Albany County seeks more foster homes

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Protectors of children, seated from left are: Chelsea Stewart, supervisor for the Foster Homefinders and Adoption Unit, and Michelle Dowe, director of Child Welfare. Standing behind them are: Valerie Johnson, caseworker for the Foster Homefinders and Adoption Unit and Gail Geohagen-Pratt, commissioner for the Albany County Department for Children, Youth and Families.

ALBANY COUNTY — Currently 240 youth are in foster care in Albany County. Most are there because they’ve been abused or neglected in the home they were born into.

“There’s a safety concern that cannot be mitigated,” said Gail Geohagen-Pratt, commissioner for the Albany County Department for Children, Youth and Families. “Prior to removing a child from a home, the county has to show diligent effort.”

If alternate resources have failed and safety cannot be guaranteed, she explained, the county first looks for a relative or “fictive kin” the child can live with.

She explained that “fictive kin” refers to a significant adult in a child’s life who is not biologically related to the child.

In recent years, Geohagen-Pratt said, the number of children in foster care countywide has gradually increased. “Three to four years ago, it was under 200,” she said. The opioid crisis has caused more homes to be unsafe.

Michelle Dowe, the department’s director of Child Welfare, pointed out that the majority of the county’s children in foster care board at homes, currently between 170 and 180 children. The others are in congregate care, which are institutional settings, or in group homes, she said.

The placement, Dowe explained, depends on “how the child presents behaviorally.”

 

Federal act

As part of its bipartisan budget act of 2018, the federal government enacted the Family First Prevention Services Act, which prioritizes family-based foster care, limiting federal reimbursement for certain residential placements. On Feb. 1, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services was informed that its request to delay some of the provisions of the federal act was delayed in New York State until Sept. 29, 2021. 

The Family First Prevention Services Act will let New York and other states use Title IV-E money from Social Security that formerly could be used only for foster care and adoption support to instead fund services on parenting, substance-abuse treatment, and mental-health interventions to keep families together. But the law also restricts federal funds for placing children in group homes or facilities.

“With the decreased use of congregate care, we’re in a particular place, and need to develop a core set of foster boarding homes,” said Geohagen-Pratt.

She also said, “You’re always looking for the least restrictive care.” Geohagen-Pratt explained that some children have medical needs, others have developmental needs, and others have behavioral concerns.

The goal, she said, is to find the best fit with the available, certified foster homes. “We make sure we present an accurate overview of the needs of the child for the best fit,” Geohagen-Pratt said.

Dowe gave the example of a nurse who is a foster mother being a good fit for a child who has medical needs. “We assess where they have strengths,” she said.

“We do ask foster parents if they would be a resource for a child that is lesbian or gay,” said Valerie Johnson, caseworker for the Foster Homefinders and Adoption Unit.

“Often, we’re dealing with a sibling group,” said the commissioner. “The emphasis is to keep siblings together.” She also said, “We recognize there is a trauma and loss when a child leaves his or her home of origin.”

“Caseworkers bring us a referral,” said Johnson. “We see if we have anybody that might be a match.”

Phone calls go out and a response is awaited. If none is forthcoming, “We look at Berkshire, St. Catherine’s, Parsons,” Johnson said, of area institutions that care for children.

Some of these programs have specialities, for example, giving foster parents additional training, said Geohagen-Pratt.

“We want folks to know from the beginning, by our mandates and statewide, reunification is our first goal,” Geohagen-Pratt stressed. “We want to ensure a collaboration,”she said of her agency working with birth parents and foster parents. “It’s always about what is best for that child.”

Birth and foster parents, for example, might go together to the child’s medical visits, Dowe said. “They can write notes back and forth and send pictures,” she said.

She noted that state regulations differentiate between fostering and adoptions. “When reunification is not possible,” she said, “parental rights are terminated..”

Geohagaen-Pratt said that 48 percent of foster children are reunited with their biological parents. “After 12 months, foster parents have rights,” she noted.

Once a child is removed from the home he or she was born into, orders of supervision are put in place, the commissioner said, explaining, “Parents are told what is needed to have their child return home.”

One of the most traumatizing thing for a child, she said, is to leave foster care for home and then have to be taken out of the birth home again.

 

Becoming a foster parent

The first step in becoming a foster parent is making a phone call. Johnson gave her number: 518-447-7515.

“You leave a message with your name, address, phone number, and email … We’d have a conversation and do an intake. I’d send out information,” Johnson said, describing the typical process.

