JEROME — Couples sat at a horseshoe of tables, in a room decorated with motivational posters. “Vision” depicted a boat on still water, and “Leadership” featured the silhouette of a horse.
Propped on the tabletops were paper tags scrawled with first names. The couples snacked on chips and sipped bottled water. In front of the room, foster parent recruiter Susan Baca and social worker Nick Wolfrey rattled off topics the would-be foster parents might encounter.
Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Multicultural misunderstanding. AIDS.
Krystle Baker, 25, came alone to the first of nine Pre-service Foster and Adoptive Parent Training classes in mid-February. One of three requirements was already fulfilled: She had three letters of recommendation but needed to complete the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s PRIDE classes and a home study.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I just like kids.”
While the need escalates, south-central Idaho suffers from a severe shortage of people who, like Baker, want to become foster parents.
But it takes more than interest. Prospective foster parents must complete a months-long process to become licensed. They must face whatever problems the children bring from situations of abuse or neglect — burns, violent outbursts, distrust. And they often feel overwhelmed, asked to take on more and more children.
“We are overburdening foster parents,” Baca said, “and that makes it difficult.”
The alternative is difficult, too: Placing a child in a foster home that’s too far away, breaking ties with churches, schools and neighbors.
Health and Welfare’s Child and Family Services has struggled for at least 13 years to improve Idaho’s worsening shortage of foster parents. But the parents quit at nearly the same rate they are recruited.
From March 2014 to March 2016, the number of Idaho foster homes dropped by 8 percent, or 88 homes. Officials attribute that decline to foster parents’ frustrations with the system, to life changes or to successful adoption. And others who became foster parents to care for specific children dropped out after that need passed.
Some stop after fostering just one child. Idaho’s foster system stresses reunification with birth parents, but for some new foster parents it’s just too hard to give up the children.
“We do ask people to open their homes and hearts, and they have to send them back, and that’s hard to do,” Baca said.
In 2015, Child and Family Services licensed 352 foster parents statewide but saw a net increase of only 33 by 2016.
That’s excruciating math. Put another way: For every 11 foster parents recruited, trained and licensed, the total increased by only one. That means Child and Family Services would need to license an estimated 936 foster parents in a single year to replace the 88 lost since 2014.
A February report by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations suggested a more efficient solution: retention.
If Child and Family Services continued to recruit foster parents at the same rate but increased retention by 5 percent, the OPE wrote, it would see the same increase but have more experienced foster parents available.
Idaho’s Legislature this year took the first steps to address widespread problems laid bare in the OPE report, approving a $69.5 million budget for the Division of Child Welfare that increases payments to foster families by 20 percent and beefs up staffing. The department will get two new social worker positions, bringing the total to 266, and six more foster care support staff, bringing that total to 20.
“Lawmakers recognized the needs we have,” Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said.
The Legislature also approved a resolution continuing the duties of a committee created last year that’s tasked with studying the foster care system and working with Health and Welfare on ways to improve it.
Monthly payments, however, aren’t sufficient motivation. Foster parenting takes something more.
‘Not the best time’
Baker, who found out a few years ago that it would be difficult for her to have children of her own, thought foster parenting might provide an opportunity to adopt. Many of the couples at the same February training also expressed desire to adopt.
But Baca and Wolfrey quickly reminded them that foster care is about safe reunification with biological parents.
Another obstacle for many who consider fostering is the idea that the children had something to do with their situations.
Baker said her relatives didn’t like the idea: You’re going to let these strange kids into your house? But Baker, believing foster children are wrongly stereotyped, signed up for PRIDE anyway.
“They think you are getting these terrible children who will destroy your home and be mean,” she said. “Most of these children, they are being taken away from their parents. That’s really hard and confusing, but that doesn’t mean they are bad kids. It just means they need a little extra help. We should all do our part in the community, and that’s the path I chose.”
At the end of the night, Baca told the trainees that even if they decide not to become foster parents right now, they should complete the class. PRIDE certification is good for five years.
“We’ve given you a lot to think about, especially those in pre-adopt,” she said. “Don’t quit the class. Come do the journey with me.”
Baker dropped out after the third class. Her reasons were similar to others who came before: It wasn’t the right time. One of her dogs wasn’t compatible with children. The classes were too far from home.
She plans to re-enroll by the end of summer.
“I didn’t end up finishing this time around,” Baker said in late March. “But I’m going to do them again. Something happened where right now is not the best time.”
