‘It’s not going to slow us down’: Cullman County DHR continues to serve and recruit foster families during COVID-19 shutdowns, restrictions

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Cullman County Department of Human Resources (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Foster parents definitely fall under the definition of “essential” during the COVID-19 shutdown. Their work does not pause, their shifts do not end, and making kids “safer at home” was a guiding principle of their efforts long before coronavirus became a household word.

The Tribune sat down this week with Amanda Buchanan and Callie Smith of the Cullman County Department of Human Resources (DHR) to talk about the agency’s ongoing work and current needs.

The numbers

  • Cullman County currently has 188 children in foster care.
  • Anywhere from five to 20 new kids will enter the local foster system each month, balanced by typically comparable numbers leaving.  The most common reason kids enter the system is drug use by their parents. 
  • 65% of Cullman County’s foster children have been placed in homes in the county; 35% had to be placed outside the county, due to location of relatives or lack of available local homes.
  • Approximately 80% of Cullman County’s foster children will at some point return home to their parents, grandparents or other relatives. Around 20% will be adopted or stay in the foster system until they reach adulthood.
  • 17 children in the county foster system have been cleared for adoption.
  • Children can stay in the system for periods as short as one day, or may remain from intake until they “age out” at 18 years old. Smith said, “There’s really no way to predict, because each case is unique to its own and each family is not specific to any other family. So it’s really difficult to predict, and we can’t say how each one is going to turn out until we’ve worked it through.”

 

What has been the biggest challenge to DHR and foster care because of COVID-19?

Smith: “I think for us, just for the foster system, not being able for our staff to interact with our kids. You know, school is closed- and I don’t say just for the foster system- DHR, just like the school system, not being able to collaborate with our community partners, to be involved. We’re just like you guys; we’re behind the mask and we’re not face-to-face, and we’re a very social organization. So we like to be shaking hands and hugging kids and that kind of stuff, and that’s not exactly feasible to do right now.”

For the children in foster care, according to Smith, “I don’t think it’s changed a lot, because we still have contact with our kids, we still have contact with our families.”

Buchanan: “Overall, they’ve been resilient, just like any other. I think most of our concern has been for the kids that we’re working with that are in the community, and we don’t have the extra eyes- like in the school (it) would be the teachers that we can talk with to see how they’re doing on a day-to-day basis- and that sort of thing. But overall, they’ve been- most have been- resilient. We haven’t seen an increase in any kind of negative effect on them.”

Smith: “The ones that we’ve taken custody of, that we already have custody of, we continue to check on them just like we would. We have periodic contact with them throughout the month, and there really hasn’t been an effect. If they’re in a foster home, a lot of them, it’s been a normal time because it has been kind of like an extended summer break. A lot of them that are placed in different type settings, we’ve been able to maintain some good contact.

“But kids are resilient. Kids are resilient; kids are not as affected by what’s going on in the world around them as we are, and so I think, for the most part, they’ve not been as affected by all of this situation as we have been.”

Buchanan: “We’ve been able to move forward with children moving back home or moving back with parents.”

Smith: “We’ve still had adoptions, many adoptions. We finalized two last week.”

Buchanan: “The courts have worked real well with us to help make sure things don’t lag, and that we can move forward.”

Smith: “We had identified permanent resources for some of the children that didn’t have identified resources, so we’ve been able to make orders of permanency regardless of what’s going on in the world around us. It has not stopped our efforts at all. Our staff, even though they are not working here in the office, have still worked tirelessly to see their children, maintaining contact with their children. I work off of two phones most days with my staff via telephone and via email, and we make it work. So it’s not going to stop us from achieving the goals that we set out for our families and our children. It’s not going to slow us down; that’s just a goal that we set for ourselves and our families, so it’s not going to slow us down.”

Smith and Buchanan told The Tribune that DHR is providing workers with masks and hand sanitizer, and working to sanitize facilities to combat COVID-19 and provide means of continuing but safe contact with children and families.

For all their efforts and their pride in the foster families with whom they work, though, the staffers were clear: DHR needs more foster families, and it needs them now.

What does it take to become a foster parent?

Alabama DHR requirements for foster families include:

  • The foster parent must be at least 19 years of age.
  • The foster home must have enough space for the child and his or her belongings.
  • All members of the foster family must be willing to share their home with a child who needs care.
  • All members of the foster family must be in good health.
  • All adults in the home must be willing to undergo a thorough background check, including criminal history.

 

Foster care applicants must complete a 10-week, 30-hour preparation course, and their homes must conform to Alabama Minimum Standards for Foster Family Homes. The standards will be explained and reviewed during the applicant’s training. If you apply, home visits will be scheduled to assure your home meets the requirements.

The only cost to the applicant is any improvements needed to make the home meet minimum standards and the cost of completion of any medical forms.

Children in foster care and foster families have social workers assigned to them to support the placement and to access necessary services. Children will receive Medicaid to cover health care expenses. Through DHR, foster parents can find additional training opportunities and access a local Foster Parent Association. Families receive a payment each month for room and board, and for foster parents who are employed or in school, daycare assistance is provided.

Said Buchanan, “It is a process to become a foster parent, and you have to be patient through the process, because we’re entrusting you with children that have different issues that they may not understand how to deal with them, and we’re entrusting you with these children where we’ve had to remove them from where they were abused or neglected. So we want to be extra cautious and extra critical, and sure that the foster parents are trained, ready and able to provide for all of their needs.”

In addition to the state regulations, Smith shared, “I think it takes a desire to want to help a child and a family, and a commitment: to be committed to see the outcome through. That’s my answer to that, because the outcome could be seeing that child return home to their family, it could be seeing that child through to adoption, it could be seeing that child through to adulthood. It takes being committed.”

Cullman DHR Director Amy Smith dropped in on the meeting and shared about the agency’s ongoing search for qualified foster parents and homes, “We need them bad. There’s a lot of kids out there that need places to be, so we appreciate any help we can get to trying to make that happen. We have a lot of kids that deserve to be in the county where they live, deserve to be close to their schools, their friends and their families, and they don’t have that opportunity, not because we don’t have great foster parents here; we just need more. We can never have enough.”

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com