Fostering hope for the futureSix months ago, the number of Wisconsin families choosing to care for foster children started to drop, according to Doreen Wehmas, intake and assessment supervisor for the Douglas County Health and Human Services Department.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Six months ago, the number of Wisconsin families choosing to care for foster children started to drop, according to Doreen Wehmas, intake and assessment supervisor for the Douglas County Health and Human Services Department.
Locally, the number of foster homes able to shelter children has flat-lined. There are only 14 active foster homes in Douglas County, Wehmas said, and four of those are family-specific.
“Last year at this time we had 22.”
Because of the lack of local foster parents, Wehmas said, nine of the 31 Douglas County children in foster care have been placed with families in Bayfield, Sawyer and Iron counties. As the state winds up a month-long effort to increase the number of foster parents, a few local families discussed the benefits of opening their homes to foster children.
“Every child deserves to know what it feels like to be loved, to giggle and laugh with someone and to be able to fall asleep at night knowing that they are safe,” said Kate Nolin-Smith of Solon Springs.
Children don’t ask to be born into a dysfunctional family. “If you look at just even the potential of these kids seeing a different lifestyle, I think it’s worth it,” Nolin-Smith said.
Her family has fostered 27 children over the past eight years. Some stayed for a few days, others for more than a year. You don’t have to be rich or have a huge home to open it to foster children.
“Being a loving family, that’s all,” Nolin-Smith said.
Five years ago, Rhonda Ellis and her husband decided to help some kids out, since their own children were grown and out of the house. Learning to share control with a foster child’s parents was something she had to get used to, Ellis said. It is, she said, like being in a divorce relationship. But through the process, she’s made friends.
“The biggest benefit has been the relationships we’ve made, not just with the kids but with the parents,” said Ellis, who lives in Hawthorne. She has become one foster child’s unofficial “auntie,” attending school programs and providing advice for the girl’s family even after the placement ended.
“We’ve built long-term relationships with several of the biological parents and foster children, and strengthened our family as a whole,” Nolin-Smith said. “Our daughters have been able to feel good about themselves through helping others and sharing their belongings with boys and girls who did not have anything.”
Reunification with the child’s parents is always the goal, said Wehmas. But watching these foster children blossom eases the heartache that comes from letting them go back home.
“It’s a huge reward, watching these kids thrive, because kids just need to be kids, and they don’t know how to,” Ellis said.
Both Ellis and her husband work full time. She said Douglas County staff members have been very willing to work with them. There is never pressure to take children, Ellis said, and there are resources and support available through the county for foster parents.
“Most people think that kids coming into foster care are screwed up, behave naughty, or are from welfare families,” Nolin-Smith said. I’ve learned that many of the children coming into foster care have it more together than their parents do, behave quite well (not all, but most), and come from varying levels of socioeconomic backgrounds.”
The initial process to become licensed as a foster home may seem a little invasive, Nolin-Smith said, but it is done to ensure the safety of the children. County social workers inspect homes, do background and fingerprint checks, test water, do a child protection history and more. A basic training course is also required to become a foster parent, Wehmas said.
On average, local foster homes will take in groups of two to seven siblings and the average stay in permanent foster care is 12 to 15 months, Wehmas said. Parents can also opt to become crisis shelter homes. These families take in foster children at a moment’s notice, sometimes in the middle of the night, and care for them over a short period of time.
Wehmas said that in past there have been as many as 50 active foster homes in Douglas County.
“The way cases are lately, I would love to have 35 to 40 homes,” she said. In an effort to increase the number of foster homes in Douglas County, the health and human services department has hired a limited term employee to focus on promotion, marketing and getting the word out about the crucial need for foster homes. One of her duties will be to ensure foster parents can be licensed and trained quickly, Wehmas said.
Sometimes, the work has unexpected benefits. Both Nolin-Smith and Ellis have adopted foster children, although they never intended to.
“The two little ones we have adopted have changed our lives,” Ellis said.
The majority of Douglas County cases end with foster children returning home, Wehmas said.
“Our judge in this county doesn’t take the termination of parental rights lightly,” she said, but it is needed in some cases.
Even if you can’t foster children, you can help. Donations of clothes and new or clean, slightly used toys are accepted at the Douglas County Health and Human Services office. In particular, pre-teen clothing, especially boys’ pants, are needed. Afghans, quilts and stuffed animals are also appreciated. For more information on becoming a foster parent, call Wehmas at 715-395-1309, email email@example.com or check out the website at http://www.fosterparentsrock.org/.