‘If they’re willing to try’
Potential foster parents don’t have to be perfect, said Ellen Leavitt, who has licensed foster parents for Health and Welfare since 1996. They just need to be willing to try their best.
A key to success is being able to work with a foster child’s biological parents, she said. “That’s something that scares a lot of people. But we try to train them how to go about it.”
Foster parents don’t have to allow biological parents into their homes, Leavitt said, but they’re encouraged to invite them to a child’s medical appointments, for example. It’s important to learn how to co-parent.
“A lot of people have issues with that,” she added, because they’re afraid of the birth family. “It’s very rewarding to them if they’re willing to try and willing to learn.”
When Leavitt receives a licensing application from a prospective foster parent, she sends a packet with forms to fill out. Applicants must also be fingerprinted, undergo a criminal background check and have a medical reference and three personal references. Also, a home study usually requires a couple of visits to a potential foster parent’s home.
Social workers doing home studies talk with parents about their histories, Baca said. They ask the families’ biological children how they’d feel about foster siblings. They check for safety such as locks for guns and medication, fire detectors in every room and a second exit in case of fire.
Then Health and Welfare determines the number of children for which a home will be licensed. Factors that affect the decision: the number of biological children, space available and the parents’ feelings on how many foster children would work in their family dynamics. The license maximum of six children in a foster home includes biological children.
Under special circumstances, Health and Welfare’s program manager can approve a foster family taking in more children than the license allows. Most often, Baca said, this occurs to keep a sibling group together.
It’s extremely common, Leavitt said, for people to drop out during the licensing and training process. Some, for instance, can’t accept the policy of no corporal punishment. Some just can’t devote the time.
Many people are upset about having to undergo training, she said, particularly those wanting to care for a relative. “In the beginning, they can be awful angry they have to go through that.”
But by the end, Leavitt said, many say they’re thankful for the instruction and wish they’d had those resources when raising their own children.
If people can get through training, she said, “there’s a big factor that they can follow through and become a foster parent.”
‘Not an adoption agency’
The trainers at the Feb. 17 session at Con Paulos Chevrolet’s Jerome conference room stressed confidentiality.
“It could be a kid from your same town,” Baca told the class of prospective foster parents. “It almost puts a label on them.”
For married couples, Baca and Wolfrey told the class, it’s highly encouraged that both partners attend training.
“Why do you think they want both parents to attend?” Wolfrey asked.
“On the same page,” a man said.
“More support,” a woman offered.
Wolfrey elaborated. When people sign up as foster parents, he said, they are signing up to work as a team with social workers and birth parents.
“The department is not an adoption agency,” Wolfrey said. “As kids come into care, our goal is reunification in almost all of our cases, and that can be really hard. We all love kids and we all want to be in their lives, but remember we are here to help the biological parents too.”
A woman, her brow furrowed, raised her hand. “If your goal is to adopt, are you saying this is not the place to be?”
Baca reassured her and others interested in adoption that most foster parents she knows have a chance to adopt eventually. But very few children are immediately available for adoption.
“Other than that you are signing on to work with the system for reunification,” she said.
If a child comes up for adoption, Baca said, a family he or she stayed with will be the first notified.
And it’s not just youngsters who need permanent homes.
“You get just as attached to the teenagers,” she said. “The teens need just as much love and attention as the younger ones.”
‘Change a child’s life’
How do recruiters find the people to do this difficult job? They seek out ones who have toyed with the idea of foster parenting but haven’t acted on it. Then recruiters try to make sure those who sign up actually complete the process that leads to the first placement.
Baca was a foster parent to seven teens for two years but quit fostering to focus on recruiting. It was more important.
“I made the decision I could do better with training and recruiting,” said Baca, recruitment coordinator for Health and Welfare’s Region 5, at her Twin Falls office March 23.
Becoming a foster parent could take could take four to six months, including 27 hours of training in three-hour sessions — either in three weekends or two days a week for five weeks. An additional three-hour session for kinship training explores the unique dynamics of fostering a grandchild or other family member.
“When it’s your own daughter,” Baca said, “that’s hard.”
The February training originally had 29 signed up, a typical class size; 26 attended classes, and 23 graduated.
Baca recruits foster parents by attending home and garden shows or parades, sending notes home with schoolchildren and assigning resource peer mentors to talk with people interested in fostering. Baca holds six or seven informational meetings a year where people meet a foster parent, a foster teen and a social worker.
Recruiters have news to share: the coming hike in financial reimbursement for foster parents. Foster parents currently receive $329 per month to care for a child ages 0-5; $366 for ages 6-12; and $487 for 13 and older. The 20 percent increase approved by the Legislature is effective July 1.
