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Fostering Relationships

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The child welfare system serving Milwaukee County is nearing the end of its third and final annual assessment period after a settlement agree-ment with children’s advocates effected in 2003. The outlook for abused or neglected children is looking better than it did just a decade ago. Fewer children are entering out-of-home foster care as families receive better social services from the state-run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, which took over for the ineffectual and under-funded county program in 1998, making the $112 million program the only non-county program in the state. And those who do become foster children are “achieving permanency” sooner — reunited with their families or successfully placed in adoptive homes. Sixty-nine percent of foster children thus far in 2005 have been reunited with their families within 12 months, compared with 45 percent in 2003. How It Works Here’s how Milwaukee’s foster care system works. People with reason to suspect child abuse or neglect call 220-SAFE (7233). Most callers are “mandated reporters,” like police, ordained ministers, school or health officials, required by law to notify the BMCW. There have been 25,262 calls thus far in 2005. “The majority are either physical abuse or child neglect situations,” says Denise Revels Robinson, BMCW director. “So for example, a child comes to school and they’re dirty. Maybe it’s very cold and they don’t have a coat on. They don’t have the right clothes. Or a child comes to school and they’re covered up and it’s 90 degrees and they’ve got on long socks and a sweater,” she says. “Then the concern is, are they covering up marks? Or is there something going on in the home that the parents are either unable or unwilling to care for the child?” One of 81 child protective services social workers then investigates the report in the field, interviewing the family and assessing the conditions that might threaten the child’s safety. “Normally it’s not just one thing. Things usually operate in tandem here,” Revels Robinson says. Drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, underemployment, domestic violence and a child’s special needs often complicate a family’s situation, resulting in abuse or neglect. A majority of foster children come from impoverished families. Other reports result from a parent’s arrest, which leaves children without a guardian, or when doctors find evidence of physical or sexual abuse. If a maltreatment report is substantiated, then a social worker decides on how best to protect the child. If a cooperative, able parent is willing to receive social services in the form of appropriate counseling or treatment, Revels Robinson says, then the child may remain in the home. If not, then BMCW removes the child to be placed in a foster home until court-mandated conditions for the child’s return are met by the child’s family. There were 1,096 active foster homes and 2,973 children in out-of-home care in Milwaukee County as of the end of September, according to the BMCW’s third quarterly report for 2005. Finding Foster Parents Riverwest is one of six Milwaukee neighborhoods targeted for foster parent recruitment because of its diversity and the strength of its community institutions. “If we don’t have diversity in our foster parent pool, then we won’t be able to place these diverse kids in really appropriate homes,” says Kari Behling, supervisor of recruitment at First Choice for Children, a program of Lutheran Social Services contracted by BMCW to recruit, license, train and support foster parents in Milwaukee County. Diversity, nurturance and stability are key for prospective foster parents, says Behling. “We’re not expecting to find the two-parent family where mom stays home and they have this great big farmhouse,” she says. “We’re much more realistic about that. We understand our foster parents have jobs.” To be considered, prospective foster parents must be at least 21, they must have room for a child and their income must meet or exceed their expenses. There is no discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, marital status or sexual orientation. “We see a lot of single parent families,” Behling says. To date, 499 applications for new foster home licensure were received in 2005. Interested people can call 264-KIDS (5437). Although meant as a temporary solution, fostering can lead to adoption. Nationally, 52 percent of foster children who are adopted are adopted by their foster parents, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System’s most recent statistics. In Milwaukee, says Behling — who was herself a foster parent who has since adopted — that number is more like 80 percent. After ASFA In 1997, the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act changed the landscape of child welfare systems across the country. ASFA “requires courts to consider termination of parental rights of a child’s birth parents if the child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months,” according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. Behling says ASFA boils down to one simple point. “Children shouldn’t spend their childhood in foster care,” she says. “Just that simple recognition that foster care is a temporary state — it’s not meant to go on for years and years.” With this underlying assumption empowered by law, child welfare systems began to change around the country, including Milwaukee County’s, which was also impacted by the suit originally filed by the ACLU and Children’s Rights Project, Inc. in 1993. It resulted in the state takeover, privatization of the partner agencies in 1998 and the settlement agreement in 2003. As November is National Adoption Month, children’s advocates hope their message about the constant need for foster parents is clear. “One way we try to describe it is try to picture yourself fostering a family, providing a temporary refuge to the child while the family heals,” Behling says. Still, challenges remain. “We have older children. Children with developmental difficulties. Children with larger sibling groups, four, five, six brothers and sisters who need placement,” says Revels Robinson. “So we need to have the community respond to the needs of children who need care because we can’t do it all. And the community always has.”
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