The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis for vulnerable children in foster care. Before the pandemic struck, these children and their families suffered from stress, trauma and lack of access to supportive services.
The isolation and social distancing have only made it worse, but we can use this as an opportunity to bring a renewed focus on improving the lives of those at greatest risk.
Foster care is and should be an option of last resort, but for those who need it, it is a critical lifeline. Every day, foster and kin families across Colorado open their homes to provide a safe place for kids going through difficult times.
As foster parents, we are proud to be helping kids heal from trauma and to support them and their families.
As always, our goal is to help children safely reunify with their families or transition to a new permanent home through adoption or guardianship.
Foster families have always played this important role, and we continue today despite the risk of COVID-19 because we know that children who enter foster care deserve to be in families rather than institutions. In fact, the pandemic has only reinforced the importance of family-based care as we watch kids who are living in group settings become even more isolated, cut off from family and vital supports.
There is healing power in foster families, and Congress agrees. Two years ago, the Family First Prevention Services Act revamped the way the federal government reimburses states for foster care.
The new law creates clear expectations that children and young people should have the benefit of family-based care whenever possible, limiting federal funding for non-family institutional settings. The law’s sweeping changes hold great promise, but much work remains to be done to recruit and retain enough committed foster families.
Colorado, like many states, needs more foster and kinship families. Some 4,700 young people are now in care in Colorado, and we have only around 1,600 certified foster and kin families, as released in the 2019 report Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families by the Chronicle of Social Change.
The low numbers are not due to lack of interest in fostering. Instead, too many families begin fostering and quit. Extensive research tells us what foster and kin families need: training and support in their role and to be a valued and respected partner in the care of children. Unfortunately, the crisis is only increasing the strain on foster families and their need for support.
Now is the time to address this challenge. We must make a determined effort to strengthen this critical safety net that keeps kids safe rather than letting a crisis further weaken it. Policies and practices need to ensure that foster and kin families are a critical component of foster care.
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Our deeply personal experience as foster and adoptive parents has led us to develop and lead an initiative called CHAMPS Colorado. It is ironic that the virus-dominated month of May is also National Foster Care Month, and therefore a doubly appropriate moment to launch this initiative in partnership with Foster Source. CHAMPS Colorado will pilot new and innovative approaches to strengthen family-based care.
We will measure our impact in several counties, elevating the voices of families and the children they serve at the state and local levels. We will work with the Colorado Department of Human Services and the County Departments of Human Services to improve outcomes for kids.
Our work is inspired by the resilience of these children who have overcome adversity in the face of very grim challenges. As a friend and fellow foster parent always says, “You can’t un-see this stuff.” Once you have met some of these amazing kids, you have to do something to make sure they get the best possible care and support.
For us, this is that something. It is a chance to improve the lives of children when they are at their darkest moment, a chance to give them the opportunity to thrive. Together we can rise to the challenges that COVID-19 has added to these vulnerable lives.
Lindsay Gilchrist is a foster and adoptive parent, a CASA volunteer and the Director of CHAMPS Colorado. She is the founder of Gilchrist & Company, which works alongside organizations to improve public policies. Renee Bernhard is a former foster parent and current adoptive parent in Adams County. She and her husband founded the nonprofit Foster Source, where they work to nurture and better educate foster families.
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