Goals of a recent re-design of Texas’ foster care system include keeping kids in foster care a shorter amount of time, accelerating finding permanent placements, and keeping children closer geographically as possible to their home of origin, ideally no further than 50 miles away. According to Alayna Brooks, a local Abilene woman who recently completed training as a foster parent, this last goal isn’t happening yet because there aren’t enough foster families.
Local child-placing agencies recruit, train and license foster families in Taylor County. New Horizons, Methodist Children’s Home, Christian Homes & Family Services, Pathways Youth & Family Services and Harmony Family Services in Abilene are now registered with the State as approved Child-Placing Agencies or CPA’s. Instead of previously, when Child Protective Services handled this part of the system, CPS now responds to allegations of abuse, while these agencies take care of placements and a new level of foster parent, children and youth support.
Since 2010 the State of Texas has been establishing the re-design. Abilene began operating within the new framework at the end of August. According to the Department of Family & Protective Services website, “Since August 26, 2013, children and youth entering foster care from DFPS Regions 2 & 9 [which includes Abilene] have been served by the first Foster Care Redesign system.”
In Abilene, Methodist Children’s Home holds monthly foster care informational meetings at their offices at 500 Chesnut St. on the second Monday of the month at 6:00 p.m. They encourage people to RSVP to attend who are interested in taking the first steps of asking questions about becoming a foster family.
After meeting basic requirements, the State’s training program is Parent Resource Information Development Education (PRIDE), some parts of which are selected for use locally by private CPA’s. Training can include 50 hours of classes during six weeks of sessions, each three to four-hours long. Topics covered include child development and discipline. There is a home study process, during which a caseworker checks the home for safety issues, like certain sizes of fire extinguishers, smoke detectors in bedrooms, and medicines locked up. Case managers also conduct brief interviews with every member in a potential foster family. CPR & First Aid training are separate and also required.
Mrs. Brooks says that the hardest part as a new person coming into it is, “Getting all the training and all that done – it’s tedious.” She says that in her opinion it’s worth it just to hang in there through training the process, and be able to become a licensed foster parent. After that’s done, “It can just fit into what you’re doing anyway.” The Brooks’ have four biological children at home, ranging in age from elementary to middle school.
Alayna Brooks has a degree in early childhood education, and says she has loved children ever since she was a child herself. Even with her educational background and varied other experience working with children though, she says that their caseworker Mike Spell at the Methodist Children’s Home was an essential part of helping them to adjust as a foster parent. Alayna says it meant a great deal to know that his support was there and available.
“He wanted our first placement to be a successful placement. So you’re kind of eased into it. Then you have that under your belt.” They started with one child, which meant less appointments and less paperwork.
The beginning of a placement when a new foster child must be taken to the doctor and the dentist within the first few days can be the most time-consuming. Sometimes specialists are needed because of medical issues.
She did call him with advice during some challenging moments and was reassured to do what s felt was right or, “would’ve done with my kids.” She says she found that really, “the structure and ‘the usual’ were the best idea.”
Pathways Youth & Family Services, another registered child-placing agency in Abilene states on their website in regards to support for foster families, “Pathways … has an experienced Treatment Team available to support your family. The Treatment Team may include licensed counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. In case of emergencies, Pathways Case Managers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Foster parents are also offered on-going training opportunities throughout the year. These trainings and other activities provide ways for foster families to meet each other and develop additional support networks. Many times foster families become friends and rely on each other for respite care and other supportive needs.”
One particularly enriching part of the experience for the Brooks’ has been to see the way their other kids have stepped up to the plate,” and really enjoyed being involved. As a mother Alayna says she was most protective of her own children at first when exploring foster parenting, wanting to make sure they were not adversely affected. Whereas she found somewhat unexpectedly that they’ve in fact benefitted. “They loved to help me put her to bed. We would read her a story, sing to her, rock her and put her to bed.”
When still investigating the idea, she sought and spoke with a more experienced foster parent. This woman mentioned how in the process of providing foster care as a family, her own children had grown in responsibility and in giving and receiving love. “I had been thinking of possible negatives, and she presented me with some positives I hadn’t thought about,” says Alayna.
Alayna says that from the beginning, she and her husband Steve wanted to try and have relationships with the birth families. Not only because that, “helps us let them go,” but because they saw their role as simply helping out a neighbor. Those relationships, “can be as interactive or not, as you feel comfortable” says Alayna.
One child they had with them for a short while, “It was hard for everybody to say goodbye,” says Alayna, but they were able to keep in touch afterwards with the family member whom the child ended up living with, and this person emailed pictures.
Alayna says that since she and her family began the process she has had an extraordinary number of people say they’ve thought of doing foster parenting themselves. She says, “If you’ve thought about it, just give it a try. You can always stop doing it if it’s not for your family.” Increasing faith-based and community involvement, the State of Texas hopes to provide improved care for families in various situations needing support.
Heart Gallery of Texas lists photos of children and youth awaiting families (heartgalleryoftexas.org). An online search of the DFPS website shows 30 children in Abilene waiting for adoption. Regional statistics show 758 children in Region 2 (30 counties including Abilene, Sweetwater and Witchita Falls) as wards of the state. Megan Harbin, Community Outreach Director for Methodist Children’s Home reports via email, “From the DFPS website as of January 31, 2014: There are 139 children in foster care from Taylor county. Of those 139 children, only 63 are actually placed in Taylor county.”