Caring brings rewards to Foster Care parents

By C.J. Barbre

Rob and Michelle Kennedy knew they wanted children when they married three and a half years ago. But no blessed event was to come.

So two years ago they got involved with the Tulare County Foster Care System. They have had 27 placements in that time, from brand new babies less than one day old to children as old as 15 years.

"There is no bigger reward," Michelle told the a meeting of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors prior to the current marketing promotion for foster parents. "We had a party for a child who was turning 13. It was the first birthday party he ever had." She said they presently have eight children in their home, one of whom they have adopted and her sister who they are in the process of adopting.

Rob said, "They literally come into our house with nothing, totally traumatized. Seeing them get back to being a normal kid is one of the most incredible things."

Mary Thomas, in charge of Foster Care Licensing, said, "These two people are so important because they are advocated and extremely useful in explaining what foster care is all about." The Kennedys were selected to be the voice for Tulare County Foster Care parents for radio spots now on the airwaves, fittingly around Mother's Day, with Father's Day on the horizon.

District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox said he could understand because. in addition to his own five children, he and his wife had adopted two others.

Health & Human Services Agency (HHSA) wanted to update the board on integration of services in the Child Welfare Services (CWS) and Foster Care System. HHSA Assistant Director John Davis explained how families become part of the system and the integrated services HHSA provides. "Foster care parents' services are 24/7. That makes an enormous difference in kids' lives. It builds stronger families and healthy kids," he said.

In 2004 there were 6,987 referrals to County Welfare Services (CWS) involving 10,887 reports of neglect, abuse and children at risk. Of those, 35% were screened out and 65% were investigated. The process after a referral is an evaluation to determine which referrals need further investigation and which are unsubstantiated. Some must be responded to immediately and others have a response time of up to 10 days. In the worst cases the child is removed from the family.

Davis said of the 1,621 active cases last year, 24% stayed in the family, 28% went to foster care but were reunited with their families later and 48% went to permanent foster care and, hopefully, adoption.

"We want to keep families together," Davis said. He said 112 cases are families specifically asking for help. CWS offers a number of services to help strengthen families including assessment and case management, drug and alcohol treatment, parenting education, life skills information, nursing and transportation assistance and counseling.

Now they are down to 1,241 cases. When children must be taken out of the home, 41% go to a relative's home. Although relatives are not licensed, Davis said, "Over the next two years they will probably be very close to licensed homes." He said there are 200 homes are "foster families 24/7" with 21% foster family homes, 32% foster family agency homes and 6% group homes for children with serious behavioral problems.

Integrated services come in with high risk populations including drug exposed infants. "There are five families with a total of eight beds in contract homes for basically uncontrollable kids," Davis said. He said the kids stay there for however many days it takes until they are deemed OK for group homes. They are "special rates" children with special needs. They have 167 kids with behavioral difficulties that have required mutiple placements. The Special Case Investigation Unit (SCIU) conducts assessments and evaluations for parents and minors. Davis said they have a very strong nursing component with SCIU. "I don't know of another unit like it in the state," he said. There are eight psychologists that work out of that unit along with three case managers.

There are 347 CWS children receiving mental health services. They also work with 16-21-year-olds transitioning from out-of-home placement into independent living. The Independent Living Program gives workshops on employment and money management. "ILP helps kids land in adulthood with some skills for living," Davis said. They offer support services including food, clothing and college entrance assistance along with incentives for school performance and employment.

Once a child is placed in foster care, families are visited at least monthly and there is a court ordered review at least once every six months. Tulare County CWS has a better record that the state overall for taking care of children in the system, and it is constantly working at recruiting new foster parents through marketing and HHSA Program Development.

For more information call Tulare County HHSA at 737-4660.

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