Athens pushes initiatives to increase number of foster parents

Alan and Nicol Seider lounge across their couch, the foster care agency website pulled up on their laptop. They turn the computer so that it faces outward. A picture of a small blonde seven-year-old, front teeth missing, smiles from the screen.

“This is Crystal. Isn’t she cute?” Nicol Seider said, smiling. “We aren’t getting her—she’s going to a different family. But I’m just happy she’s going somewhere. So many children need a home. There are so many kids in foster care.”

Nicol and Alan Seider have wanted to adopt a child for years, and decided to adopt out of the foster system, due to what they see as the dire need for these children to find homes.

“They go from home to home a lot of times, and often there are a lot of kids in one home, because there aren’t enough foster parents,” Nicol Seider said.

Around 8,800 children in the Georgia foster care system, according to data from the Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS. In Athens-Clarke County alone, there are at least 180 foster children, and nowhere near enough homes to take them all in. According to the most recent DFCS data, there are fewer than 20 registered foster homes in Athens.

This lack of foster homes has become a growing concern among DFCS workers.  Worried about the shortage of foster parents, DFCS last year began new initiatives to increase the number of foster families in Georgia, and specifically in Athens-Clarke County, where the poverty rate is high; 39.1 percent of children in Athens-Clarke County live below the poverty line, compared to the statewide 22.1 percent, according to city data.

The recession took a toll on the willingness of families to foster children, according to community foster care workers. Children in foster care have been removed from homes due to abuse or neglect, often specifically neglect due to poverty or poverty related issues. Since caseworkers try to place children in homes that are able to accommodate them, there are fewer potential homes in Athens-Clarke County, due to both personal choice and inability to meet basic qualifications.

Athens has a high rate of placing children in other counties. About 40 percent of children in the district are placed outside of the area, which also increases expenses, giving Athens the third highest transportation cost in the state. Placing children in other regions also sets back the main goals of the foster system, which are reunification with parents and familiarity while the children are in foster homes.

Placing children far from their original homes makes achieving these goals challenging, according to orientation leader Brigette Love, who says that transporting children to other counties breaks up families even further.

Athens began to experience an even more serious shortage of foster families after proposed Senate Bill 350 in the Georgia legislature that would privatize foster care in the state fell through. Athens was supposed to be one of the few first pilots for the system, so the county had been referring potential foster parents to private foster care agencies instead of government agencies. This made it more difficult when privatization was suspended, because the government was now lacking even more parents.

These referrals to private agencies combined with state budget cuts that laid off DFCS resource workers, and a new child protective services reporting system that greatly increased the number of cases DFCS is currently handling, to cause the current dire lack of foster families, according to DFCS region V director Mary Havick.

The Athens-Clarke County DFCS began pushing initiatives last year to encourage people to become foster families in response to this huge disparity. New efforts to recruit foster parents include monthly orientation meetings that allow people considering becoming foster parents to ask questions in a comfortable environment.

Volunteers are also finding other ways to help foster children. Private organizations work closely with the foster system and provide temporary childcare, transportation, or foster child sponsorship. Volunteers work to collect needed items like bedding, clothes, and diapers for the children.

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