COLUMBIA — Fear and the overwhelming responsibility of taking in a stranger's child are keeping the growing number of children and youth from being placed in foster homes.
That's the view of people involved in the system, and they say it has created a crisis.
Here are five ways to join the foster care effort without committing to parenting.
- Get in touch: Volunteers can provide an extra hand to caseworkers, who are often overburdened with work. Contact Children's Division and Great Circle to see what kind of help they need. Children's Division also has a list of other ways you can help the foster care system.
- A backpack of their own: Fill a backpack with items for a child who is entering the foster care system. The backpack program is still in development and no website is currently available, but calling Children's Division and Great Circle will help you get started.
- Adopt a foster family: If a foster family is in your neighborhood or community, find out what you can do for them. Babysitting, tutoring and delivering meals can be extremely helpful to a family that's feeling overwhelmed.
- Respite care: Short-term care for foster children to provide relief for foster parents. Respite care could be taking the foster child for a day or for a weekend. The process requires an application and short training program.
- Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA): Volunteers are trained to advocate for the best interest of the child going into foster care and make sure that the child is not lost in the legal or social services system. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed, forming a strong bond with the child.
Julia Adami, director of community-based services for Columbia, central and northern Missouri at Great Circle, a private behavioral health agency focused on foster and adoptive care, describes prospective parents' apprehension this way: It's "fear of the unknown in terms of what kind of child will be placed in their home and how it will affect their children, if they have any."
A record high number of children and youth are in foster care in Missouri, said Karen Anderson, foster mother, trainer and family development specialist for Great Circle and Children's Division, an agency of the Missouri Department of Social Services.
According to a 2011 Missouri Department of Social Services report, the number of children in foster care has been increasing since early 2009, when there were slightly more than 9,000 children in foster care. Two years later, the number was nearly 10,600.
Today, Missouri has 12,578 children and youth in foster care, according to Anderson.
The national trend has been in the opposite direction almost continuously since 2005, according to a study conducted by the Children's Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The reason for the growth in Missouri is unclear, Adami said. She believes the economic crash of 2008 could be a cause; 23 percent of children in Missouri live in families at or below the poverty line. So could the increase in meth and heroin arrests, which have led to more children reported living in unsafe environments, according to Adami.
Adami said others also cite the recent revision of state law about how to report child abuse, which requires those suspecting abuse to call the abuse hotline directly, instead of a higher authority. For example, Adami said, a teacher should report suspected child abuse directly to a child abuse hotline, rather than to a school principal or counselor.
As of 2011, there were 2,770 licensed foster homes across the state, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services report from 2o11. Boone County has 53 licensed foster homes, not including relatives' homes, Anderson said.
The 2011 Department of Social Services report also found two reasons for the decline in foster homes: more children being placed in relatives' homes and foster children needing more medical and behavioral help.
"I think we're in a crisis in Missouri," said Laura Pinkstaff, a foster mother in Columbia. "I think as a community we need to step up and recognize that we can help remedy this."
A foster family
Pinkstaff and her husband, Matt Pinkstaff, have been a foster family for nearly a year and a half. They are raising three of their own girls and two foster children — brothers, ages 3 and 4.
The Pinkstaffs spent six years in inner-city Memphis, watching a small community of people around them foster and adopt. Then they spent three years in India before moving to Columbia.
"We've seen the hurt," Pinkstaff said. "We've watched inner-city kids struggle, and we've seen the poverty of India. We just thought, 'What does it look like here?'"
Although she and her husband are relatively new foster parents, they knew a bit about the foster process.
"We've had 15 of our friends adopt, so we've sort of walked down those roads with them," she said. "We also watched one of our friends foster two children ... and thought, 'You know, this is something we could do.'"
In February 2013, the Pinkstaffs began fostering the boys. "Their transition into our home and into our family took a lot of time," Pinkstaff said. "It was long, and there were days when I just cried."
When one of her foster boys ran at her and tackled her, she was taken aback.
"Then I thought, 'Wait a minute, their body attacks are a form of love,'" she said, laughing.
