Foster care system is always in need of help
To learn more
GENEVA TOWNSHIP Fifteen years of goodbyes haven't wrung the heart out of Mary Ryan.
In the living room of her rural Elkhorn farmhouse, Ryan pulls a tissue from a box balanced on a crowded end table. She dabs her eyes and leans back against the pink and purple afghan in her armchair.
Ryan isn't crying, but the memories of all the kids she's loved and sent on their ways are enough to tug at the heart of even this veteran foster mom.
"What holds me together is that I keep thinking that they're not going to be here forever, and I have to do the best I can do for them while they're here," Ryan said. "So, getting that emotionally involved gets in the way."
Ryan in 1995 opened her home to a man who is a client in an adult care program through the county. At the time, she saw it as a way to help pay her rent. He lives with her still.
In 2001, she extended the care to other adults, some of whom had been in foster care as juveniles. They included two young, pregnant women with addictions. Ryan's job was to keep close tabs on the young moms to increase their chances of sobriety during pregnancy.
Ryan found she was able to connect with them. Maybe it was because her own childhood "wasn't the best in the world," and she could remember what it was like to be a young woman, Ryan said.
"The girls would say, 'You just don't know,' and I would think, 'Oh, yes I do,'" Ryan said.
When she retired in 1996 from work at Mercy Clinic East in Janesville, Ryan started taking foster children into her home. She has fostered more than a dozen teens and children.
Ryan can take as many as three children at once, depending on their ages. Currently, she fosters a 15-year-old boy.
Ryan often fosters teens but has fostered a 2-month-old girl as well as brothers ages 4 and 8.
The baby girl's picture hangs on Ryan's living room wall. The girl has been adopted, and her new parents plan to get licensed as foster parents, Ryan said.
The little boys were a handful, Ryan said fondly. In addition to being "typical boys," they came with the kinds of emotional and behavioral problems common to kids who grew up in "terrible" living situations, she said.
"These children wouldn't be in foster care if they didn't have behavioral needs," Ryan said. "It's not that it's something they're doing on purpose but maybe what's being done to them."
A person doesn't have to be a mental health professional or even an experienced parent to deal with many of those needs, Ryan said. Many foster kids simply need the everyday things that healthy families take for granted, she said.
"Those boys and I, we went sledding almost continuously last year," Ryan said. "Every Saturday we were at Sunset Park (in Elkhorn.) The first time, they said, 'I don't know how to do that.' Can you believe it? They'd never been sledding. I told them to sit down and hang on. It was so neat to see the expression on their face."
Lots of options
Ryan's willingness to care for sibling sets and teenagers makes her the kind of foster parent county programs look for, said Susan Ernest, foster care coordinator for Walworth County.
The county doesn't have a shortage of foster homes, Ernest said. Typically, the county is managing 60 foster kids at any given time and currently has 47 homes to choose from.
The county does not have a waiting list for foster care services. If a child needs foster care, the county has enough licensed homes to place the child immediately, she said.
That doesn't mean the county isn't constantly looking for new families to become foster parents. The goal is to find the best fit for every child and his or her family, Ernest said. For starters, that means finding a foster home in the child's home community and school district.
"We try to disrupt their lives as little as we possibly can," Ernest said. "That's why it's important to have a good pool, so we have (foster) homes in every school district, every community."
The best fit for every child can mean a big commitment for some foster parents. As the social trend continues away from institutional care or even small group homes, individual foster families are needed to care for increasingly challenging children, Ernest said.
"We're asking for more from foster parents, because we're trying to keep kids at a foster care level," Ernest said.
Another challenge is finding foster homes skilled enough to work with and set an example for the child's birth parents, said Kendra Parr, foster care specialist in Rock County.
"We really, really have a need for foster homes that understand the need for keeping sibling groups together … and then understanding the importance of working as a team," Parr said.
They don't make it easy
Rock County's need is different from Walworth County's in that the number of licensed foster homes is low compared with the number of kids who need care, Parr said. The number of homes has been on the decline for three years, according to county data.
Rock County currently has 70 certified foster homes. That's down from 102 homes last year and 116 in 2009.
Of the 70 homes, only 53 are available to foster kids from the general public. The others are certified only to care for specific children, often relatives, she said.
The average daily census of all kids in Rock County foster homes in the first half of 2011 was 115, said Sandy Brown, the child protective services division manager in the Rock County Human Services Department.
That includes kids in foster care as well as those in more specialized settings such as treatment foster care or group homes, Brown said.
In 2010, the average daily census was 117, and in 2009, it was 129.
Specialized situations require foster parents licensed to care for kids with more difficult than average behavioral issues and special needs. The county pays those foster parents more than the rate for "regular" foster care.
The county budgets $3 million to $4 million annually for substitute care, Brown said.
Rock County is desperate for new foster parents to step up to care for all kids, including those with special needs, but the county needs good homes and won't settle for less, Parr said.
The first step is six hours of pre-screening training.
"People will say you don't make it easy to get licensed," Parr said. "Of course we don't. These parents are trusting you. I would need to know you for more than six hours to care for my cats."
Many potential foster parents self-screen out of the process after the initial six hours, Parr said. The people who stick with it next start applying for a two-year foster care license, she said.
They must fill out a mountain of paperwork about their personal lives. For example, Rock County foster parents must be able to show they can pay their bills without the supplemental income from foster care, Parr said.
Social workers even interview a potential foster family's birth children, she said.
"It's not just parents taking the role on," Parr said. "It's families taking the role on."
Once homes get licensed, they see Parr and other social workers regularly. Parr visits foster homes at least every other month to check on the foster parents. She even checks up every few months on the homes that don't have placements.
A foster child's social worker is expected to visit at least once a month, Parr said.
Combined with ongoing training, the visits are meant to be support for foster families. After all, caring for a child or children is not an easy job, Parr said. It's an understatement to say foster parenting is emotionally challenging, she said.
"Imagine … you have to love them enough to want to keep them as their own," Parr said. "But you have to just know that you're going to need to let them go and know your heart's going to get broken."