Orientation sessions are held, at 112 State Street in Albany, on the first Tuesday of every month at 2 and 5 p.m. for prospective foster parents. At those sessions, Johnson goes over “what we look for … loving, caring safe environments, and still working with birth parents.”

Prospective foster parents learn that foster care is temporary while adoption is permanent.

She stressed, “The goal is reunification.”

Johnson also stressed that, for foster parents to succeed, “We give them the tools they need.”

Foster parents must be at least 21 years old. They may be married, coupled, or single; they may be gay, lesbian, or heterosexual.

Each child over the age of 3 needs a separate bed. Through the age of 6, children of opposite genders can share a room. Over the age of 7, a child must have his or her own bedroom with a bed, dresser, and window.

The home itself must have smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors and comply with other standard safety procedures.

The foster parent has to be cleared through the state’s central registry, which includes a child-abuse check, and anyone living in the home 18 or older must go through a fingerprint-criminal check. Also, the parent has to be tested for tuberculosis.

Foster-parent applicants need three personal references and well as an employer reference and a 10-year employment history, with verification of income through a W-2 form.

A home visit is made before training starts and home visits from the department continue to be made.

Foster parents are paid to cover the costs associated with raising a child. The basic daily rate for a child up to the age of 5 is $18.15; from age 6 to 11, $21.86; and age 12 and older, $25.32.

For children with special needs, the daily rate is $43.76; and for children with exceptional needs, the rate is $66.28. Infants and toddlers get diaper allowances and older children get clothing allowances. Foster parents may also get approval for such items as school uniforms, music or dance lessons, school field trips, hair care, and birthday expenses up to $50 per child.

The foster parent is to be provided regular well-balanced meals; a secure and well-maintained home; personal care and supervision; and an emotional climate that encourages warm interpersonal relationships.

Foster parents are also to build trust and help develop the child’s sense of self-worth and self-discipline; have the child associate with peer groups, such as through school clubs and church experiences; encourage the child’s talents and interests; be available for case conferences and in-service training; and help in arranging visits with the child’s birth family as deemed appropriate.

 

Training

All foster parents in Albany County go through MAPP training. This stands for Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting. The training is paired with GPS, which stands for Group Preparation and Selection, so that foster and adoptive parents work together with the department and support the case plans for a child.

The MAPP training also takes place at 112 State Street in Albany. The class meets on Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. for 10 weeks.

During their training, prospective foster and adoptive parents decide what kinds of children, challenges, and behaviors they can comfortably accept.

Part of the training involves home visits where families and agency members look at the strengths and needs in a family setting and agree on a plan, outlining who will do specific tasks and when the tasks will be done.

One of the sessions, for example, focuses on helping children with attachments, how attachments are formed, and stressing the areas of building self-concept and appropriate behavior. The session also considers issues such as how children’s cultures and ethnic backgrounds help shape their identity, and the connections children risk losing when they enter care.

“We talk about cultural differences,” said Dowe, and go over ways to incorporate pieces of the child’s birth culture into his for her life in a foster or adoptive home.

“They may not look like the adult in their life,” said Geohagen-Pratt of foster children. The food, the music, the language of the foster family may all be different, she said, than that of the child’s birth family.

When making placement, the commissioner said, it is not a matter of “putting a white child in awshite home or a black child in a black home.”

Rather, it’s a matter of foster and adoptive families recognizing differences and incorporating familiar elements into the child’s new life.

Also, the commissioner said, when making placements, “We look at ZIP codes and geographic proximity.”

Dowe said the ZIP code where the agency most needs foster homes is 12206, which includes West Hills and the West End of Albany.

Another session focuses on helping children learn to manage their behaviors, especially for children who have been physically or sexually abused or neglected. Participants learn how to be a “behavior detective” and are taught to use techniques like timeout, mutual problem-solving, structuring and setting limits, negotiating, and contracting.

Johnson noted that many of the children in the foster system “have had trauma.” She said, “You can’t use corporal punishment.”

“Not even a slap on the back of the hand,” said Geohagen-Pratt, illustrating by lightly flicking the back of her own hand.

Policy from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has a long list of punishments, besides corporal punishment, that are not condoned, including verbal abuse, scolding, ridicule, kneeling, washing a child’s mouth out with soap, or forcing silence for long periods of time.

During the course of MAPP training, Dowe noted, people can opt out.

Johnson agreed, saying, “It’s mutual selection.”

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