Articles


Finding a Haven


Becoming a foster parent transforms your life. Few people know that as intimately as Barbara Gifford, a homefinding supervisor for the Onondaga County Children’s Division Foster Care program. She and her staff take families through the extensive training and uncertainty that accompany the foster-parenting process.

There are no “typical” reasons for removing children from their birth homes, says Gifford, a married mother of a grown son and daughter. Similarly, there are countless reasons foster families open their hearts and homes to the children of others. No matter the situation, the goal of Gifford and her staff is the same—to provide foster children with safe, nurturing environments while problems at home are resolved. Whenever possible, the children eventually reunite with their birth families.

May is Foster Parent Appreciation Month; local foster families past and present will be honored with an annual dinner. Meanwhile, the county has taken steps to recruit new foster parents for the nearly 430 children currently in its care. Gifford, a graduate of Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, says she is delighted by how having a strong online presence (www.giveyoulifeasmile.com) has increased inquiries.

Gifford spoke with Family Times about her experiences as a foster care homefinder.

Q: What drew you to this particular line of work?

A: I really was looking to help people. That was the direction I was heading in. Admittedly I went into child welfare because that’s where one of my first placements was. At Vincent House, where I worked, I was just like a big sister to this girl and I became aware of a life that I had not lived myself.

Then when I came here (the department), the commitment to knowing that I could help make a difference in the lives of children and families was very important to me—help approve them, help them become more self-sufficient, help keep the kids safe, help the families make whatever changes they needed to. That really hasn’t changed for me.

Q: How would someone interested in foster parenting work with your department?

A:
I am supervisor of our homefinding unit (six homefinders and a clerk), which is involved in inquiries and intakes of families looking to become certified for foster adoption. We’re involved in the training, initial and ongoing, and the certification of the families. Once the families are certified, the unit is involved in whatever obligations are required in order to continue their certification, and to continue to deal with whatever difficulties might have occurred.

When the family first makes that initial call, some of the information we give them can be rather daunting. We are a government agency and it is our obligation to see to it that children who come into the care and custody of the commissioner of social services are in good, safe homes.
 
People usually understand that there is a process, and the process can take up to four to six months. But this is a process on the part of the families, too. They don’t just one day wake up and say, “Gee, I want to be a foster parent.” Frequently it takes about 18 months from the time a family starts thinking about this as something they want to do, to the time they actually make the first call.

Q: What specifically is involved in training for certification?

A: The background checks include criminal fingerprinting. Precertification classes are 11 half-days, on issues regarding abuse and neglect, discipline, sexual abuse, medical issues, confidentiality. We try to help families during that training process to decide whether or not this is right for them. We want them to decide at that point if they can. We don’t want our families saying “This was a mistake.” And we certainly don’t want our foster children to be part of that.

We are asking for background checks. We’ve got the New York state and national fingerprinting central registry checks; there are clearances involved. Our families have to be financially independent regardless of any stipends we give then, so their finances need to be in order. Families are required to do something called a life story so we know more about their background. So the homefinder will make several visits to the home, interview the partners and the kids. That’s very interesting because kids have lots of feelings about having a child come into your home.

Q: What are some initial concerns families have about the process?

A: Families worry about the birth families. They worry if a birth family is going to be antagonistic toward them, they worry if perhaps somebody will call in a false report of abuse and neglect on them. They worry about having a child come in who is accustomed to a different kind of life and how to incorporate them into their life.

What we ask the families to do is to love them as if they are your own, know that they are not your own, and let them go—help them go when the time comes. That’s a very difficult thing for a person to do. It takes a special person to love a child, help a birth family and the child, and then let them go.

Q: How do you let someone know that this is not right for them?

A: That’s a very difficult task that my intake folks handle very, very well. There could be any number of reasons why it wouldn’t work out for the family, determined even before they begin training. Then, once they begin the certification process, a number of people do withdraw from the program as well. At this point, for every 10 families that call and say they are interested in becoming certified, we may get one family who has completed the process. Our goal is to get two or three.

Q: So, adoption is not the ultimate goal?

A: Reunification is the ultimate goal for our agency. That is our primary goal for every child who comes into care, reunification with the birth family.

Q: How extensive is that relationship between the foster families and the birth families?

A: It varies. In my experience, the families that embrace the birth families, that assist the birth families, that almost bring them into their life, those are the most successful reunifications we see. We certainly have foster families that are not comfortable with that, and we have certain birth families where it wouldn’t be appropriate. We certainly have families that don’t have much contact at all, but we do encourage it when it is appropriate and safe.

Q: Is that a best-case scenario, a cooperative relationship?

A: Absolutely! We’ll take it even another step further. The child goes home (to his or her birth family) and (the foster family becomes) a second family, somebody they might spend a holiday with. And if not that, somebody (the birth parent) can call and say, “Johnny skipped school today. What do I do?”

The other piece to that is, say the child goes home, and something goes wrong and the child needs to be removed again. The birth family may be more comfortable making a different kind of permanent plan for the child; “I can’t take care of Johnny anymore. Let Aunt Mary do it.” So the kids win. And that’s a very hard concept for some families to understand.

Q: What kind of support is available to your staff?

A: t’s pretty individualized. Hopefully through the years I’ve been able to be a support to my workers who have struggled.
This is a difficult place; it’s a challenging place to work. Peer support and supervisor support is very important. If you’re in the business to get a lot of thank yous, this is not the place. You have to be pretty strong. But we do help one another.

Q: On the other hand, you meet these families one day, and then 11 weeks later they are doing something amazing. And you see that transition again and again. That must be rewarding to be part of that.

A: Absolutely. I’ve been in the direct service part of the agency for a very long time, so this is a little different for me. I can see the rewards here. It’s a little more tangible, and I think my homefinders feel that way as well.

We always need more families. Our message in the past was about how hard it was. Our message now is: Yes, it is hard. But every single day these kids are in your home, they give you reason to smile. And every single time a family takes a step toward a successful reunification, and every time there are adoptions, it gives you a smile. The rewards are very, very high. It is important work to improve the life of a child, one child at a time, one family at a time—to make a difference.  





© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York