Editor’s note: This ongoing ‘Wards of the State’ series explores West Virginia’s challenges in caring for its foster children as their numbers rise during the drug crisis. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children. Part 2:
By M.K. McFarland
For the West Virginia Press Association
It was the first state check to help support four foster children whom Ana and her husband, Josiah, the pastor of a church in Morgantown, had welcomed into their home in June.
The money was already earmarked for coats for the children and winter tires for the family car.
The couple had been waiting for financial assistance since early July and had been forced to use their savings and estimated tax payments to make ends meet.
When the Gray family grew from five to nine overnight, the grocery bill doubled, utilities rose and other expenses began piling up.
Josiah and Ana, who have three daughters of their own, opened their home to four more kids to keep the two brothers and two sisters from being split into separate homes in foster care.
The Grays were acquainted with the siblings’ family. To help the kids, the couple and their three girls were all willing to sacrifice.
Large sibling groups are typically some of the hardest kids to place in the state’s foster care system, which has grown from about 4,000 to about 5,000 kids in the last three years.
When the state has to split sibling groups, caseworkers try to find homes close to each other so the families can visit regularly.
Katie Parsley, who until October was a case manager for Necco, one of West Virginia’s 10 private foster care agencies, said her agency had to turn away about 15 kids every week for lack of homes.
In August the agency’s Huntington office was asked to place three sibling groups of six children or more. The agency was able to split one group into three homes. The other two were referred to other agencies.
The need for people to open their homes to children is a challenge for West Virginia agencies.
Linda Watts, deputy commissioner for the Bureau for Children and Families, said, “Recruitment is a piece that everyone is looking at right now. How do we recruit families?”
But she noted everyone has a role to play. “We all make a difference when it comes to trying to help our struggling families out there,” she said.
She said sometimes offering help to a family or parent barely holding on can make the difference between kids entering foster care or not.
KVC, Necco, the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia and other private agencies find homes for 1,100 to 1,200 of the kids in foster care each month. That happens only after Child Protective Services, a division of the Bureau for Children and Families under the state DHHR, has exhausted efforts to find relative or kinship caregivers.
Because kinship caregivers aren’t entitled to boarding care payments from the state, the bureau helps them get certified as foster families.
That process can take 90 days or more. In the meantime, the kinship caregivers are entitled to some emergency funds. The path from relative/kinship care to agency foster care is well–traveled. About 1,500 kids are in homes that started out as kinship/relative care and gained certification.
Josiah and Ana Gray are kinship/relative caregivers because they are friends of their foster children’s family. They are not typical in taking in four siblings, and they knew they were in for a bumpy ride.
In September, the Grays started 27 hours of training to become an agency foster care home. Once certified, they will be entitled to state boarding care payments of $600 per child per month to help with food and clothes. However, back pay is not available.
The training includes information about finding resources for children on the autism spectrum; maintaining healthy relationships with the children’s biological family; dealing with behavior problems; and navigating the state system of courts and child care.
Josiah and Ana are getting firsthand experience with all of these issues even as they get the training.
The overburdened system caused delays in their certification process.
The couple couldn’t get an appointment to fill out the paperwork for their official home inspection or schedule the inspection itself until late August.
Although the children’s CPS caseworker had worked hard to answer their questions and provide resources, her Region III office had seven employee vacancies in August. From May 2015-2016, that office averaged 1,064 cases per month.
During a certification training session, Ana said the home finder on the panel told parents the Marion County office at times has had no homes for kids taken into custody. When that happens, they push together a couple of chairs for kids to use for a bed, and a caseworker sleeps in the DHHR office with them.
Tina Mitchell, a deputy commissioner for the Bureau for Children and Families, said the bureau investigated 18,502 cases in 2012; 20,194 in 2014; and 23,325 in 2015.
Ana Gray sees the problem.
“As frustrated as I am with the process of everything, I’m still very sympathetic because I know that these workers only have so many hours in a day, and so if I’m not getting answers in the day that I’m asking them, it’s because they’re swamped.”
Luckily, the Grays are part of a supportive community. From the time they made the decision to foster, friends and family have pitched in to help.
Church members helped transform the Grays’ unfinished basement into a large bedroom for the two oldest daughters.
Within a week of the foster kids’ arrival, the muffler on the family’s car went bad. Ana’s parents took it for repairs and inspection, and another church family loaned the Grays their car for more than a month while they waited.
A friend donated window air-conditioners. Neighbors brought extra beds, and the children’s extended family brought pillows and groceries. Ana tears up thinking about the money and hand-me-down clothes they have received from people they’ve never met who simply heard about the situation.
In August, a friend brought secondhand clothes to their home. The oldest foster child pulled a gray and pink North Face winter coat off the pile and twirled in delight. Despite the 90-degree heat, she put on the coat and danced outside to show the neighbors.
In September, Josiah had to cash in part of their 401(k) retirement savings to pay for repairs on their 2009 Ford Explorer when it started overheating. Part of the family stayed home from church for a couple of weeks while the SUV was being repaired.
Also in September, the couple was told the earliest they could become certified and start receiving boarding care payments was the middle of October. At the end of October, they still weren’t receiving them.
The Grays have passed their home inspection and have been attending all of their training classes. Their paperwork is still being processed, and they have now been told the earliest they can receive boarding care payments is the middle of December.
At times the financial worries have been almost overwhelming, but it comes down to a simple question for Josiah.
“Do we really love people? If we do, then we’re willing to sacrifice things for the sake of others, and so if it means that we don’t get to eat what we used to eat, then that’s OK. The love we’re showing these kids is worth it. “
The strains aren’t all financial.