Because the Pinkstaffs had watched their friends foster and adopt, they weren't surprised that there was an end to the "honeymoon period," as she calls it. It marked the beginning of the hard work of raising a child who had endured losses, such as the loss of a homeland. Loss of language. Loss of culture.
In the end, there's no guarantee fostering a particular child will work out, she said.
"Stay or go, we don't know," Pinkstaff said about her foster boys. "That's the part of foster care we walk every day. You don't know, and you can't predict it. It's walking the unknown."
Laura and Matt Pinkstaff included their three girls in their early conversations about whether or not to foster, and they continue to talk to their children about how the process is going.
"It's constantly saying, in an age-appropriate way, 'This is what's going on, how are you feeling about this?'" Laura Pinkstaff said.
Sophia, the eldest of the three girls, said she felt as if the boys were her own brothers. She doesn't want them to ever leave.
"We're a foster family, not foster parents," Pinkstaff said.
Finding more families
Pinkstaff quit her job this year to promote foster care in Columbia. She wants people to help. She says Children's Division and Great Circle are great places to start.
Great Circle works with the Children's Division in recruiting, training and aiding foster families, in addition to providing other services for parents and children in Missouri.
Part of Pinkstaff's work as a foster care advocate is to raise awareness about the many ways people can contribute to the foster community. Being a foster parent isn't the only way to help, she said.
"There are teenagers who are going to age out of the system that somebody could teach how to make a budget, or how to do a job interview or what a resume could look like," Pinkstaff said.
She also tries to raise awareness about support groups that can help alleviate some of the difficulty of fostering.
"If you're going to do this for the long haul, you need a community of support around you, and you need older foster parents who've been around to help you out and to answer your questions," she said.
One of the support groups is the Boone County Foster Parent Support Group. The group has monthly meetings and occasional events that bring foster families in Boone County together to share information and advice about the foster world. Anderson is former president of the group.
Karen and John Anderson have fostered nearly 200 children in the 34 years that they have been foster parents. The Andersons have three biological children and three adopted children from the foster care system and are currently caring for two foster children.
Karen Anderson thinks misconceptions keep people from becoming foster parents. "It's people thinking that you have to be married or own your own home, or any number of misperceptions," she said.
On paper, the requirements to foster are minimal. Foster parents are required to be 21 years of age and have a room in their residence for a child. They must also complete a free 10-week training program and participate in an assessment through which the foster agency determines whether fostering is right for the applicant and vice versa.
If they decide to go forward, foster parents can choose the age range, gender and level of need of the child.
"It's a specific process, matching a child to a foster family, and the more foster families there are, the better the matches will be," Karen Anderson said.
Every child is unique, as is the home environment he or she lived in before entering foster care. For children who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect, finding the right approach to counseling or treatment for each child is essential to fostering, and it can be a challenge, she said.
In addition to those challenges, the financial burden of fostering is great on foster parents in Missouri.
Foster parents of traditional foster children – foster kids without medical needs or behavioral issues – receive between $291 and $384 a month, according to a Children's Division chart.
In the Midwest, the average cost of raising a 10-year-old, the typical age of a child in foster care, is $1,368 a month for a two-parent household, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cost of Raising a Child Calculator.
Missouri is among the bottom few states in reimbursement rates, according to a 2012 Family Foster Care Reimbursement Rates in the U.S. study. The study shows that reimbursement rates for a 9- to 11-year-old cover only 44 percent of the estimated costs of raising the child. The only three states behind Missouri are Colorado with 42 percent, Nebraska with 42 percent and Idaho with 39 percent.
The reimbursement rate for Missouri was increased by $9 per month this year. The increase was the first since 2008, according to a chart provided by the Children's Division.
"Whether it's one child or three children, the reimbursement rate (in Missouri) that foster parents get doesn’t go very far in terms of being able to provide for those kids," Adami said.
Despite Missouri's low rates, foster parents continue to take in children.
If Pinkstaff's two foster boys did not have medical needs and did not receive higher reimbursement rates, she could not have quit her job, she said, but the boys would still be in her home.
"The rewards in seeing children heal from their wounds are very great," Anderson said, "and having the commitment to working through a child's difficulties will benefit the children in ways that will last a lifetime."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.