At her DFACS office, Heather Scott-Wallin displays "It's My Turn Now," basically a catalog of kids who need homes. The kids' photographs in this article are from that publication. For a link to the online listing, go to the end of this article.
Sears used to have a catalog it called the “Wish Book,” and kids would spend the weeks before Christmas leafing through it, dog-earing the pages that depicted toys they especially yearned for. Heather Scott-Wallin has a different, sadder kind of Wish Book. In hers, it’s the kids, not the toys, who are inside the catalog, and what they’re wishing for is a home and parents to take care of them.
The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) puts out these compilations of children available for adoption across the state quarterly, and Ms. Scott-Wallin always has a few in her desk. But as resource developer for the Trenton DFACS office, she concentrates more on children right here in Dade County. Even in a county this small, she says, there are way more kids who need homes than homes to take them.
“We’re just desperate for foster homes,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. “We always are.”
Christmas is traditionally a time to think of orphans and children in need, and Ms.
Scott-Wallin hopes the holiday spirit will bring her a few more foster parent recruits. But she’s hunting for foster homes 12 months a year, and she says the nature of the beast is that they fill up and close faster than she can open new ones.
“We have 11 homes that are officially open and approved right now in Dade County,” she told The Planet at a recent interview. “Out of those 11, we only have one home that has bed space. Typically, we don’t have any homes that have bed space. We just happen to have one right now and that’s not going to last very long, I can tell you that.”
Dade had 21 children in care the day The Planet spoke to Ms. Scott-Wallin, but she said hat number varies as cases resolve and new ones arise.
DFACS always has caseworkers on call, and in a crisis situation the agency might have to assume custody of a child or a set of siblings in the middle of night and find them a place to stay in a hurry. With foster homes thin on the ground, that can be a serious challenge. “If I got a call right now, I would be kind of struggling trying to figure out where these kids should go,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin.
In such a pinch, children must often be housed in other counties, which is rougher on everybody, especially the child, and especially if the child is already in school. “It makes it more traumatic than it has to be,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. For a Dade child, all court dates will be in Trenton, and if there is a biological parent in the picture transportation has to be arranged for visitation. “If we can keep them in Dade County it makes it easier for everybody,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin.
In extreme cases, kids may even be placed in hotels, with contract babysitters or a DFACS social worker staying with them until something better can be found. “It’s horrible that we have to do that sometimes,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. But there really are situations, she said, where: “Staying in a hotel tonight is going to be better than where they would have been staying.”
All this is a prelude to the question: Can you help? DFACS needs foster homes in Dade. If you’ve ever thought of adopting or fostering, or even fostering in an extremely limited way, for an occasional weekend, say, Ms. Scott-Wallin would love to talk to you.
What is the foster care system?
But first of all, what kind of kids come into foster care, and why? All kinds and ages of kids, says Ms. Scott-Wallin, and for all kinds of reasons. Parents may have died, been arrested, neglected or abused their children, or simply have abandoned them.
Ms. Scott-Wallin makes it clear, though, that DFACS does not take children into care unless it is abundantly imperative. “Foster care is not an ideal place for a child to be,” she said. “Even though we have some really wonderful foster parents and some wonderful, loving homes, it’s still traumatic for a child. That’s why we try not to do it unless we absolutely have to.”
Georgia, she says, believes families should be kept intact if at all possible. “The way the state looks at it, kids are always better off when they’re with their biological parents, as long as they’re safe,” she said. And if children aren’t safe in a parental home, the state considers the next-best place is with blood kin. It’s only when all such prerogatives are exhausted that kids come into the foster system.
This may well be for a limited time. A judge makes the ultimate decision to remove children from the home, and for how long. A DFACS attorney will present the agency’s case to the judge, parents may request an attorney, and the children themselves are also appointed lawyers to advocate for their best interests.
If a parent wants the child or children back, a plan to facilitate that is formulated. “We are mandated by the state to work with the parents,” said Ms Scott-Wallin.
And many times, she says, the story has a happy ending. “We have biological parents who work really hard to get their kids back, they love their kids and their kids love them,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. “It’s a very rewarding and positive thing when we see them go home. Then we have parents that don’t really seem to be motivated to work on their case plan. We have parents who sign their rights away immediately.”
What’s happening to the kids while their parents and the system work through all this? They’re in foster care, maybe with people who wish to adopt children, maybe with fosters who only wish to be safe havens for the short term.
Kinds of Fostering
Which brings us to the different kinds of foster parents you can be, if you choose to step up.
Partnership parents are the basic garden-variety foster parents who make their homes available for temporary placements while DFACS works with biological parents to reunite them with their children. Usually the partnership parent is not interested in adopting—though that can and does change, as in cases where a child becomes available for adoption and the foster parent can’t imagine letting go. “You can change your mind,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. “You’re not stuck in one category.”