The Grays are 40 and 38 and had reached an easier phase of life than when their daughters were small. With their youngest now 9, the three girls are old enough to fend for themselves. Sometimes everyone slept late on summer mornings and made their own breakfasts. When friends came to visit, they knew where the food was and could help themselves.
Since the foster kids arrived, wake-up time is 7 a.m. every day. Snack times and meal times are scheduled. The food is measured and specific.
Before the kids arrived, Ana was nervous. She and Josiah had raised only girls. They would be taking in two kids in diapers, ages 3 and 2, and one was a boy. She hadn’t had kids in diapers in eight years, and she had never potty-trained a boy. She worried she didn’t know what she was doing.
To complicate matters, one of the kids in need of potty training did not speak but had no official diagnosis and wasn’t following a plan of treatment.
When Ana and Josiah’s girls were younger, they all learned some sign language from library videos. The Grays have been using those skills with the child who doesn’t speak. He now can communicate when he is hungry or thirsty. He can use the signs for “eat,” “more,” “cookie,” “cereal,” and “socks and shoes.” In late September he began using the toilet.
For the first few weeks after the children arrived, Ana spent her days on the phone calling various state offices to track down programs and resources.
She had to get the foster kids registered in the county’s school system; schedule wellness checkups; find resources for the non-verbal child; and seek help in navigating requirements for foster care certification.
She would turn to her part-time clerical work after all of the kids were in bed. At the end of September, she was still trying to shake her second round of bronchitis.
The exhausting efforts have paid off, Ana said. The kids are in school, with even the youngest two enrolled in Head Start and Birth to Three programs.
Ana wishes more resources had been available at the beginning. She recalls 8- to 10-hour days determining where to sign up for services and just trying to cover all the bases.
“We had to ask questions to get those answers,” Ana said.
After marrying, Josiah and Ana planned to have three children and then adopt.
“We’ve always loved the idea of adoption, and as Christians that’s part of our identity in Jesus,” Josiah said. “He adopts us and calls us into his family, and so we want to demonstrate that same thing with our lives.”
Timing and finances had never worked out before June.
If not for that Facebook message asking the family to take four children, the Grays might eventually have pursued fostering in a more traditional way.
Ana might have had the resources she wished for at the beginning, and the trauma and behavior problem training might have helped as well.
Their foster kids had to be taught that tearing each other down verbally wasn’t acceptable. It wasn’t unusual to hear one of the siblings refer to their non-verbal brother as “just stupid.”
“We’re trying to teach them that everybody, regardless of whether they can talk or can’t talk, or whether they can formulate thoughts fast or not – they’re still valuable and precious, and God loves them, and we love them, and we want to challenge them to learn how to love [others] better,” Josiah said.
The Grays say the kids have adapted well. Within a couple of weeks, they were correcting the children every few days instead of every 30 minutes.
Ana treasures unexpected outcomes. Her usually reserved 16-year-old daughter is openly affectionate when the youngest foster daughter seeks her out.
Her husband, who always wanted a son, has enjoyed the relationship with the two boys. The older boy constantly comes to him for hugs and wrestling matches as well as conversation.
Yet Josiah and Ana have struggled with their decision to foster as their financial situation has deteriorated.
If they had realized the extent of the bureaucracy, they might not have said yes so easily. Both have had moments when they wanted to throw in the towel.
But Ana said the inconvenience is outweighed by the realization that placement in loving homes is lacking for many kids.
Carla Harper, now a program manager with the state Department of Health and Human Resources, has worked for the state for 29 years. She first fostered and then adopted three children. She did so even though she was single and working full-time for CPS when the kids were small.
“Mine are all substance-affected, and they all have special needs in their own way,” said Harper, who started fostering when she was 39. The kids are 10, 11 and 16 now.
The youngest, a sibling to one of the others, came as a newborn when Harper was 42. She will be 60 when the girl graduates from high school.
The girl was born prematurely, weighed only three pounds and was affected by drugs.
“She is now almost as tall as me, weighs more than I do, is an exceptional student – as is her older sister – I mean they’re just a joy,” Harper said.
People have reservations about the time and attention kids coming out of abuse and neglect situations might need. Part of the foster care training concerns trauma.
“It’s not as hard as it sounds,” Harper said. “And the benefits – you can’t beat them. What’s important is that you’re there with them. You explain the difference between right and wrong. You don’t give up when they have a bad day. We’ve had a lot of bad days – a lot of bad days – but they’re so much less now than they were.”
From the first day the foster children moved into the Grays’ home, they were asking, “How long will we be here?”
Ana and Josiah are as honest as possible, but that is a hard question to answer. They must be careful about affecting the kids’ view of their parents.
They tell the kids: “We’re here as long as you need us to be here, and when the judge says it’s time for you to go home, then we’ll celebrate, and you can go home.”
The couple hopes for that reconciliation. Their plan isn’t for this situation to be permanent.
Josiah himself comes from a dysfunctional home. He never knew his biological father and had several stepfathers. He described an environment with alcohol, abuse and addiction. He said it gives him empathy for the kids and patience when they are behaving badly.
Since deciding to become a foster parent, Josiah has become more aware of the situations many children are in.
He began listening to podcasts on fostering after another foster parent recommended them as a resource. He has talked with the children’s caseworker and to other foster parents. He said it breaks his heart to hear the stories.
“We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit in West Virginia how screwed up our families are. So, if we can help these four kids learn how to be responsible adults, we make West Virginia better.”
Want to help?
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent contact missionwv.org
— Writer M.K. McFarland worked for more than a decade in state media and now teaches at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. She volunteers as a cuddler in the newborn intensive care unit at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. She began working on this series after seeing the effects of the opioid epidemic on newborn children.