A collaborative approach in Hall County to recruit foster families has become a testament of the need to provide homes for an unprecedented number of vulnerable children.
Churches, nonprofit agencies, government and the courts are sustaining momentum by working together to support children in foster care.
“I’ve got a bunch of them on speed dial,” said Rebecca Davidson, who works on recruitment as part of her regional role with the Division of Family and Children Services, of the many local partners supporting foster kids and families. “It’s gotten to be a much more connected situation.”
The positive ring to her words comes at a time when Hall County is seeing its number of children in foster care average 350 in a month, up from 274 just last fall. In 2013, there were an average of 173 kids in foster care.
According to a report published this spring by the nonprofit Supporting Adoption & Foster Families Together, two major themes are evident in Hall: There aren’t enough foster homes in the county and that means most children are placed in homes outside of the county.
There are about 60 homes available in Hall for foster children, including those who work with private placement
agencies and those who work directly with the DFCS. Last month, there were only four open beds readily available for children coming into foster care.
When Hall children are placed out of the county, the “trauma of removal will be amplified” by the change of school, loss of friends, teams and community connections, the report states.
Out-of-county placement also drives up costs of services for children and families, according to SAFFT. Services provided by the state can include transportation to court appearances and visitations with families, and those costs can cut into spending on therapeutic services. In addition, extended travel time can limit visitation time and hinder reunification of families.
The report called on collaborators to focus particular attention on recruiting families into the foster care network and develop better support systems for foster families to thrive.
Ferguson said she typically meets monthly to strategize with private agencies that place children with qualified foster families such as FaithBridge, Hope for Families, Families First and the United Methodist Children’s Home.
And she meets regularly with churches, faith-based nonprofits, educational partners, foster parents and Court-Appointed Special Advocates.
“We are also trying to brainstorm recruitment opportunities,” Davidson said.
Additional joint recruitment and training workshops could help grow the number of foster homes in Hall.
“We are coming up with concrete plans of action,” Davidson said, such as working groups to catalogue and identify support resources and educational opportunities for foster children and families.
“There’s just lots of really good stuff going on,” she added.
Another focus has been recruiting Spanish-speaking foster families to serve a growing number of Latino children in foster care.
Juvenile Court Judge Joe Diaz visited Johnson High School earlier this year with Davidson to attend a Latino-parent meeting.
The two gave a presentation that “was very well-received,” Diaz said, and were contacted afterward by a family interested in fostering.
Diaz said he plans to visit churches with large Latino congregations and conduct additional outreach.
“I kind of feel like now is a good time to recruit,” he said.
Diaz also has worked with the Hispanic Alliance Georgia, a Gainesville nonprofit, to connect with the wider Latino and immigrant community. The alliance was host to a health fair last month in Gainesville, where Davidson said she was able to generate interest in fostering.
Some specific needs, such as language fluency, cultural understanding, and even diet, can be a big stabilizer for foster children from predominantly Spanish-speaking homes, Hispanic Alliance director Vanesa Sarazua said.
“From what I’ve seen ... (we are) anticipating the need will be greater in the next few years,” she added.
The SAFFT report also spotlighted a corresponding need for support services for foster families as the number of children in the system grows.
That’s where churches like Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville step in. Tyler Smiley, associate mission pastor at Lakewood, said the church has long been involved in supporting foster and adoptive families within its congregation.
“We certainly have cared for them as best we could,” he said.
About two years ago, however, the congregation directed more attention to the problem.
The church has been supported by the nonprofit Promise 686, which has helped organize teams of church members to collect and distribute resources for foster families in Hall. This can include meals for families when children are first placed, clothing, car seats and bicycle helmets, swimming lessons and baby-sitting.
“We’re encouraged by what they’re doing,” Smiley said. “It’s certainly a driving force” for Lakewood to continue its mission to serve. “We have that call to action.”
As the SAFFT report details, there remains an ongoing need for more therapists for young children, transportation access for foster families, cross-cultural resources, respite/child care services and foster family vacation support.
“It is the belief of this body that the future of these children and the effects of inaction on our collective destiny require immediate, focused and sustained effort,” the report states. “We also believe that the resources and leadership are uniquely in place to accomplish these goals and demonstrate a process to change outcomes across the state of Georgia.”