is very important we encourage them to do that

So obviously you can be a foster parent, but what are some other ways that the community can support foster parents and the children, generally throughout the year or if you have specific needs if there is something they can donate?

We work quite a bit with Froggy’s Closet which is an organization right around the corner that people can donate items to that can be then used for foster families and foster children, The foster families can go through us or their caseworker in order to get things they might need from Frogg’s. Froggy’s is always in need of many items, one thing that we can always use is children’s furniture, because sometimes when you get a siblings group to come into your home maybe you don’t have two beds for both of those children, so we have had people donate beds and dressers, but we need more of that. Also baby items, diapers, the owner of Froggy’s Tina just told me we need size 5 and 6 clothes.

The department has also indicated gas cards would be helpful, because sometimes birth families when they are going back and forth to their expected counseling sessions or parent training sessions or visits with their children, maybe they are struggling with money to put gas in the car for those things. Another thing needed is scholarships for extracurricular activities or summer camps would be very helpful, a lot of these kids would otherwise not be able to to do some of those activities.

We are really trying to do outreach and we very much appreciate this video, getting the word out. I often have said this is not a one-shot deal, the more people hear about us, invite us to come speak to various groups, put our link on your website, and those kinds of things, the more we can get the word out. Foster parents continually need to be replenished, because one of the things and questions that we have people ask me is do foster parents ever adopt? Yes they do, the first goal is always to reunite with someone, if not the birth parents we’re looking to aunts and uncles or grandparents who can do it, but sometimes families simply don’t have that. And so often times the foster parents even though they may not have started out looking to adopt, they have developed a relationship with a child and they want to continue with that. So foster parents do wind up adopting and that’s a great thing when that happens and we’re happy, but it takes somebody out of the mix of being able to provide that for the next child.

You can download an information sheet by texting FOSTER to 540-318-1902 to get news on updated foster parenting classes and items you can donate. You can also contact Judy or Denise:

Judith.Blau@dss.virginia.gov – 540-303-0135
Denise.Britt@dss.virginia.gov – 540-771-0893