County grows foster care parent outreach
Key areas of need include homes for teenagers and sibling groups
ROANOKE, VA. | Tumbling penguins. Silvery snowflakes. Colorful bursts of season’s greetings.
One by one, stacks of freshly gift-wrapped presents quickly multiplied in a crowded Department of Social Services conference room as volunteers worked to decorate presents bound for one of the dozens of children in foster care in Roanoke County.
“It really gives you a solid image of just how many kids there are,” volunteer Becky McDonell said as she stood amid the toys and clothes donated through the annual Foster Care Christmas program.
In a typical month, 80 to 90 children are in Roanoke County’s foster care program.
Roanoke County Social Services, which is always on the lookout for new foster parents, is aiming to raise awareness of the program and is in the early stages of developing a new, more focused outreach campaign.
“We’re always in need of more homes,” said Social Services Director Joyce Earl, adding that the department will be pushing to find new ways to get the word out through social media, direct outreach and other means in the coming year.
To that end, it just hired a new outreach and recruitment coordinator who is tasked with developing and executing the new strategy.
Key areas of need include homes willing to take in teenagers and sibling groups. The prospect of fostering older children or multiple children can sound intimidating initially, officials said, but the department is there to provide support and training, including a nine-week course required for all new foster parents.
“We’ve had some very, very compelling kids who’ve come to speak to our foster parent recruitment classes, and their stories are amazing and disarming,” said Ben Jones, family services supervisor, adding that the chance to hear firsthand from someone who has gone through foster care often helps to dispel misconceptions.
The process of becoming a foster parent is multipart. Applicants must pass background checks and a home assessment, as well as complete the nine-week class that trains them in the program’s requirements and the emotional supports needed by children going through a disruption in their family life.
Typically, the department expects about half the people who attend an introductory session will go on to complete the process and become foster parents.
The move to a more robust outreach campaign is a shift for a program that often draws little attention – sometimes putting it at a disadvantage with the bevy of outside providers who offer specialized foster care services, officials said.
The outside agencies, all working to recruit parents from the same pool of communities, are important partners for Social Services and provide therapeutic foster care placement for highneeds children.
But a shortage of what is sometimes referred to as traditional foster care homes can result in many localities, including Roanoke County, needing to call upon those agencies for children who don’t actually need the more intensive resources.
“We have to have somewhere safe and appropriate for them to live,” Mr. Jones explained. “If there’s nowhere else, we can’t exactly set them up in a tent in the backyard.”
Outside services mean additional fees and expenses a county could avoid if it succeeds in beefing up its own roster of foster parents.
But that requires stepping up recruitment efforts. In Roanoke County, the new outreach coordinator job has the potential to pay for itself in savings if it succeeds in allowing more cases to be kept in traditional foster care, officials said.
The renewed outreach focus already has spurred the local department to start peppering social media with mentions of the foster care program, and it’s brainstorming ideas to boost interest in next year’s orientation sessions.
With Christmas approaching, the department surrendered part of its offices last week to a tumult of wrapping paper and gift bags for one of its favorite annual programs, Foster Care Christmas, which collects donations for foster children’s wish lists.
Volunteers Kathryn Baker (right) and Laura Davis, with the Junior League, fold baby clothes to wrap it into a Christmas present while at the Roanoke County Department of Social Services, in Roanoke, Virginia.