Foster parents serve as an island in the storm
May is National Foster Care Month; more local parents needed to help
May is National Foster Care Month, a time to acknowledge the families and professionals who are a part of the foster care system, a system that temporarily places children and youths into nurturing environments when their own home situations are unfit and unsafe. In 2020, 13 children were in foster care in Taylor County for part or all of the year. Taylor County also provided respite services to 12 children, a foster care option that puts children in foster homes for a very short amount of time.
According to Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Out-of-Home Care dashboard, there are 5,097 children within Wisconsin’s foster care system. These children can range from newborns to 18-years-old. Tammie Schreiber, Taylor County’s Foster Care Coordinator, works with her supervisor, Julie Clarkson, and social workers at Taylor County Human Services to recruit and assist foster parents. Foster parents have to be at least 21 years of age and can range from empty-nesting parents to single adults to parents who still have children in their home.
The process to become a foster parent starts by contacting the local foster care coordinator. Then moving forward, the parents go through classes, interviews, questionnaires, background checks, and a home inspection. Once a foster license is obtained, parents participate in ongoing training to stay up to date with the system. While the process can last up to several months, fostering is very rewarding as it helps children have a better life and a better future.
Kathy and John Zuleger have been foster parents for six years, providing longterm care for three different children and teens as well as respite care for several other children. Kathy said that their application process took eight months, but that it was worth the time because they get to make a difference in children’s lives. “It’s rewarding, and it really does do a lot of good for these kids in the long run.”
“You are giving them a safe, fun environment where they can be kids. Definitely, it’d be great if there were more of us,” said Kevin Wellman who has been a foster parent with his wife, Rachel, for nearly three years, opening up their home for respite care to around 20 different children.
Their interest in fostering was inspired by Kevin’s parents who were foster parents for most of his childhood. After seeing his parents help so many children and knowing about all the hardships his adopted siblings went through, Kevin was inspired to become a foster parent himself. “We decided that we have a big enough house, we have time, but more importantly, we have the effort to want to help these kids,” said Kevin. “People always talk about ‘What can you do?’ Well, open up your home. There’s not a lot of foster parents out there.”
“I felt like we were good parents and we had a lot to offer, and I felt just compelled,” said Kathy. “I feel like more people should do it, that there’s a lot of people who are capable of doing it, that there’s a need, and if you can do it, you should.”
In Taylor County, there are currently 8 licensed foster homes, but there are only 1-2 available homes with room to take a child in their care at the moment. Schreiber and Clarkson expressed a great need for foster parents in the county. They explained how foster care placements in the surrounding counties have been increasing. While they’ve been very successful at keeping children with relatives, the shortage of homes is still very concerning. “If we have a few children go into care at this point, we would be facing a crisis. We need more foster homes in this county,” said Schreiber.
Foster care comes in a variety of different forms. From long-term care to respite care, children can stay at a single home for as short as a day to as long as years. Respite care often acts as a good starting point for people who want to provide care to foster children since the placement is only a day or a weekend to give families facing certain situations or other foster families a break.
When looking for other resources about foster care, the Coalition for Children, Youth & Families offers a wide variety of information. The Coalition is a small organization made up of 14 staff members whose mission is “to inspire, inform, and support individuals and families caring for children touched by foster care and adoption,” as stated on their website. Oriana Carey, the CEO of the Coalition, said that they work to answer questions and provide information to those who are already in the foster care system and to those who are just starting the process.
“We are there for families throughout the journey,” said Carey. “When they have questions, they can call us. We curate and create several tip sheets that are written in a family-friendly manner. We have trainings available.” The Coalition also helps manage the state’s foster care recruitment campaign which supports the work of all 72 counties and 11 tribes to enhance their messages and inspire new foster parents.
While Carey expressed the importance of needing a certain quantity of foster parents to ensure that every child within the system has a place to stay, she said what’s more important is the type of parents out there and having a variety of options for placements. “We want to have enough choices so that when a social worker who’s put in a position to make that really difficult decision has a variety of different family types [they] could choose,” said Carey. “People who do better with teens or someone who does better with younger children. We definitely need people who can keep siblings together because it is already a traumatic experience to be removed from your family.”
Carey explained how there are a variety of different situations within foster care. Every child and teen’s needs are different. When placing children, they want to try to keep children within their same school districts and communities as best as possible. Carey explained that this is why it’s important to have a wide variety of different parents and families throughout the state.
There are a variety of reasons a child may end up in foster care, including when a child is abused or neglected at home, or if the parent is unable to care for their child due to imprisonment or hospitalization. Due to the traumatic background some of these children have, there can be some difficulties foster parents face when trying to provide the right kind of support for them.
“You are dealing with a lot of people in a time in their life when it could literally be the worst day of their life, or it’s not going great, so you got to try to be compassionate to them and care for the kids. It’s just tricky,” said Kevin.
Kathy said that one of the more diffi cult things her and her husband faced was navigating the relationship between them and the biological parents, as well as the emotions of the foster children themselves when being in these types of situations.
Kevin and Rachel explained that there are a lot of support groups and message boards that are out there to help parents through the more difficult parts of fostering. Schreiber also said that Taylor County’s Human Services can also provide support for parents. Carey suggested the website nomatterwhatfamilies. org, a site full of video diaries with reallife stories of people involved in foster care, discussing the hardships parents and children go through.
While fostering can be a difficult process, it can also be very rewarding. Clarkson explained that many parents are proud to be part of the process when the children reunifies with their birth family. “Sometimes it’s just knowing that for the short time, you made that difference in their life,” said Schreiber.
“The biggest rewards are just seeing the kids being able to open up and achieve things. Children when they come into your care, they are usually very guarded,” said Kathy. “Just being able to help them move forward and see that there’s more for them.” Two of the three children Kathy and John cared for were children in their late teens, so helping them plan and see a future for themselves was very fulfilling.
Carey talked about how a lot of children are put in foster care because their birth parents don’t have any support or family to help take care of their children when something happens to them. “[What] the world doesn’t know is that there are so many people out there right now who are not only trying to help kids heal, but they are trying to help their parents heal, and help their parents get back on track.” said Carey. Schreiber also echoed a similar sentiment, explaining how foster parents are providing as much support to the children as they are to their birth families. “Part of foster care isn’t replacing their families or giving them a family. They have a family. It’s providing a temporary safe place for them, while we work with the families,” said Schreiber.
Schreiber explained that foster parents are ordinary people, emphasizing that anyone can have the capability of being a foster parent. Some people enjoy and are better at taking care of infants, while others excel at helping teenagers prepare for adulthood. “You have to look at what your strengths and positives are instead of saying ‘I don’t think I could do this.’ Look at what you truly can do and you would be surprised at what you’ll find [in] your own strengths and what you could share with other people,” said Schreiber.
Clarkson and Schreiber expressed great gratitude for all the current and past foster parents and families in the county. They also encouraged people to ask questions and get more information about foster care. Carey also shared that same message. “We want to encourage people always to just find out more [to see] if this is a fit for you,” Carey said.