Kia Butler at Northern Children’s Services in Roxborough has a roster of 13 foster families in Northwest Philadelphia, but that is far from enough. Along with the children in its care, the organization continues to get numerous requests for alternative homes for children who are abused, mistreated or at risk.
Foster families are too few and even rarer in the areas of the city in which the children live. And Northwest Philly is one of those areas.
Sitting at her computer at Northern one morning, Butler, director of foster care there, read aloud from an email that showed the demand and the need: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight children,” she counted, “and that is in one email and it’s 10:35.”
Northern and Tabor Children’s Services joined to form Tabor Northern Community Partners, a Community Umbrella Agency (CUA) responsible for placing children in foster care in the Northwest, as well as providing other services. CUAs are authorized by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS).
The city department has undergone a child-welfare overhaul, resulting in a program called “Improving Outcomes for Children” that is centered on a community-based and family-centered approach. That means keeping children with their families when possible, and placing them in foster care or for adoption when it is not. The aim is to keep children in the places and with the people they know and love.
A great need that won’t go away
On average, Butler gets about 15 referrals a day. “The system has always been overwhelmed,” she said, “but with recent changes it has increased dramatically.”
The new laws have resulted in more mandated reports. People who work with minors are required to alert DHS of abuse or neglect. The kinds of information that trigger a report have expanded. It is no longer necessary to witness firsthand abuse or neglect. Hearsay is enough to make a call to DHS.
“People don’t understand how much our child welfare system is in crisis, don’t understand the need. We have hundreds of children that need a home,” said Ikysha Dearry, a parent recruiter at Northern.
When children are referred to Butler, they have been abused or neglected, or are in imminent risk. She needs to act fast. If a bed cannot be found in Northwest Philly, she turns to 49 other families elsewhere in the city. Sometimes, though, there is no home to go to.
Currently, 5,594 children in Philadelphia are in foster care, according to DHS. Of these, 80 percent are in family foster care homes. The remainder are in congregate care homes like Northern.
“We haven’t even gotten to the part of keeping children in their CUA area,” said Butler. “That child needs a home.”
Recruiting foster parents
Finding suitable families has been difficult for several reasons.
Some people apply for the wrong reason: They expect a hefty check. “Some think it is a big payday,” said Dearry, but it is not and these people are not chosen. DHS offers payment to care for the child, such as a clothing allowance, health coverage and behavioral services. The children are also eligible for other government-sponsored programs.
Some people believe that the rules won’t allow them to be a foster parent while raising their own children. The only requirement is that parents have no more than six biological children living at home.
Then there is the bureaucracy. Foster parents must go through background checks and follow DHS parenting guidelines (no spanking, for example). They have to prove their age (21 or older), employment and the quality of living conditions in the home.
Many are simply afraid that the child they take in might be too difficult or unpredictable. They assume that if the child is in the system, he or she must have experienced some kind of trauma.
“It is really hard to find homes for teenagers,” said Butler. “The babies are quick.”
The DHS offers a handbook for people who would like to become a foster parent.
When Dearry recruits parents, she is honest about the challenges. She recalled stories of young teens so neglected that they could not tie their shoes or use dinner utensils. Another teen initially refused to shower because she had been sexually abused in a bathroom. A white child who was raised in a racist family taunted his African-American foster mother with hateful epithets.
Sometimes foster parents lack appropriate skills, too. Butler remembered children who raided the refrigerator in their foster homes at night or hid food in their rooms because they came from homes where there was never enough to eat. One foster mother, in a different agency, solved the problem by tying the child to the bed at night. Caseworkers are required to perform regular checks to guard against renewed abuse.
Being a foster parent
Foster parents who already have children in their home can sometimes get overwhelmed, so recruiters such as Dearry are cautious. “Our goal is not to add children to the system,” she said.
At Northern, foster parents are told that there is no way to predict what a child will be like, or how he or she will behave. The rewards, however, can be great. Take the girl who was placed in a home in West Oak Lane. When Butler went to visit her, the girl referred to the biological son as her brother. “It was a family,” Butler said.
In many cases, foster children stay with a family only 15 months to 18 months. The aim is to reunite them with their biological family rather than placing them in permanent legal custody or going through adoption. Even in these instances, children can stay in touch with their foster family after having formed a bond.
In most cases, “it’s not as gruesome as people portray it,” said Dearry. “Children just need love and consistency.”