When foster mother Ashley L. Shollenberger picked up her youngest son at the hospital, he was just 3 days old and suffering withdrawal symptoms.
“My little guy had some maternal use passed onto him at birth,” the Reading mother said.
Shollenberger, 37, adopted Jordan, now 5, last year. She also has two older adopted children, son Andres Torres-Shollenberger, 19, and daughter Jaylie, 8.
Parental drug use, she said, was a consideration when all three of the children she fostered before adopting were removed from their birth families.
Shollenberger’s children are among those known as the hidden victims of the opioid crisis — children removed from their homes due to substance abuse by one or both parents.
About one in three children enter foster care due to parental substance abuse.
And their numbers are growing.
“The opioid crisis caused an increase in the number of kids in foster care,” said Kathleen Roach, executive director of foster care and permanency for Diakon Adoption and Foster Care, Topton.
The numbers, she said, steadily climbed from 2007 through 2017, and the spike was directly linked to an increase in parental substance abuse or addiction, with heroin and other narcotics being the drugs of choice.
“Basically,” she said, “prior to 2007 the rate of children in foster care was declining in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”
The decade-long influx brought the total number of children in the system nationwide to an estimated 443,000, she said, and is responsible for what has been called the foster care crisis.
Pennsylvania had 25,441 children in foster care in 2018, according to the most recent report of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which works to improve the health, education and well-being of children and youth in the state. Since 2014, the report said, the rate of children served in foster care has increased by 13%.
Children can wind up in foster care for several reasons, including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment and parental incarceration, illness or death, Roach said, and drug abuse often is a factor in all of these.
When parents are using drugs, Roach said, there is a lack of judgment and their children can be neglected or abused. An addicted parent might use his or her money for drugs and neglect to pay bills, buy food or be unable hold a job, she said. Medical and nutritional needs of their children might not be met, and older siblings might end up raising younger brothers and sisters because the parent is intoxicated or out on a bender.
“Really,” Roach said, “the kids are the victims of this whole opioid epidemic.”
More kids than parents
At the same time the need for foster families is growing, the number of foster parents is decreasing.
“It is a dual crisis,” Roach said.
Diakon places fewer than 30% of the children referred to the agency each month, she said. And while the goal is to increase that number, the agency is hampered by a drop in available foster families.
The shortage of foster families means 1 in 6 children placed in Pennsylvania’s foster care system are placed in group homes or residential treatment facilities, said Jill Troutman, vice president of marketing and development for the Children’s Home of Reading.
The need is not exclusive to CHOR or Diakon; other Berks County agencies are facing a similar shortage of available foster parents.
“We definitely have more kids waiting for placement than there are foster parents available,” said Gordon May, president and CEO of Concern.
The Fleetwood nonprofit provides foster care and other child welfare services.
“We are looking for parents all the time,” May said.
Recruiting foster parents has become more challenging, Roach said, since fewer younger adults are stepping forward, older foster parents are retiring and established foster parents are adopting or have full houses.
While recruitment is challenging, she said, retaining foster parents is another part of the equation. Ongoing training and support by an agency or a case manager are essential for retention and success, she said.
The support she received from the Children’s Home’s caseworkers, Shollenberger said, “has been fantastic.”
Shollenberger maintains her state-issued foster care license by taking required continuing education courses offered by CHOR, she said, but with three adopted children, she has no room to spare.
May said the training and support offered by Concern are “top notch,” and the agency works with foster and birth families on case-by-case goals. These might be reunification of the foster child with the birth family or adoption.
“Intensive family reunification services are offered,” he said, “if that is the goal.”
Close to half the children in foster care are reunited with their birth families, according to the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network.
“Foster care is intended to be temporary,” said Deb Schoener, director of community-based programs for CHOR. “Reunion is always our first goal.”
Schoener said various area agencies work with children and parents by providing support for those struggling with mental health, substance abuse, housing, employment and other barriers to reunification, she said.
But funding for addiction treatment programs is limited, Roach said.
“If there was more funding we would have more resources to help parents conquer addiction and be reunited with kids,” she said.
The greatest need
The Berks-Lehigh foster care system has more than 600 children in need of homes, Troutman said. The greatest need is homes for older children and sibling groups. Homes also are needed for Spanish-speaking children.
While children under age 11 primarily make up the foster care population, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children reported one-third of the kids in foster care are 13 and older. While rates of older youth entering care have decreased, they make up almost49% of re-entry cases, which means they return home and re-enter the system within one year.
