Adults don’t always understand living in foster care, at least until Annette Garrett gives them the index card lesson.
Garrett teaches foster parenting classes at the Calhoun County Department of Human Resources on 11th Street in Anniston, training local adults for the work of rearing foster kids for the days, months or years the children might be in the foster care system. The lesson has adults hold cards with words like “job” and “pets” and “family” written on them. They have to throw them away one at a time as an exercise in loss. “Family” is always the last card to drop.
“I tell them, ‘The last thing you throw away is the first thing a child loses,’” Garrett explained.
The Calhoun County foster care system is overloaded with 314 kids and only 34 homes to serve them, according to Linda Bibb, the organization’s director. About 80 are over the age of 14, which makes them harder to place and the chances of adoption more slim. Many of the children have been shuffled around the state into catch-as-catch-can housing.
“We know this is a need, and we can’t do it by ourselves,” Bibb said.
‘An order to everything’
Garrett is usually surrounded by children.
The retired Army major volunteered as a foster parent in 2015, and she’s had more than 40 kids stay with her since then, while also becoming president of the county Foster Parents Association. Some kids stay for a day, she said, while some stay for years. She has five foster children now, with a possible sixth incoming, if the need is there; six is the maximum number of foster children parents can care for. Along with the two former fosters she legally adopted — Emily and Noah, who were already siblings — she arrives at church and the grocery store with seven kids in tow. The key to keeping chaos at bay is routine, she said.
“There’s an order to everything,” Garrett said.
Foster parents-in-training take 30 hours of classes to be certified. Foster children come with particular rules that biological parents might take for granted. Give a kid cough medicine at night? All medicine has to be logged and reviewed. Bad behavior has to be met with something other than spanking; physical discipline is a strict “no.” Garrett joked about that rule being tough to understand in the South.
She said qualifying as a foster parent isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. Not everyone has the space in their home for as many as six kids. Some families may only have space in their houses and lives for one child at a time, and that’s OK, Garrett said.
“We need at least 80 to 100 homes in this county,” she said. “We’re not asking people to take six, we’re asking them to take one.”
The need is growing statewide. According to the state DHR 2017 factbook, the most recently published year, there were 6,129 children in the Alabama foster care system that year, up from 5,385 in 2016, an additional 744 kids. Growth of the foster child population was slower in the years before, from 4,985 in 2014 to 5,041 in 2015.
Talladega County has about 90 children in its foster care system, according to Nicole Parker, director of Talladega DHR, with about 30 homes available.
“We do have a smaller population than Calhoun; it’s more metropolitan than our county,” Parker said. “But we have children all over the state of Alabama.”
Parker said many people don’t understand the qualifications for foster parenting, and tend to overinflate their expectations.
“You have to go through training and background checks, of course, but you don’t have to be wealthy and live in a $200,000 home,” she said.
Garrett said the core requirement is being older than 19 with no criminal background. Marriage, race and sexuality aren’t a consideration, Garrett said, though the state does require married couples to have been married at least a year before volunteering. The foster home will also need to meet minimum requirements, offered in the state’s foster program handbook on the state DHR website. Most of those requirements come down to safety concerns, Garrett said, citing examples like ungated swimming pools and fire escape plans for upstairs bedrooms.
“Being qualified as a foster is not as hard as people think,” she said.
Fostering in a local home is less traumatic for children, Bibb said, than being spirited away across county lines, leaving their school, friends and support systems behind.
“The home where the child has been placed, their values, culture and demands are totally different,” Bibb said. “Children are not subject to change as quickly as adults.”
Parents are allowed visitation time with their children while they’re in foster care, which is either difficult or impossible when kids are a two- or three-hour drive away. Garrett said those meetings are vital.
“Reunification can happen quicker. If they can see you every week it becomes more important to get you home,” she said.
Lolitha Phillips, resource manager at Calhoun DHR, said that family reunification is always the first goal. If a child’s parents can’t earn back custody, social workers will search for family members. After a year, if nothing else works out, the state will take custody. Kids can go up for adoption at that point, though adoption becomes less likely as children near adulthood.
“It’s sad to say, but we have had children stay to the point that they’ve aged out, but we never want that for a child,” Phillips said.
Averages for the length of stay can be misleading, she said, because they vary so greatly. One child may stay just a few weeks, while another might be in the system for years.
Records from childwelfare.gov, a U.S. Health and Human Services Department product, show that 247,631 children left state foster care systems nationwide in 2017. Of that population, 34 percent had a stay in foster care from 1-11 months; 30 percent stayed from 12-23 months; 15 percent stayed for 24-35 months; 9 percent stayed for less than one month, and another 9 percent had been in the system for three to four years. Another 4 percent, about 9,905 foster children, were in the system for five or more years.
Of that same population, 49 percent were reunited with their parents, while 24 percent were adopted; 8 percent, about 19,810, were emancipated, and 17 percent went to live with a guardian or another relative.
Phillips said that anyone interested in becoming a foster parent can contact Britney Knox, a foster parent recruitment staffer at DHR, at 256-240-2157.
“What we need is homes,” Phillips said. “If they can’t be a person who can provide a home, spread the word to contact us.”