May is National Foster Care month. To highlight the issues facing children and families in the foster care system, we spoke to Lisa Cauley, deputy director of Child Welfare Services for the N.C. Division of Social Services.
Q: What has North Carolina been doing to celebrate National Foster Care Month, and why is it important that we celebrate it?
A: It's a nice time to recognize foster parents, the child welfare professionals, and advocates that work tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of children and youth in foster care. And this also includes celebrating the youth themselves, because what we know of this population is that they are resilient young people, many of whom transition to become successful adults.
Q: What have state and local social services agencies been doing to observe National Foster Care Month?
A: In honor of Foster Care Month, we held a Child Welfare Summit for staff who work with children in foster care and their families and covered some national best practices and evidence-based practices so that we could build the skill set of the workers that serve this population in North Carolina. North Carolina also has a really strong recruitment and retention plan for foster parents. So we sent out new marketing materials to all county Departments of Social Services and private agencies so they could enhance their recruitment plans. And then if you look, across the state you'll see lots of local activities where county and private agencies are also promoting awareness. Hopefully, this will encourage people to come forward and become foster parents.
Q: Given the chronic shortages of foster families, what’s the situation currently?
A: The number of licensed foster parents has continued to grow over the past three years, and right now we have close to 7,000 licensed foster homes. But the interesting thing about this is you have to continue to bring people to be licensed as foster parents because the majority of people who adopt are foster parents. Once foster parents adopt and they hit the maximum number of children per household, then they leave the foster parent system. So you have to have new people that come in. The difficulty is in finding licensed foster homes for siblings, sibling groups larger than three, and teens.
Q: Is that the biggest challenge with the foster care system?
A: That's one. The other challenge is that children in North Carolina stay in foster care too long, and we need to decrease the number of days they stay in care. If they go back to their parents, they should go home sooner – when the parents are ready and equipped, of course. And if they're adopted, that should happen sooner than it actually does.
Q: How many kids are in foster care currently?
A: As of March 31st, there were 10,887 children from newborns to age 17 in foster care. In addition to that, there were 772 young adults ages 18 to 21 who are participating in the expanded foster care program.
Q: What is the most common misconception about the foster care system or foster care children?
A: I think the biggest misconception is about foster parenting teens. I think the rewards outweigh the challenges. I have raised two children and I've raised teens. I know how challenging they are. I also know from my own children and from watching other youth in foster care just how resilient that population of children is. Foster parents often say that one of the most rewarding things they've ever done is to take a young person in foster care and get them through high school and on to wherever their path leads them, be it the military, community college, college, or just working full time.
Q: Your parents were foster parents. What was it like to have children from the foster care system in your home?
A: I have four siblings and one of them was adopted. My parents also fostered babies, young children and teens. It was the most impactful thing that happened in my life. My siblings are not social workers or even in the human services field, and I think they would say the same thing. It teaches you how important parents are. And it really taught me how to get along with most people. I learned to live in a house that was open to others. Going to college was not hard for me because I had lived with a lot of people all my life. Sharing bathrooms and all those things that drive college students crazy in a dorm, that was never a challenge to me. You had kids in foster care, and if you didn't like them and they didn't like you, it wasn't like anybody was leaving. You had to figure out how to get along.
Q: What can everyday people do to help?
A: If you really think about it, kids come into foster care because their parents weren't able to meet their needs. So I think it’s important to be aware of community agencies that help parents with safety-net needs like housing and food. Advocate for those to be a part of your community. If you're interested in fostering, contact your local Department of Social Services and explore what it would mean to be a foster parent. I would also say consider what you or your faith or civic organization can do to support foster parents or youth in foster care. For more information, citizens can call our hotline at 877-625-4371 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.