One attribute I have always admired about Durham is its strong sense of community – and that goes for communities of all kinds: artists and entrepreneurs, restaurants and small businesses, families and schools. It is a trait I have come to appreciate not only for my media business in the local restaurant industry, but also for my personal life in the foster care and adoption world.
My husband and I began our journey as licensed foster parents through Durham County four years ago. Even though becoming a foster parent was something I envisioned doing for a long time and something we discussed and anticipated for years in advance, nothing could truly prepare us for this kind of work. And I call it “work,” because if you are parenting well, it is a job: You are a scheduler, a chauffeur, a counselor, a cook, a cleaner, a mentor and more. And if you are a foster parent, you are all these things times 10.
When our very first placement, a 7-year-old, arrived on our front porch with a small bag, a smile and a soccer ball after a vague two-hour “warning,” we were instantly overwhelmed. He was sweet, fun and sociable, but we had never been parents before, let alone parents jumping headfirst into the life of a grown child while navigating communication with social services, schools and his birth family. We learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons in the five months he was in our home, but the confusion and isolation that came with having a complicated, non-traditional family was hard.
After more children stayed with us for months or weekends at a time, our experience as foster parents grew, and so did our community, and that has made an incredible difference.
In 2018, a group of foster parents from Durham County came together to support one another as an association, and in 2019 we officially formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit known as Fostering Families, which extends support to other foster and adoptive families throughout our area. Our organization co-hosts trainings, holds monthly parent support groups, organizes special events (such as foster and adoptive info fairs and celebrations), as well as advocates for meaningful change on the local level. Fostering Families is currently an all-volunteer organization facilitated by local foster and foster-to-adopt parents. We live and breathe the work we do, and there is much to be done!
According to statistics released by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children in custody of the foster care system has grown by 15% across the state, from 9,987 in September 2014 to 11,471 by September 2019 (September 2019 is the latest publicly available information). However, Durham County has seen even higher growth rates than the state average. The number of children in foster care in Durham County has more than doubled in the past five years (from 173 in September 2014 to 357 in September 2019).
The foster system is overburdened and under-resourced, so it is even more important we support and advocate for these kids – after all, these are children and families right here in our own community; helping them is one of the biggest and most direct impacts we can make to better the world around us.
A lot of people want to know how they can help. Even if you are not comfortable or prepared to become a foster parent yourself, there are several ways you and your family can make a difference.
If you are interested in becoming a licensed foster parent, the first step is to do some research and attend an orientation/info session either through your county’s department of social services or a private agency (see Fostering Families’ resource page at fosteringfam.org for a list). After that, 30 hours of TIPS-MAPP classes (provided by the county or the agency) are required before you can begin the rest of the licensing process, which includes paperwork, fingerprints, interviews, background checks, fire inspections and more.
Become a Respite Family
Respite is short-term care for other foster families who need a weekend or period of time covered and/or providing a temporary spot for an emergency placement before a long-term home is identified. If you want to provide respite care for the county, becoming licensed (see above) is the best route. If you personally know foster families you’d like to help directly, let them know, in which case you would be required to have a background check (classes are not required in this case).
Become a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)
GALs are trained community volunteers who represent the foster child’s best interest in court; they gather details about the case, recommend what is best for the child by writing court reports, monitor the case and collaborate with other participants in the case, including establishing a line of communication with the foster family.
Support Local Families
If you know foster families in your own communities, check in periodically to see what they need. An occasional sitter? A meal train when they get a new placement? Do they need clothes or toys for a certain age? (Oftentimes, kids arrive with little to nothing.) Also, if you own a local business, consider offering discounts to foster and adoptive families.
Sign up for Fostering Families’ newsletter to stay abreast of informational and fundraising events that are open to the public. (Other events are open to current foster/adoptive families.) This is also a great way to meet local foster families who are in attendance and ask questions.
Fostering Families accepts tax-deductible donations. These funds help us better support our families through group gatherings, classes, events and community outreach, including retention and recruitment efforts.
A few years into this roller coaster journey, not only did my husband and I meet our now-adopted child (a spunky, smart and strong-willed 12 year old) through foster care, we also integrated into another amazing Durham community – connecting with committed and caring foster and adoptive parents who know what it is like to raise kids from hard places and who genuinely care for and support one another and these incredibly resilient kids.