In Virginia, at any given time, there are more than 5,000 children in the foster care system, waiting to be adopted. Of that number, more than 1,000 are in the Northern Virginia area, according to United Methodist Family Services.
There is a need for foster homes in many areas in Northern Virginia.
"The office focuses on finding foster homes for teenagers, sibling groups and other harder to place kids," said Jeannette Toscano, communications and public relations manager for United Methodist Family Services. "We are desperately in need of foster parents in Northern Virginia."
When they can, Social Services typically prefers to place children in the home of the same ethnicity whenever possible. There is a great need right now for Caucasian, Hispanic and bilingual families.
"We have experienced an increase of teens needing homes in the past few years mostly due to our success in working with these kids and finding permanent families for them," said Greg Peters, CEO of United Methodist Family Services. "Meaning, they don’t have to grow up in group home care and at the age of 18 have nowhere to go and no one to support them."
"The kids that we help find homes for at UMFS are usually teenagers, a sibling group or a child with special needs," he said. "What the kids all have in common is their need for a stable, loving home to help them overcome the traumas that they have suffered in their young lives."
The main reason kids find themselves in Virginia's foster system, according to Peters, is "abuse and neglect." "The root of the problem is no stable family support system and a lack of access to resources necessary to stay out of poverty," he said.
If it is determined that a child’s safety is at risk and they must be removed from home, social services must take temporary custody. "They either find an appropriate biological family member or, if none exist, then the child is placed into foster care with a family best available to meet their needs," Peters noted. "They remain in foster care until either their parents have fulfilled all requirements necessary to have them return home, or until parental rights are terminated and the child becomes available for adoption."
Social workers, parents, volunteers work together
There are a variety of ways people can help children who find themselves separated from their families. All professionals working with the children are either government department of social service workers or social workers with private agencies contracted by the department of social services, Peters said.
Foster parents are not considered volunteers but in many ways act in this capacity as they are not paid for their service to children; they only receive compensation for expenses related to the care of the children placed with them.
UMFS has many volunteer opportunities for those wishing to support children in other ways. These opportunities range from tutoring to transportation needs. (Call 703-941-9008 to volunteer at UMFS.)
Options for helping
There are many ways that someone can help a child, Peters said. In addition to becoming a full-time foster parent, you can try it out as a respite foster parent or an emergency foster parent. Respite foster parents take foster kids on a temporary basis to give the child’s foster family a break. Emergency foster parents take a child on a very short-term basis during a crisis until a more permanent family is found.
What is the difference between fostering a child and adopting a child?
"When you foster a child you are giving a child a stable, loving environment but the child is still in the custody of the state," Peters noted. "The plan may be for the child to return to his biological family or to another family member. When you adopt a child, that child becomes a permanent part of your family."
There isn't really a typical length of time for a foster parent experience, Peters said. "This varies greatly depending upon the severity of situation with the biological family and their compliance with the requirements of the department of social services to have their child returned to them," he said. It can range anywhere from a few months to a year or more with the ultimate goal being the shortest period of time possible so that the child has stability and permanency as quickly as possible.
Foster parents do not have to fit a cookie-cutter mold.
"Just as our children come in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities, so do our foster families," he said. "We have foster parents who are married, single, divorced, widowed, young, older, experienced parents and those with no parenting experience at all. There are certain criteria that have to be met such as being able to provide for yourself, having space in your home and being able to pass a home study and background check. The biggest thing is having room in your heart for a child."
Becoming a foster parent "starts with a phone call," Peters said. "Once you decide that fostering is right for you, we’ll provide training so that you are prepared to take on this new role. And we don’t stop there. We offer continued training, support groups and 24/7 access to a social worker who can help you."
There is a "great need," Peters said, for both foster care and adoption "when it comes to teenagers, sibling groups and kids with special needs. The bottom line in both cases is that these kids all need loving, stable homes and parents that make them feel safe and loved."
For more information, visit United Methodist Family Services' Web site or call (703) 941-9008.
You can also find out about foster care and adoption through Fairfax County at their Web site.