Across West Virginia, abuse and neglect cases have resulted in the removal of thousands of children from their family homes. Close to 7,000 have become foster children. Recently, state lawmakers introduced new legislation to address some of the problems.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting spoke with several foster families about their experience. Here are several ways they said they would like to see changes in the foster care system.
- More help with financial strain
- Better access to donated food, clothing and toys for the children
- Help getting better mental health care for foster children
- Support for foster families in dealing with problem behaviors and mental health issues
- More chances to meet and talk with other foster families to share experiences and support each other
- More voice in the entire process
- More information from CPS workers about the children in their care
“The money's tight sometimes," Melissa Liston said, who is raising her 12-year-old grandson, and her 3-year-old granddaughter. "But you know what? Those kids come through that door and they laugh and they giggle and it's worth it. That there is nothing like a three-year-old’s giggle. Makes it worth it."
“Whatever you've done to your life to save for your time when your kids are gone, it's gone," Liston said. "Whatever you've got, that's what you use to raise your grandkids. You have no more savings. You have no more retirement. Could you’ve started a whole new family, and you don’t regret it."
Liston’s grandson is in therapy and needs extra help coping with trauma he experienced when he was living with his birth parents.
“Sometimes they need the extra help. They’re kids," she said. "They're not adults, and they've been through hell. You gotta, you gotta treat them with gloves, not harsh treatment.”
Her grandson faced neglect and abuse, when his father, Liston’s son, struggled with drug addiction. Liston said she blames herself for not knowing that her own son was addicted to drugs.
“Just keep them close. Don't make excuses. I made excuses. Don’t do that. Because they're adults, they still need you,” she said.
Liston added that breaking the cycle of addiction takes love, and a lot of parenting.
She said she worries about the other children out there, in need of foster homes who do not have someone available to take them in.
"This is where kids end up into drugs, the jails, because no one cares," Liston said. "No one wants to step up and take responsibility. This time of the year, are they cold? Are they hungry? I can't stand the thought of a kid being hungry or cold.”
Resources for Kinship Families:
- Healthy Grandfamilies Program With West Virginia State University
- WV Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network
- West Virginia Foster Closets
Liston is what is known as a "kinship foster parent." Research suggests children in kinship homes have better behavioral and mental health outcomes than children who are placed with a stranger. That is why Child and Protective Service Workers try to find a kinship home for children first. But if they cannot find a relative, they turn to a foster care agency.
But on many days, across West Virginia there are more children in need of homes than families who are available to take them.
In these cases, the child may have to relocate to a new community, in a totally different part of the state. Or if no family is found, the child may end up staying temporarily in a shelter, or in a state office, on a cot or a blow-up mattress.
Those who are placed in homes often arrive abruptly in the middle of the night, most of their possessions stuffed inside a garbage bag.
“Quality foster homes are needed,” said Kelly Crow. She and her husband Darin Crow have been foster parents for three years.
“You hear horror stories of bad foster homes, and I just thought if we could help somebody, you know, we can't help everybody, but if we help somebody then it would probably be worth it. So we just decided to open our home,” Kelly said.
She and Darin had only been married a year when they decided to become foster parents. Their first foster children were two five-year-old twins.
Her husband Darin remembers it was a struggle for them at first. But one of the most helpful things was when their associate pastor offered to bring them some milk.
“Even though that seems like such a small thing, It was a big thing to us at the time because we couldn't get out house. We’d never been parents before,” Darin said.
Offering to bring by some groceries, or a home-cooked meal, are small gestures, but it is something almost anyone can do to support foster families. The Crows also said they wish there was more support from social workers and training in dealing with difficult behaviors.
Some foster parents said they would like more support from fellow foster families. Last December in an interim session of the Legislature, Marissa Sanders, who runs the Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, an advocacy group for foster families in West Virginia, presented the findings of a survey her group helped collect from 1,000 foster parents.
She said foster families want more peer support from other foster and kinship adoptive families.
“So while training was helpful and services from social workers was useful and important for them, they really want more time to build relationships with other foster families, to connect with other foster, kinship, adoptive families, and to really be able to talk about their own experiences with people who are living similar things,” Sanders said.
Sanders also said many of the foster parents across the state feel invisible, like they do not have a voice, and are frustrated by the system, which often gives conflicting information. These are some of the main reasons, said Sanders, that she thinks so many foster parents burn out, and why other potential families might be hesitant to open their homes.