Sometimes, Leavitt said, Health and Welfare employees are so desperate to place a child that they go into a training session looking for volunteers to expedite the licensing process. And typically, as soon as a foster parent is licensed, a child is placed in the home. A good practice would be having three or four families to choose from, she said, to make the best decision about a good match.
“That doesn’t always happen,” Leavitt said. It’s often just who has an empty bed.
When Leavitt started at the department about 20 years ago, there was a core group of foster parents — mostly older couples.
“They were just a fixture there,” Leavitt said. Some have died or stopped fostering. “They have so much experience. We just haven’t replaced them.”
Baca’s strategies for retaining foster parents include support groups, peer mentors and a yearly foster parent conference at the College of Southern Idaho.
“I think the key is the peer mentors,” Baca said. “They talk with other foster parents who know what you’re going through. It requires someone who understands.”
The next foster parent trainings start June 22 in Jerome. Baca — who recruits from Blaine County to the Nevada border and from Bliss to Mini-Cassia — tried to start PRIDE training classes in Blaine, but there weren’t enough attendees. People drive from Blaine County to attend in Jerome.
“The foster parents that are successful are the ones who don’t take situations personally and are able to recognize the difference they can make for a foster child in a short amount of time. Sometimes that’s a hang-up,” Baca said. “You can change a child’s life. You can change a family’s life.”
‘Recognize there are other needs’
As the Idaho liaison for One Church One Child, Kimberly resident Angela Pentecost sets up appointments to speak to south-central Idaho church congregations about the need for foster parents.
The national group, which has partnered with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare since 2012, was founded by Father George Clements in 1996 in Chicago. It seeks to establish long-term relationships with faith-based communities.
In Pentecost’s first five months with One Church One Child, she was invited to only two churches: Filer First Baptist Church and Crossroads United Methodist Church in Kimberly.
“It’s difficult for churches to allow me to speak,” she said. When phone calls weren’t yielding results, Pentecost started driving to churches, showing up and hoping someone was in the office.
At the Filer and Kimberly churches, she and Health and Welfare’s Jaime Nava talked for about 15 minutes about what it’s like to be a foster parent.
Church families may have stability to offer for children who’ve come from rough backgrounds, said Andy Paz, pastor at Filer First Baptist.
“There’s a very, very small number of homes available in our area,” Paz said after the March 19 presentation to his congregation. “There’s a wide disparity of need versus what’s available for help out there.”
One reason it may be a challenge for One Church One Child to get into churches, Paz said, could be “an underlying fear of getting involved with a state-run program.” Another is not wanting to give up time during a Sunday-morning church service. Also, churches often have their officially sanctioned programs that complement the objective of communicating the gospel.
“Oftentimes, you fail to recognize there are other needs in their community,” Paz said. Foster children are often an unseen group at risk, and “should be one of the targets that the church community takes up and tries to help.”
Presenters gave his congregation some simple steps to take, such as donating diapers, clothing and blankets to foster families.
‘In it by yourself?’
Those who take the plunge and sign up find that foster parenting has rigorous requirements but also a lot of support.
After Jon and Tina Baker of Twin Falls finished training, Jon said he couldn’t go through with it, Tina recalled. “We were prepared not to even do it.”
The couple went to Health and Welfare’s office thinking they would back out but instead got a license that day. Since then, they’ve been required to complete 10 hours of training per year — choosing book reading and online training over in-person sessions.
Dayne and Terri Mortensen, now of Jerome, first became foster parents during the 1988-89 school year when their daughter was a kindergartner in Rexburg. The school sent home a form to sign up as foster parents.
“Back then, it was ‘here’s a kid’ and then they take them,” Terri said.
The Mortensens, who have 10 biological children and 13 grandchildren, gave up their fostering license when they had their sixth child. But six years ago, after moving to the Magic Valley, they decided to return to foster parenting. This time, Dayne said, there were significantly more requirements and much more comprehensive training.
On their first day with the new license, the couple received a call asking if they’d take in three children, ages 5, 9 and 11.
Now the Mortensens have another role, too: peer mentors for other foster parents.
They were trainers at Health and Welfare’s Feb. 24 foster parent conference at the College of Southern Idaho, identified by their bright orange vests. So were Sam and Anne Sharp of Jerome, who have been foster parents for about 10 years and fostered 16 children.
New foster parents get a lot of support, Anne said, such as training every two or three months. Plus, support groups meet monthly.
A common concern among new foster parents is thinking they’re asking too many questions, Anne said. They don’t want to contact Health and Welfare with every little question. That’s where peer mentors such as the Sharps step in.
The Mortensens do even more for foster parents: If they’re majorly stressed, the Mortensens will take care of their children for a weekend.
“If you think you’re in it by yourself,” Terri said, “you’re not.”
‘You don’t have any rights’
Even a supportive system can’t eliminate the factors that drive away some foster parents.
Kate Allred and her husband, Chris, were foster parents for six months before calling it quits.
Before they stopped taking foster children into their Jerome home in July, they had three placements and provided respite care for 10 children. Many of the respite calls were in the middle of the night for children who didn’t have a place to go. They usually stayed with the Allreds for one to three days before being placed with a foster family.
But the Allreds didn’t leave fostering because of the rapid arrival of children. Rather, their reasons were negative interactions with birth parents and social workers and the worry that accompanied a child’s reunification with birth parents.
The Allreds had been married a year when they started talking about fostering and possibly adopting. They came across a foster recruitment booth at the county fair and signed up.
Allred, 30, said they were told at the first training that foster care is not adoption, though it does happen. They went ahead anyway. Two sisters and a baby boy were placed with the couple — the girls for three months and the boy for a month — and giving the children back to their parents was more difficult than Allred expected.
“Idaho is a right-for-parent state, and I definitely don’t agree with that,” she said. “It should be a right-for-child state.”
Allred feared the baby was returning to a potentially abusive situation.
“They can go back to the parents for minimal standards of care,” she said. “To be a licensed foster parent you have to jump through so many hoops. You have to have so many doors in your home and certain kind of heating. They wanted us to get a fenced yard. It’s not like you’re going to spend $1,000 to get a fenced yard. I totally understand they need to go back to their parents, but the ideal situation isn’t always good.”
Allred and her husband voiced their concerns to their social worker.
“The baby boy we had,” she said, “I don’t think it was handled properly. We tried to raise hell, but as foster parents you don’t have any rights. They tell you to jump, and you say how high and when. It’s a very controlling situation for a foster parent.”
The couple also found it difficult dealing with birth parents. The Allreds provided their numbers and address to the parents, even showing them the rooms their children stayed in.
But once, the girls’ father showed up at Allred’s house unannounced, when her husband wasn’t there. Another time, a mother didn’t like the Allreds bringing a Santa Claus actor into the home at Christmas and accused them of forcing their religious beliefs on the child.
“If we did it again we’d be guarded,” Allred said.
Social workers were a mixed bag, she said, blaming that on an overworked system.
For Allred, “good” social workers were honest and upfront to both foster parents and biological parents. They also listened to complaints without dismissing or ignoring them. She recalled several unanswered text messages and phone calls made to “bad” social workers.
“We had two I would consider not great social workers,” Allred said. “They turned us off from fostering. One social worker can break your decision to foster again.”
Their peer mentor was sometimes part of the problem.
“She would hear you out and was honest, (but) she worked for the department. I felt she was a little biased,” Allred said. “I don’t think your support person should work for the department. Sometimes I felt like we literally needed a complaint session. It’s hard when your support person is always sticking up for them.”
Now Allred has a 6-month-old baby of her own. She’d liked to give foster parenting another try but wants to wait a couple of years. And maybe she’ll take in only teens.
‘The grandparent phase’
Even a foster family who thrives will move to the negative side of Idaho’s retention equation eventually.
Hoping to adopt, Kurt and Jamie McLaws of Twin Falls were foster parents for more than a decade and saw about 60 children come through their home. Their four biological children — 11 to 17 years old when the McLaws started fostering — were willing to help.
But the couple decided to stop fostering regularly to give them flexibility to travel and haven’t had a foster child for nearly two years. They agreed to provide emergency care for children in need, but Health and Welfare hasn’t called.
“We’ve moved into the grandparent phase,” Kurt said.
The couple’s biological children are now in their 20s and have moved out. So have two of the three previous foster children whom the McLaws adopted. Now 15-year-old adopted daughter Melia, their first foster child, is the only child under their roof.
During their years as foster parents, the McLaws at times felt overwhelmed and said “no” to taking in more.
“Health and Welfare has an absolutely difficult job,” Kurt said. But the couple never felt pressured — beyond a “gentle prod” — to take in more children.
Recalling their time as foster parents, Jamie got teary-eyed.
“If you’re going to do foster care,” she said, “you have to treat them like your own kid.”