Further, Troutman said, the average length of stay in foster care is just under a year, but when it comes to older youth, 33% of those over age 14 spend two or more years in care, compared to just 15% of younger children. Children 13 and older are the most difficult to place in a family setting, she said, and when homes are available, they are often a distance from the children’s home communities.
Troutman said less than 1 in 4 older youths leave the care system with a permanent family to rely on.
“When youth age out without a positive adult connection,” she said, “we know their outcomes will be poor.”
They are twice as likely as other students to drop out of high school and nearly half will not graduate. Those without diplomas have difficulty securing a job and struggle to pay for food, rent and utilities. They are more likely than their peers to be homeless, and about a quarter are arrested after leaving care.
Schoener said CHOR offers programs to help young people prepare for independent living and adulthood. Kids learn about healthy relationships, conflict resolution and other skills to help them to live harmoniously with others.
“The most important thing we do for our kids,” she said, “is help them identify those who are important in their lives — the key people they can rely on — and making sure those people are on board as the kids age out.”
‘One caring adult’
There does not have to be a custodial arrangement or adoption for a responsible adult to make a commitment to a young person, Troutman said.
“Research and practice,” she said, “show that having ongoing support from just one caring adult can make an enormous difference in the life of vulnerable youth.”
Sibling relationships also are emotionally powerful and critically important to preserve, Troutman said.
Since children in foster care tend to experience more losses of significant relationships, she said, sibling relationships can help maintain a sense of identity and belonging.
Shollenberger said her daughter and younger son are biologically sister and brother and are two of nine siblings. Her oldest son is the middle child of six biological siblings. All of her children keep in touch with their birth mothers and some of their siblings.
Sometimes relationships with birth families can be strained, she said, and it takes work to maintain healthy relationships.
Challenges and rewards
Most foster children enter the system with a degree of trauma or post-traumatic stress, Roach said. Traumatic events can include the sudden death of a loved one, witnessing or experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, and parental drug addiction, overdose and neglect.
“All of it adds up,” Shollenberger said. “There is trauma simply in being removed from a home and living with strangers. Imagine hearing ‘This lady is going to take care of you.’ That’s hard for a child to understand.”
Part of the challenge of being a foster parent, she said, is understanding and accepting that some of a child’s behaviors result from traumatic experiences.
The Children’s Home, Concern, Diakon and other area foster care and adoption agencies offer what is known as “trauma-informed care,” to help mitigate the effects of trauma.
“Kids are so resilient,” Shollenberger said. “It is amazing how they are able to overcome what they have been through.”
Shollenberger, a single mother, said she began fostering children while married. She continued caring for the children after her marriage ended and later adopted them on her own.
All types of parents are needed, Troutman said, including empty nesters, single parents and LGBTQ or other nontraditional families.
“We have all kinds of kids that need all kinds of families,” she said. “And, we are just waiting for your call.”
Adults over 21 are eligible to become foster parents, she said, noting that a series of screenings and training sessions are required before a potential foster parent is approved.
Shollenberger’s advice to those considering becoming foster parents is talk to others with experience and build a support system first.
Watching her children grow and mature as individuals is her reward, she said.
Daughter Jaylie is a blossoming athlete, who plays softball, runs on her school track team and is a cheerleader. She also is learning to train dogs through the 4-H Club.
“It is exciting seeing her talents emerge and sharing that with her,” Shollenberger said.
Jordan is developing into a confident and loving little boy, she said, and Andres recently got his driver’s license and graduated high school.
“I am so proud of him,” Shollenberger said. “He is managing the difficulties of his family of origin with such grace and love.”
Earlier this year, we reported on the case made by current and former foster youths to use existing authority at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to connect youth aging out of care with housing supports.
The Chronicle of Social Change has learned that, after a thorough review of the policy by HUD’s general counsel, the agency is set this week to approve this and notify thousands of public housing authorities.
HUD has yet to publicly comment on these developments. But an event is being planned for this week where Secretary Ben Carson will announce the Foster Youth to Independence initiative.
“I truly believe that in order to improve outcomes for our youth, our people who make the decisions have to be willing and able to listen to the population they are serving,” said Jamole Callahan, one of the former foster youths who helped campaign for the policy. “This solution … was a simple fix. This is another step towards ending youth homelessness.”
The plan was pitched to HUD by Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities (FSHO) Coalition, whose members met in early March with HUD Secretary Ben Carson to lay out a plan for a $20 million voucher program. Under that plan, HUD would use an existing pot of money – a federal rental assistance account – to pay for the vouchers.
“We see kids attempt post-secondary and fail just because they don’t have housing,” said Callahan, who helps lead Foster Action Ohio, in an April interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “They have to work to maintain an apartment, then school becomes the background. And it becomes all about survival.”
Click here for much more detail on the plan, but in a nutshell: A child welfare agency would file paperwork with HUD for what’s called a Family Unification Voucher in the months before a youth aged out. That youth would be tied into HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency Support program as well, which means the voucher could last up to five years.
After a youth’s voucher is up, it is then “recycled” back to HUD to be used for another youth.
HUD, after reviewing the argument, agreed it is allowable under existing authority and is moving forward on it. The agency did not cap the voucher availability either, which means the total spending on foster youths could exceed $20 million.
The need for housing supports for foster youth is critical. Anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 youth age out of care each year in America, and 28 percent experience homelessness by age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition Database. In some states, it’s above 40 percent.
In a recent study based on interviews with 215 young adults who experienced unaccompanied homelessness as youths, foster care was identified as a major factor. Ninety-four out of the 215 interviewees had a history in foster care; of that group of 94, nearly half said entrance into foster care was the “beginning of their housing instability.”
Advocates for the plan are still pursuing federal legislation to codify it into law. The FSHO Act would guarantee a housing voucher starting from emancipation through age 25 for any youth aging out of foster care who could demonstrate the need for a subsidy.
A 9-year-old Midlands girl published a book with a vision to bring awareness to children in foster care.
‘The Krystal Kingdom’ is a fictional, biblical based story, that holds a special place in the Butler family’s heart.
Since Audreuna Butler was a little girl, her parents have opened their homes as foster parents; which makes her a foster sister.
That experience inspired her to write ‘The Krystal Kingdom,’ with hopes it’ll influence people to open their homes and hearts to fostering.
She started writing the book when she was 5-years-old. Four years later, with the help of her father, it is now a published book. The book was published on May 18, 2019.
“I’m a foster sister and I just wanted to let my foster sisters know that I love them and they are still in my heart,” Audreuna said. “I hope that more parents could become foster parents and I think that we can make a difference in the world if we have more people taking care of these kids cause not all kids have a home.”
The book honors three foster sisters that stayed with her family the longest.
Crystal Butler, Audreuna’s mom said, “They’re coming in with a lot of issues and they’re coming in with trust issues most of all because they have been taken away from their parents.”
The book highlights an issue common for children during their time in foster care.
“One of the characters that is in the book is the dragon. His name is Willow, and it kind of symbolizes the issues that drives these children out of their homes.” Andrew Butler, Audreuna’s dad said, “There is three different characters but usually the same problem, same type of spirit that drives these babies out of their homes. So for us when she [Audreuna] brought this to us, and the thought process of using this one character or this one darkness behind this whole issue kind of sold everything together for this.”
Andrew Butler says more than 100 copies of the book have been sold.
A portion of the proceeds made from the book will be donated to The Bair Foundation, which is a Christian based foster organization.
[via https://www.wistv.com ]
An Anchorage family adopts 20-year-old Mitchell Hershey. Hershey has been in foster care since he was 10-years-old.
Please consider learning more about older child adoption from foster care in your area.
Elena Luebbers | TEDx — GeorgiaStateU
We encourage you to learn more about older child adoption from foster care…
David and Naomi Meeks planned to adopt one baby. Today, they are the parents of two groups of siblings.
My wife, Naomi, had always dreamed of having a big family. But I was one of three children, and thought that might be enough—maybe even too much!
When we started talking about adopting early in our marriage, I am positive that neither of us thought that someday we would be the parents of eight children. But on July 3, that is exactly what we became.
Deciding to adopt
We were dealing with infertility when we were presented with an opportunity to adopt a baby girl. We were busy getting our home ready when, a month before the baby was due, the mom decided she wanted to keep her. It was heartbreaking, but the desire to adopt stayed with us. We knew that God had other plans, perhaps even better plans, for us.
Committing to adopting siblings
I have been an Arkansas state representative for seven years and was chair of the committee that oversees the Department of Child Welfare. In that role, I learned that even in our small state, there are more than 300 children waiting for forever families. Many are siblings who risk being separated because most people do not have homes large enough to accommodate them.
I also learned about a group in Arkansas that helps people become foster and adoptive parents. After attending an informational meeting with them, our hearts were moved with the desire to keep siblings together. We started the process to become a foster and potential adoptive family.
A license—and an immediate family!
We were one final walk-through away from being an open foster home when we discovered that our agency was trying to find a placement for three brothers. They were one, two and three years old. We expressed interest, and a week later, we found out that our family had been selected! The boys moved in a couple days later and never left. We finalized their adoption in November 2015, after 15 months of having them in our home.
On the way back from the adoption ceremony, my wife said, “I do not feel like our family is complete yet. I think we are supposed to keep fostering.” I completely agreed.
We went on to make our carport a bedroom that would add several more beds in our home and focused on fostering. We had 13 more foster placements before our hearts were moved toward adoption again.
Room for five more?
We knew that, once again, we wanted to adopt a sibling group. Shortly after we told our caseworker, she called to let us know about a sibling group of five she was working with would need an adoptive family soon.
When she told us more, we realized that we knew these children! As part of our work with our church, we used to visit their family every Saturday and bring them to church on Sundays. We loved these kids!
It had been a few years, and we had lost track of them. But the two oldest remembered us. The first time we met, they ran over and gave us the biggest hugs. We knew then and there that we would do whatever we needed to do to adopt them.
Making adjustments and finding support
Of course, becoming a family of ten has required many adjustments—starting with buying a mega van and getting very, very organized! Those were the easy things. More difficult was the process of helping our children, who had been in several homes before joining ours, learn to trust that this was their final home and we would love them unconditionally and keep them safe.
It was a little rough in the beginning, and we still have our crazy days, but now everyone gets along wonderfully, and we really love each other. As Naomi says: “Our family was formed because of brokenness. From it, we have created something beautiful.”
Thankfully, we have not done this alone. We have a very amazing support system. Our families have been alongside us through this entire journey, our church has been encouraging, and we have an amazing group of local foster and adoptive parents who we lean on for advice and counsel. When we feel burned out or need a date night we always have someone to call who is willing to help.
Reflecting on the rewards
We started down this path with a heart for keeping siblings together, and we have helped eight children not only keep their brothers and sisters but gain new ones as well. We’ve built a family, and that is tremendously rewarding.
Hearing our children call us Mommy and Daddy or say, “I love you” melts our hearts every time. Naomi says that every time she looks at our family photo and sees the ten of us together, she feels overwhelmed—and humbled—at what we’ve created.
There is a false assumption that antisocial behaviors only occur in older children who were adopted out of the foster care system after suffering neglect or abuse. In fact, time and again I hear from distressed parents of children adopted at all ages that their children have been lying and stealing – and that they don’t know what to do about it.
Parents of children adopted as newborns or young babies are often bewildered and caught by surprise if their child hoards food, steals money and tells falsehoods. “I could understand if he had a history of hunger and trauma,” one mother explained. “But my son has never been deprived of food or love. I brought him home with me when he was 4 days old. Why is he constantly stealing money from my wallet and sneaking food from other people’s houses?”
The possibility that an adopted child may have an increased tendency to lie or steal is something that is not discussed enough in pre-adoption consultations, nor in online comment threads, because nobody wants to be attacked for perpetuating the stereotype of the “troubled adoptee” or the “bad parent.”
In a society that is quick to shame parents, it is scary to acknowledge and openly talk about a child’s behavioral struggles. The key is to move away from judgment and learn that what is happening is actually an understandable adaptive behavior by a child in psychological pain.
There is so much need… Please consider donating your time, your skills, or even gently used furniture to local foster care support groups. Connect w/ your nearest Promise 686 or other not-for-profit organization, or message us for more info. Thanks.
Michael Fulcher said his combative personality makes it difficult for him to stay out of trouble.
The 19-year-old was kicked out of his mother’s Tennessee home at 16 because he was causing problems at school and getting arrested for fighting.
So he found himself living in a hotel room in the Athens area and not going to school when someone tipped off Georgia Division of Family and Children Services officials. DFCS placed him in foster care in Athens.
Normally he would have been back out on his own in a few years, but six months after he turned 18, Fulcher decided to take advantage of a state program that helps young adults transition to independent life by the time they turn 21.
“I tend to get in trouble on my own,” he said. “As foster kids, and kids in general, we’re still discovering ourselves, even at 18.
“The state, acting as your parent, has been kicking kids out when they turn 18. Would you kick your kids out of the house on their 18th birthday?”