There are also child-specific or “fictive-kin” foster homes: A neighbor or teacher or friend of the family, who is not related to the child but wants to foster him or her, sometimes goes through the DFACS approval process specifically to be able to keep that child.
Resource parents are those who ultimately do want to adopt but are willing to foster in the meantime. “Resource parents have to realize we’re still working with Mom and Dad, we’re still working that case plan, but if that falls through they’re most likely going to be the adoptive resource,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin.
Respite parenting might be the way to go if you’re hesitant about committing to the whole enchilada. Respite parents are there to give regular foster parents a break, perhaps looking after a child while foster parents go out of town for a few days. It’s not enough to rearrange your life but it’s still a huge help to DFACS, the foster parents and the children. “I’ll call them up and say, hey, can you take a kid just for the weekend,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin.
Finally, there are adopt-only homes, with prospective parents who yearn to adopt but don’t want to get attached to a child they may well have to give up. These can wait longer for a match, especially if—as many do—they want an infant. “There is a waiting list for those,” said Ms. Wallin. “If it’s an older child, or a sibling group, you’re in luck.”
DFACS hates to separate sibling groups but sometimes finds it impossible not to. So if you’re willing to take multiple children, well! It can be arranged.
And babies do come up for adoption. Those who read The Planet regularly will know the story of Trenton’s Tony and Dori Moreland, who adopted not one but six babies from the foster system before they said enough is enough.
"Gorgeous, beautiful children"
And still on the subject of adoption, Americans willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to adopt from other countries should be advised that their home county foster system is also a resource for great kids. “We have some gorgeous, beautiful children,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin. “I would say most of our children are just typical kids. They just want to be loved.”
She advises prospective adopters, though, to go ahead and foster if they can endure the risk of the child being taken back. They should remember that when a child does become free for adoption, the foster system, wishing stability for children, always gives the foster parent first choice. “I tell people, if you ultimately want to adopt and your heart can handle it, be a resource parent,” she said.
No Age, Gender Preference or Income Discrimination
One thing Ms. Scott-Wallin hears from people a lot is that they’re too old to be foster parents. No, you’re not, she tells them. If you have health problems that would put a child at risk, that’s a legitimate concern. “But if you’re 70 years old and you’re healthy, you get around, we’re not going to turn you down because of your age,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of older people who’ve been wonderful foster parents for us, and even adopted in some cases.”
Nor is the age children you’d prefer to foster a concern. There are enough kids out there, says Ms. Scott-Wallin, that everybody can have the age they want. “If you want a teenager, we’ll find you a teenager,” she said. “We have a home that only wanted to foster babies, you know, 1 and under, and they got a placement the very first day they were approved, a newborn.”
Similarly, if you have daughters of your own and don’t want to introduce boys into the home, DFACS has plenty of girls for you to foster. Same goes for boys. “You get to decide what you’re comfortable with,” said Ms. Scott-Wallin.
And if for some reason, a month into fostering, you and the kid just can’t make it work, says Ms. Scott-Wallin, you’re not stuck. “You can always call us and tell us to move the child,” she said. “We don’t want a child to stay in a home where they’re not wanted.”
Finally, another thing the resource director hears people say is that they’d love to foster but can’t afford it. She wants them to know: “We do pay you for having a child in your home.”
DFAX pays a per diem depending on the age of a child: 0-5, $25.27 per day;
6-12, $27.26; and 13-up $29.59. Besides that, foster parents may be reimbursed for the child’s clothing, haircuts, school expenses, and maybe mileage if a lot of driving is required for medical or court reasons. It’s not meant to be anybody’s sole means of support but it’s enough to help with the groceries.
Be the wish!
Are you interested? It’s nothing you can rush into. Ms. Scott-Wallin warns you in advance there’s some serious paperwork involved. But she also urges you to take the first step now.
That first step is to call 1-877-210-KIDS (5437). Your name and address will be taken and you’ll be scheduled to attend an information session. Or you can just show up at one—Ms. Scott-Wallin gives one at 6 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month at the DFACS office, which is on the bottom floor of the Administrative Building on the Trenton town square. The next one is on Jan. 16, and there’s a sign on the DFACS door telling you where to go.
After that, there are forms to be filled out, a home check and a background check, plus some classroom training you can take in the evenings or on weekends. The average time all this takes is four to six months, says Ms. Scott-Wallin.
Is fostering for you? If you think you’d enjoy making a child’s wish come true, probably. Many children in the care system haven’t had comfortable family routine in their lives, says Ms. Scott-Wallin, or the chance to participate in sports and recreational activities.
“After being in a foster home and getting that consistency, you can just see the difference sometimes in a child,” she said. “I just see them blossom. I know that’s got to be rewarding for the foster parent, too.”
To visit "It's My Turn Now" online, follow the link below: