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Foster care stakeholders seek to send ‘ripples’ or a ‘tidal wave’ of change
Meeting gathers agencies, churches, nonprofits, court leaders and parents in effort to ease challenges
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Lindsey Bray, center, administrator for foster care in Hall County, chats with Ashley Smith, adoptions supervisor, at the Hall County Division of Family and Children Services in Gainesville, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

173. 176. 202. 251. 274.

Those are the rising numbers of Hall County’s children in foster care over the past five years, most of them placed in homes outside the county.

For stakeholders, reducing these figures begins with understanding how children are placed in homes, consolidating resource information and ending duplicated efforts.

“My thought is always, what can we change on a local level to send ripples and perhaps a tidal wave” through the current foster care model, said Lindsay Burton, chief judge of the Hall County juvenile court.

On Thursday, Burton was joined by representatives from local churches and nonprofits, state government, foster care placing agencies and foster parents themselves at the East Hall Community Center for an hourslong meeting to address what can be done to improve the existing framework.

Though many of the groups have gathered together in separate meetings and been working on similar goals, this was the first summit of its kind, at least in recent years.

Burton and Brian Anderson, CEO of the nonprofit Supporting Adoption & Foster Families Together, asked pointed questions of Division of Family and Children Services and private child placing agencies who contract with DFCS to place children in foster homes.

When children are removed from their home, DFCS workers will look first to Hall’s 26 DFCS foster homes. If no DFCS homes are available, caseworkers begin calling private agencies and may place children outside of Hall County if they feel that’s the best available home, DFCS workers at the meeting said.

Private agencies, meanwhile, will receive calls from various counties looking for somewhere to place children. There are 36 foster homes in Hall that are licensed through private agencies.

Agencies often try to keep children in the general region where their family lives, but they may fill their foster homes with children from other counties, leaving fewer spaces in Hall for the county’s own children.

Burton noted that in some cases, this is not a problem, such as adoption cases, but it can delay reunification when children are placed hours from their parents, in part because visitation between child and parent is logistically more difficult.

“It’s easier for me to have kids that are in Hall,” foster mom CJ Greene said, noting the demands of court hearings, school and work life, as well as family reunification plans.

The distance can be expensive for caseworkers who must visit children monthly and the children’s attorneys who must visit their clients.

Special needs and work to keep siblings together also plays a role in where children are placed.

Advocates said they want to increase the number of foster homes in Hall.

“Why don’t we have twice as many as we need?” Anderson asked rhetorically.  

Rebecca Davidson, who works on recruitment as part of her regional role with the Division of Family and Children Services, said she hopes to see sustainable growth, a kind of quality over quantity measure, when it comes to growing the local foster care network.

Davidson said DFCS is working to expand its own recruiting efforts by connecting with local schools and law enforcement, noting that those who work in those fields can make great foster parents because of their background and knowledge.

Juvenile Judge Joe Diaz is also visiting local Latino churches to recruit Spanish-speaking foster parents to better serve Spanish-speaking foster children.

Both Burton and Davidson said they take every opportunity to speak to groups, often at churches, about the needs of the foster care system.

Advocates at the meeting listed resources available to foster families, including foster closets providing clothing, events like parents’ nights out and scholarships for summer camps. SAFFT will work to consolidate that list of resources. With more resources, foster parents may be able to continue their work for longer periods of time and be better equipped to handle the challenges it presents.

Greene said knowing what resources are available, such as where to find help purchasing or receiving donated clothing and household items, is imperative given that foster parents are overworked and overstressed as it is.

Randy Grimes, who along with his wife, Teresa, serve as team leaders for Lakewood Baptist Church’s adoption, foster child and orphan care ministry called Jochebed’s Hope, said more churches need to step up to the plate.

And those churches that are already in the game need to expand who they work with, including government.

“I want to challenge you,” said Grimes, who has served as a foster parent for years. “Quit biting off little pieces.”

It was an opportunity to take stock of a fluid situation, Burton said.

It was also an opportunity to recommit to change.

“We don’t want to walk out of the room here and say that was just another meeting,” Anderson said.

I want to challenge you: Quit biting off little pieces.
Randy Grimes, who along with wife Teresa serves as team leaders for Lakewood Baptist Church’s ministry, Jochebed’s Hope
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