RALEIGH — With two of her children grown and a third hitting his stride as a teenager, Mary Cleveland thought she might still have enough energy left to raise one more child.
Her newest child arrived at her Wendell home – a licensed foster home – a couple of weeks ago, with just three pairs of pants that fit, but more emotional baggage than any 12-year-old should have to carry.
His biological mother is too ill to care for him. His father is in drug rehab. The boy is a year behind in school, and struggling. Before he came to Cleveland’s house, he’d been living in a small county-owned group home for adolescent boys while child welfare workers tried to find him a placement.
Typically, case workers can find a foster family willing to accept a child within 24 hours of the county taking custody. This boy had been at Wake House going on three months.
“I think I can help him,” Cleveland said. “First, we have to learn each other. It will take some time. But I think I’m going to be able to turn his life around.”
Foster parents are trying to alter the lives of 630 Wake County children right now, one of the highest numbers of children the county has ever had in its custody. Though the trend for more than a decade – in the county, the state and the nation – has been to reduce the rate of children going into foster care as a percentage of the population, Wake’s continued rapid growth means that the total number of children in need of foster care has gone up.
And while the number of reports of suspected child abuse or neglect has remained stable at between 8,000 and 9,000 per year, the severity of the maltreatment, when it’s found, has been getting worse, according to Warren Ludwig, Wake’s child welfare administrator. That means the county is more often required to step in and petition the court to remove the child from the home to prevent future harm.
From mid-2006 to mid-2010, Ludwig said, the county took about 240 children a year into foster care in order to keep them safe. Now it’s taking them at a rate of just over 300 a year, a 25 percent increase.
“There are a lot of different variables,” said Erica Burgess, director of foster care and adoption for the Methodist Home for Children, one of the private agencies that helps Wake County find foster homes. “It could have something to do with the economy and the unemployment rate, with mental health and substance abuse problems being on the rise. When people aren’t making money, they do things they shouldn’t do. Maybe they can’t afford to take their medicines, and their mental health issues escalate.
“I think all those things tie in to leave some parents struggling to care for their kids.”
Placement as a last resort
Federal law mandates that states provide child protective services, foster care and adoption services. In North Carolina, that work is done by county departments of social services, with help from the state and federal governments.
Removing a child from the home is considered a last resort by child welfare experts, who say it’s better to try to keep the family intact by providing careful oversight and support such as parent-training classes, help with getting health insurance, food and nutrition services, substance abuse assessment and treatment and job program referrals.
If a child must be removed from a home and placed in foster care, the goal is to make the environment safe for the family to be reunited as soon as possible. Some children never return to live with their biological families. The county can ask a court to terminate parental rights, freeing the children for adoption.
On average, children stay in foster care for three to nine months, child welfare workers say, though some may need a foster home for just a few days and others will need them for years.
Last year, due to a change in federal accounting practices, Wake County lost some of its federal funding and had to eliminate nine positions in child welfare. Ludwig said the department was forced to reduce the services it provided to families in which children are at risk of harm.
‘We are constantly recruiting’
Earlier this month, Ludwig got approval from the Wake County Board of Commissioners to hire staff to restore seven positions using $329,000 the legislature allocated to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to help counties make up for the lost federal funds. In Wake County, the new staff will help place children in foster homes, work with biological families to make it safe for children to stay in their own homes and look for ways to improve child welfare services.
The new hires, which Ludwig hopes to have in place in early 2014, will help. But the success of much of the work they and other caseworkers will do relies an army of people who aren’t paid for the work they do on behalf of abused and neglected children and those who have no family to take care of them.
They are the hundreds of foster parents who volunteer to take strangers’ children into their homes for as long as the children need to stay.
“We are constantly recruiting,” said Myra Griffie, chief operating officer for Lutheran Family Services, another private agency that helps Wake County place foster children. “Being a foster parent is a hard job. These folks have to maintain a stable household. A lot of the parents work full time and are expected to care for children who have been abused or neglected and have serious needs.
“The children need care beyond what your biological child would need. They need assurance. They need to build trust again. They need to know they have a family that cares about them and will help them. The ones we have are fabulous and they do a wonderful job. But it can be taxing at times.”
Helping hands, strong wills needed
Not everyone can be a foster parent. Parents have to get licensed, which they can do through the social services department or through one of the private agencies such as Methodist Home or Lutheran Family Services. They will undergo 30 to 60 hours of training, including on how to resolve conflict and diffuse anger, which abused children often have. Their homes and finances and criminal histories will be open to inspection. They will be given medical exams.
One day they may be one of several families who get a call asking if they could love and support a child who has been taken from his or her home with little more than the clothes they wearing. The parents receive a stipend of several hundred dollars each month to help pay the costs of caring for the child, but nothing for the time they will need to invest.
Could the parent feed and clothe the child, arrange doctor visits and counseling sessions and tutoring and after-school activities and regular meetings with the biological family? And once they have taken this child into their homes – and their hearts – will the foster parent be able to give him back if the biological mother or father is able to resume their responsibilities?
The prospect of bonding with a child and then having to surrender them to their original family is so daunting that many people can’t understand how Matt and Belinda Hogstrom of Cary could have done it dozens of times. In 18 years, across three states where they have lived, the couple have fostered 46 children. They have adopted four, three of whom they fostered first.
A commitment to keep
“You go into it knowing it’s going to be awful when they leave, but you also know you have a made a difference in their lives. You see them become happy and healthy,” Belinda Hogstrom said. She wouldn’t get her heart broken if she didn’t foster children, she said. “But if you don’t do it, you’re missing out on the joy.”
Since they got licensed as foster parents, the Hogstroms haven’t gone more than four months without a placement. The hardest times with every foster child, Matt Hogstrom said, are the beginning and end of their stay. The beginning, because a new child in the house changes every routine for everyone who lives there, and the end, because it’s sometimes heartbreaking to say goodbye.
Mary Cleveland doesn’t know how long she’ll have the young man who came to live with her this month, a slouching 12-year-old for whom she will have to study math and social studies so she can help him with his homework when she gets home from her credit union job.
In addition to raising her biological son, Cleveland already has adopted two children, one of them a boy she accepted as a foster placement in 2009. Messiah is 13 now, a stellar student and athlete and a bright light in a home that Cleveland said had lost its happiness.
Whatever she has done for Messiah, Cleveland said, he has done more for her.
“He has just totally changed my life. He has given me a life. This house is thriving again,” she said.
However long he needs to stay, Cleveland said she is committed to keeping him.
“You go into it with your heart and your mind knowing that you are going to treat this child like this child came out of your body,” she said. “There is no difference. Just be fair. Because the only thing that child wants is a fair chance.”