Bob Sherwin: Foster care, broken system or loving home? |
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Bob Sherwin: Foster care, broken system or loving home?


Many have argued that the foster care system is broken. Dr. Phil has said it. The Boston Globe has said it. The Washington Post has said it. But as executive director of Bethany Christian Services of Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, I’m not sure I agree with this statement. While our system is undoubtedly overburdened, across our region, I have seen the love, care and great courage of the couples and families who open their hearts and homes to vulnerable children in need of care.

Every day, I hear stories like this from our caseworkers: “We placed a 3-year-old girl with the Jones family last night. Mom was addicted to heroin and overdosed, the home was a mess and the smell was unbearable.”

For many of us, these are stories on the news that we shake our head at. But for almost 25,000 children in Pennsylvania, this is the life they would live every day, if not for the love of foster families.

There are numerous issues that can disrupt a family to the point where removal is the only way to ensure a child’s safety: drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, parental history of trauma and abuse, financial strains from unemployment or homelessness, mental illness, or lack of physical care and attention.

In the foster care system, however, the first goal is always reunification of the family. When a child is removed from the home in Pennsylvania, the county provides supportive services to the parents so that they can, hopefully, regain custody. These services include housing assistance, counseling, parenting classes, and mental health or drug and alcohol treatment.

It is up to the parents to avail themselves of these services while their child is in foster care. Parents must make positive changes within 12 months. If a judge finds that the parent is not making progress, he or she may decide that the child cannot return home.

At Bethany Christian Services, we are encouraged to serve children alongside foster parents who want to give children the stability and support they desperately need as their families work toward reunification. The overwhelming majority of foster parents foster for this reason.

When a family welcomes a child or teen into their home, this is a bold act of love. Foster care isn’t about “getting paid.” Foster care is showing love and compassion.

The first step to become a foster parent is attending an orientation. Bethany offers information sessions where potential foster families learn about foster care, the policies and procedures, and the next steps to becoming licensed.

If, after the informational meeting, a family wants to move forward, they are assigned a foster care specialist who conducts several home visits to assess the home and potential foster family, speak with any children in the home and interview the parents about their childhood, schooling, employment, marriage, parenting style and more.

The potential foster family will complete paperwork, and the specialist will write a detailed report that summarizes the home visits. If approved, the report will be sent to the state for final approval. Bethany then provides additional training to support foster families.

This entire process might sound intimidating, but you can do this.

If we want to combat the idea that the system is broken, we have to do it one foster family at a time. In 2017, there were 16,891 children in foster care in Pennsylvania alone. We urgently need more loving individuals and families to step forward. You do not need to be married. You do not need to be an experienced parent. You do not need to be wealthy. You only need to have the courage to show a vulnerable child love and compassion.

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