In the seven years Tina Estel and her husband, David, have been foster parents, 27 children have called their Cameron house a home, at least temporarily.
Of those foster children, three are now officially Estels: an 11-year-old boy, a 19-year-old girl and, as of last week, a 21-month-old boy. They join David’s two grown daughters and Tina’s two grown children and 12-year-old son.
Estel said one of the hardest parts of being a foster parent is growing attached to the children and having to say goodbye.
“It’s hard to let go of any of them,” she said, even the ones who have been difficult to handle.
Letting go, however, comes with the territory of fostering. And, if one looks at the statistics, more adults need to be willing to sacrifice their feelings in order to help a child in need.
In West Virginia, there are less than 400 non-relative foster homes, and more than 4,000 children in foster care. Children are placed in foster care mostly because of parental abuse or neglect.
“There’s a dire need for licensed foster homes in West Virginia,” said Amanda Byrd, foster parent recruiter for the West Virginia chapter of the National Youth Advocate Program. “We especially need homes that can take teenagers and sibling groups.”
Megan Krajewski, a local foster parent and vice president of Tri-County Foster/Adoptive Network Support, said she often hears the statement: “How can you bear to give them back?” Rather than responding flippantly: “I’m cold and unfeeling, that’s how!” she usually takes the time to explain that she often is allowed to maintain contact with her foster children after they leave her home. She said friends of hers who also foster and face the same question from strangers turn around and ask the inquirer: “If I don’t do this, who will?”
“Children and teens, especially those in the foster care system, need lifelong connections to caring, stable adults. What could possibly be more rewarding than helping young people in need?” Krajewski said.
It’s easier to let go, Estel said, if she knows where her former foster child is going — into a relative placement or being reunited with parents who have changed their ways for the better. Eighteen months is the longest they had a child who then was reunited with family.
“It was a good situation. I knew what they were going into, so that makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Foster care advocates are constantly seeking new recruits.
“Foster parenting has gotten a bad reputation, and we want to dispel some of the misconceptions people have,” said Janel Frazier, licensing team leader at the Wheeling office of the National Youth Advocate Program.
News stories of foster parents abusing their foster children, such as the highly publicized Ohio case in which the foster children were kept in cages, don’t help matters.
“For every one of those homes there are hundreds of foster parents every day who do wonderful things for children and families,” Frazier said.
Another misconception in the general public is that foster parents are “in it for the money,” Frazier said. She said West Virginia law requires that foster families receive no form of state assistance other than the foster care stipend. Once a child is placed in the home, he or she receives a state medical card, and the family receives $20 a day. (In Ohio, a family can be on state assistance and still become foster parents.)
“In West Virginia, it is impossible to foster a child for the money,” Frazier said.
“The money from the state is sufficient. It helps tremendously, but it doesn’t nearly cover the cost of raising a child,” said Estel, who is licensed through the Youth Advocate Program.
The program contracts with the state Department of Health and Human Resources to provide foster placements for children in West Virginia. The Wheeling office licenses 17 foster homes from Hancock County in the north to Tyler County in the south. About half of those homes are in Marshall County. The state has its own network of foster homes.
The benefit to being licensed with the Youth Advocate Program is more hands-on support from YAP staff, Frazier and Byrd said. The staff provide 24-hour crisis intervention services, a foster parent support group, counseling and therapy services, and regular face-to-face contact with a treatment coordinator.
Some people might be under the impression foster parenting always leads to adoption, Frazier said. It doesn’t.
“There’s no way around that. We are a foster care agency, not an adoption agency. Maybe you will have an adoption placement eventually; we do ‘foster-to-adopt.’ But it’s not a guarantee,” Frazier said. In fact, 90 percent of the foster parents in this region want to adopt eventually, Frazier said. Others might not think they want to adopt but end up bonding with the child and, if adoption becomes a possibility, like in Estel’s case, they do adopt.
In recruiting around the state, Byrd said she finds word of mouth from other foster parents is the best recruiter.
In West Virginia, foster parents are required to have 27 hours of training, including CPR, first aid and crisis prevention. A foster parent candidate must be at least 21, financially stable without dependence on the money you receive for the foster child, be drug- and violence-free, have reliable transportation with documented insurance, be in good physical and mental health, be willing to participate in ongoing training and undergo criminal background checks and a home safety check.
Foster parents can have full-time jobs — “Most of ours do,” Frazier said. “You can’t make (ends meet) if you don’t these days.”
Frazier said through YAP it takes about three months to become licensed. She gets to know each family, inside and out, she said.
“I wouldn’t license a home that I wouldn’t place my own child in,” said Frazier, who has two sons, ages 3 1/2 and 10 months.
For information, call the Wheeling office of the National Youth Advocate Program, 800-692-1203.