Local agency struggling to find foster families during pandemic

Local agency struggling to find foster families during pandemic

Elengi Fernandez and Ronney Romero of Providence have taken in three foster children since the start of the pandemic.
‘If you’re going to do it, now is the time’

WOONSOCKET – Staff members at a local foster care agency say they’re struggling to recruit new foster parents and place children with families during the pandemic, even as the number of removals from homes plummets statewide.

Mark Cote is the director of child welfare for Community Care Alliance, which contracts with the Department of Children, Youth & Families to place children in foster homes. While the agency is contracted to place up to 50 children each year, over the past year, those numbers have been closer to 35, according to Cote.

“Currently, we don’t have enough families to house 50 kids. That’s where we should ideally be up to,” he said. “There’s been an increase in requests, but we don’t have the families to meet that.”

The state was already dealing with a shortage of foster families prior to the pandemic, particularly in Woonsocket, which historically has the highest rate of removals from homes in the state, according to Cote. Add in the pandemic, he said, and many people are rethinking their willingness to accept children into their homes.

Pauline Awosika is a recruiter and trainer for CCA’s therapeutic foster care program, which places children with special behavioral and emotional needs. Awosika said the absence of in-person recruitment has made it even more difficult to find foster families, forcing the agency to sometimes ask existing families to take on more kids.

There’s a consensus among foster care agencies, she said, that they’re having difficulty finding families even as the pandemic drives up factors that strain children’s home lives, such as domestic violence and opioid and alcohol abuse. She’s put out a call to families to reconsider and said she’s trying to reassure potential foster parents of the agency’s strict COVID-19 protocols.

“We know that it’s a lot to ask, it’s a big ask, but we also follow up with the support and training. We’re hoping that people will answer the call,” she said.

Elengi Fernandez and Ronney Romero of Providence answered that call earlier this year when they became licensed through CCA to serve as foster parents. The couple had previously fostered the child of a family member and said they were excited to have kids in their home again.

“We know that we can be of service to someone else,” said Fernandez, who works as a case manager at The Providence Center. “We were like, ‘Why not?’ We have the space.”

Since then, they’ve welcomed three siblings, ages 2, 5 and 11. While Fernandez said fostering is overall a good experience, the couple has dealt with challenges related to fostering kids with special needs, especially during a pandemic. Many of their appointments are now virtual, and their oldest is navigating distance learning. Since December, she’s had to work from home, as the children developed flu-like symptoms that kept her from going into work.

Jason and Linda Ferguson of Chepachet were also licensed through CCA and are currently raising a foster daughter alongside their biological daughter. Along with distance learning, they said, they’ve had to navigate the tricky territory of visits to her biological family during a pandemic. On one occasion, Jason said, their foster daughter had recently returned from a visit to her family when someone in their “pod” tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s always a worry,” he said. “I hated the holidays because we had managed to avoid everybody for months, and then here we are four times in one week hanging out with people we hadn’t hung out with in a long time.”

At the same time, they said, CCA staff are going above and beyond to continue to provide support, even if some of those services have to be virtual. Cote said they’ve seen families get creative with virtual visits, including reading books over Zoom and playing games online.

“It’s been a learning curve for everybody. We’ve really worked out some great ways. If you’re going to do this with a 2 year-old or a 1 year-old, what are you going to do?” he said.

While CCA staff said they continue to struggle to find families locally, numbers on the state level paint a slightly different picture. According to Sean McFarland, public information officer for DCYF, the department and private agencies licensed 81 new foster families statewide between July and December 2020, about the same as the 80 families licensed in the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the number of children removed from their homes dropped steeply in 2020, with 803 removals in the first 11 months of the year compared with 1,152 removals in 2019 and 1,286 removals in 2018 (December 2020 numbers have not yet been finalized).

Some child welfare workers, including Cote and Awosika, have voiced concerns the drop could be related to a decrease in the number of abuse and neglect reports as children spend less time outside their families, though Cote pointed out DCYF has also been more judicious in recent years in which children are removed from homes. McFarland confirmed the department has seen a decline in the number of child protective removals during the pandemic, but said he couldn’t say for sure whether those are tied to the drop in removals overall.

“While these numbers show tremendous system success, the need for foster families remains great, including foster families who are willing and able to care for older youth, sibling groups, and/or children with different levels of need,” he said. “The department and our private agency partners work hard to ensure that families are well prepared and supported to care for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children.”

Cote said CCA is particularly in need of parents willing to foster teens and LGBTQ youth. Awosika added they need more foster families around the Woonsocket area, as they try to keep kids close to their biological families and tend to draw more children than foster parents from the city.

“The biggest thing I would say is that in times of great need, it kind of does something for the human soul when you actually are able to help someone, especially someone vulnerable as a child,” she said.

“A lot of these children, they have issues that they come with, but they’re still children and they deserve basic needs. They deserve safety. They deserve security.”

Cote put the need more bluntly.

“If you’re going to do it, now is the time to do it,” he said. “Rhode Island’s kids need you the most right now.”

Awosika said families interested in fostering should contact CCA to begin the application process. The process includes a background check, home inspection and 10 weeks of virtual foster parent classes.

Linda and Jason Ferguson currently have one foster daughter living with them at their home in Chepachet.