Polk DSS observes Foster Care Month, reminds families of fostering opportunities

Published 10:00 pm Friday, May 19, 2017

Being a foster parent is filled with challenges and rewards, notes Ruth Richardson, a staffer at Polk County Department of Social Services (DSS) and foster parents Randy and Megan Smith.

As public agencies and foster parents themselves celebrate National Foster Care Month this May, Richardson says that DSS values their foster parents very much and they try to give foster parents as much help and support along the way as they can.

For instance, she pointed out, “Often our kids come with trauma.” That trauma can be physical or emotional. In either case, foster parents like the Smiths are careful to know what can trigger an emotional setback, and work carefully to avoid such triggers.

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The Smiths noted that a foster child might feel abandoned. Their strategy is to avoid triggers that bring on such feelings, by assuring the child that, yes, someone will pick them up from a given activity at a specific time.

Richardson and other DSS staffers do not take the notion of placing children in homes away from their biological parents lightly. With that in mind, Richardson emphasized, “Foster parents are not there to take children (from their biological parents), “only to take care of them.”

Richardson says they do their best to match children with foster parents.

Richardson is not bashful about calling on potential foster parents to take the course offered, and be ready to open their homes to children who need safe and secure homes in which to live. This request comes at a time when North Carolina has a record number of young people (over 10,000) in foster care.

In addition, Richardson noted, “Kids are staying in foster care a lot longer. We want our foster parents coming into this with a clear understanding of what fostering is. We have two programs to get foster parents licensed.”

Currently, some 49 Polk County children and youth are in foster care, with about 30 placed out of county.

These out-of-county placements exist due both to a shortage of qualified homes, and also because Polk County cannot always offer all the services that some of the children and youth require.

“I don’t think people realize the need for children needing a home,” Megan Smith observed.

Added Richardson, “Usually, our homes are full.”

To better accommodate more foster children, “we are in the process of licensing several other homes,” Richardson said, “but it is a process. It’s a very lengthy process, no matter how you look at it.”

Richardson tells prospective foster parents to not shy away and assume that requirements are exceedingly strict.

“There are requirements,” she admitted, “but they’re not as stringent as you might think.” She also reminds those taking the training courses that they can change their minds and opt out if they feel that foster parenting is not for them.

Among the goals of Polk County DSS is keeping sibling groups together, though sometimes those groups have to be split into different foster homes.

“It’s an awesome amount of responsibility,” Richardson noted.

In any case, DSS staffers work hard to maintain contact between the foster children and their biological families.

The Smiths and Richardson agreed that teenagers in need of foster care often receive bad raps.

“Very few homes want to take teenagers,” Megan Smith said, adding, “They can be the easiest.” She and Randy have had “no issues—none” with teens.

Randy and Megan Smith have opened their home to foster children and encourage other couples and families in the county to learn more during Foster Parent Month. (Photo by Mark Schmerling)

“The kid needs a home,” Smith continued, “and needs to belong, and be part of a family.”

Randy and Megan have fostered children as young as three months, and have opened their home to teenagers.

“We need foster homes for teenagers,” Richardson reminds current and prospective foster parents.

The Smiths also adopted two children, another tool to provide a loving home.

The goal of foster care, Megan Smith noted, is reunification with the biological family (often the parents), when appropriate.

Even before that time, the Smiths have been able to maintain positive relationships with their families. One of their children sees his grandparents and his siblings.

The Smiths and Richardson note that in many cases when a child is placed in foster care, it’s the grandparents who step up and take on that responsibility. In some cases, that foster care  lasts for many years. In others, however, grandparents can and do tire of being parents again, and the children might go through more than one home.

Often, Smith said, abuse and neglect are the reason children are placed in foster care. “I don’t think that people in our area realize how much that happens.”

Richardson defended biological parents noting that in nearly all cases, they are doing the best they can, even when their efforts fall short.

In some cases, foster children “age out” of the system, able to choose doing so at age 18 or 21.

During the fostering process, DSS officials and foster parents try to connect their children with their birth parents.

“It helps them relax,” Richardson said. “They can be kids. Kids don’t feel split loyalty.”

Randy Smith pointed out what he and Megan feel, and what he says all foster parents should feel. “It’s all about the kids, not your personal feelings.”

Foster parents become involved in the lives of their children, just as biological parents do, often driving the youth to extracurricular activities.

“The after-school programs (in Polk County) are really great,” Megan Smith observed.

“I think Polk County is supportive,” she said, “but there needs to be more ways to increase awareness.”

The Smiths remind Polk County adults that help can be given without actually being a foster parent. If foster parents need a weekend away, other qualified adults can take over for those shorter periods.

“We think our foster parents in this county are very high quality foster parents,” Richardson acknowledged.

Prospective foster parents are encouraged to call Polk County DSS at 828-894- 2100 for more information.