By Michelle Talsma Everson
National Adoption Day is November 22 and, according to NationalAdoptionDay.org, there are more than 100,000 children in the U.S. foster care system available for adoption. Here in Arizona, there are nearly 16,000 children in state foster care, according to Paul Davis, director of Foster Care Services for Devereux Arizona. While many of these local children are available for adoption, children in the state foster care system are in dire need of quality foster homes whether they’re available for adoption or working toward reunification with their biological families.
“There are not enough families available to meet the number of children DCS [the Arizona Department of Child Safety] is removing from their biological homes. This state is in a crisis because of the number of children being removed and the shortage of homes for them,” explains Mary Cherry, licensing supervisor at Human Resources Training, Inc. (HRT). “During the month of August the DCS child abuse hotline received more than 700 calls and, of those calls, almost 200 required a response time within two hours because of the severity of the report. Due to the shortage of homes, 17 children from the ages of 0 to 17 years spent one to two nights in a case manager’s office.”
Foster parent qualifications
For those interested in becoming foster parents, Cherry gives some basic qualifications: “We need people who not only have a big heart but also have the ability to learn skills to support children in crisis. Applicants need a flexible work schedule, bedroom space in their home for a child, access to transportation and all adults in the home must be able to pass a background check and obtain a Level One Fingerprint Clearance Card. Arizona reimburses families for providing foster care, but families are required to demonstrate they can meet their own financial needs. HRT offers orientations in the evening or by personal appointment so applicants can learn everything required to become a licensed foster parent.”
Davis adds in more details for foster parent qualifications and common misperceptions:
• To become a foster parent, you do not have to be married. You can be single, married, partnered or cohabitating and become a foster parent.
• You must be at least 21 years of age to foster but as long as you are physically able to care for children you can become a foster parent well past retirement age.
• You do not have to own your own home. You can be renting an apartment, mobile home or house as long as you have room for foster children.
• You do not have to be wealthy to become a foster parent. As long as you can meet your financial obligations, you can become a foster parent. Foster parents receive a reimbursement from the state for each child they foster.
• You can work full-time and still be a foster parent. As long as you make arrangements for children’s care while you are working, you can be employed full or part time.
• You do not have to pay to become a foster parent. All training and requirements for licensing are free to foster parents.
“Arizona contracts with private agencies to recruit, train, license and supervise foster homes,” Cherry clarifies. “DCS is legally responsible for removing children who are in eminent danger and placing them in safe settings. Arizona is required by law to limit children being placed in congregant care [settings like group homes and crisis centers]. Agencies are mandated to have foster homes available for children from ages 0-12 years and, although there are group homes for teens, the state is desperately in need of foster families for this population too.”
Davis adds that the foster children most in need are those needing emergency placement, sibling sets, and older children/teens.
Foster parent education
Cherry explains in detail the type of education needed to become a foster parent: “Arizona requires all foster parents take pre-service training titled PS MAPP. This course has 10 sessions; each one is 3 hours in length. We [HRT] offer expedited classes where applicants can take training either two evenings a week or on an all-day Saturday. This shortens the training process by four weeks and allows families to be licensed quicker.”
Cherry notes that the training is anything but boring. “The training is fun and interactive with a lot of participation,” she says. “We cover the basic information for becoming a foster parent as well as managing children’s behavior, child development, grief and loss and shared parenting. In one class we have a panel with individuals whom work in the system sharing their expertise and answering questions. Our trainers are highly experienced with the Department of Child Safety, Arizona’s behavioral health system, Arizona’s court system and agencies that work serving children.”
Foster to adopt
While not every child in the foster care system is available for adoption, thousands are. “If there are no immediate family members able to adopt, often times our foster families have developed a relationship with a child or sibling group and choose to adopt,” Davis says. “Devereux Arizona handles the licensing transition for our foster families in these situations.”
Davis adds that his organization, Devereux, is not specifically an adoption agency, but helps its current foster parents interested in adopting navigate the process. He recommends that those interested in fostering to adopt visit des.az.gov.
Other ways to help
Becoming a foster parent isn’t for everyone, but there are still other ways to help children in the foster care system. According to Devereux Arizona, some of the ways to help include:
• Donating clothing and personal hygiene items to causes like Devereux Arizona’s HOPE Fund 4 Kids.
• Supporting extracurricular activities for foster kids.
• Becoming a special advocate or mentor for foster kids, such as through CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) or AFC (Arizonans for Children). Visit CASAofArizona.org or ArizonansForChildren.org to learn more.
Whether you choose to become a foster parent or volunteer with a foster-centric organization, representatives from both Devereux Arizona’s and HRT note that you’ll be making a difference to a child that could last a lifetime. And, they’ll impact your life too.
“Families who open their homes to children in need say that fostering is one of the most rewarding experiences in their lives,” says Cynthia Valencia, foster care recruitment supervisor at HRT.
“Foster parents have shared that they are extremely touched and motivated when they see the children laughing, playing and thriving in their homes.”
To learn more, visit Devereux Arizona at DevereuxAZ.org or HRT at www.hrtaz.com for more info. In addition, other resources include the Arizona Association for Foster & Adoptive Parents (azafap.org) and the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation (affcf.org).
By Sara Clawson
Mentoring relationships play an invaluable role in the lives of young people living the Arizona foster care system. AASK mentors spend one-on-one time with teenagers teaching them valuable life skills. Skills like how to write a resume, interview for jobs and budgeting for groceries that are important for transitioning into adulthood. Mentors instill value, self-respect and confidence in youth who have lacked a positive adult model.
“He said that had it not been for my efforts, he would have ended up on the streets doing drugs and God knows what else. He credits me with saving his life, when in fact he is the one who has done all that was required to turn his life around,” says John, an AASK mentor. “I was simply there to support and encourage him to keep trying.”
The benefits of these relationships are remarkable. Nationally, statistics show that mentoring relationships work. Mentored foster care alumni are:
• More likely to set and attain higher life achievement goals.
• More likely to have greater academic achievements.
• 27 percent less likely to use alcohol and 45 percent less likely to do drugs.
Even with younger mentees (9 to 15 years old), these trained volunteers provide a consistent relationship to children who live in a group home or shelter. These relationships are sometimes the only one a child has with an adult who is not paid to be in their life.
For information on becoming an AASK mentor, call 602-930-4900 or visit aask-az.org.