Catholic Herald staff
During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is asking Catholics to go the margins, to care for society’s poor, persecuted and forgotten.
They may not always be visible, but in northern Wisconsin, many of those marginalized are children, according to Becky Connell, statewide director for treatment foster care at SaintA, a Milwaukee-based human services agency.
SaintA is the descendent of two orphanages, one Catholic and one Lutheran, formed in Milwaukee during the mid-1800s in response to the cholera epidemic. More than a century later, the need for children’s emotional care, rather than custodial care, changed the nature of both facilities, and they and a third agency eventually merged into SaintA. The not-for-profit now offers care coordination, foster care and child welfare services, among others.
In every county and every community in northern Wisconsin, there is need for foster parenting, Connell said. When biological parents struggle with drugs, mental health problems, difficult divorces and other issues, foster parents provide safety and stability for their children until, in most cases, the family reunites.
“There’s so many different things that bring children into care, and no community is exempt from that,” she said. “There is a significant need. The goal is always to try to keep the child in need of foster care as close to their home community as possible.”
Connell, who has worked in foster care for 30 years, said at any given time, more than 6,000 Wisconsin children are living in foster care.
“That’s a lot of children, and nationally, it’s about 399,000 children,” she added.
The removal of children from their biological homes is a significant traumatic event, Connell explained. Whenever possible, agencies try to keep them in their same school district or community, near friends and others who can offer a supportive environment.
Familiarity “just really increases their adjustment and increases their chances of success as well,” she said. “Quite often, some of the major connections that a child has is within their neighborhood, their church, their school, the places that provide a comfort to them, that provide that stability.”
Currently, many children in this area are placed a significant distance away because there are not enough foster homes to meet the need, she noted. The distance also complicates communication with birth families, counseling appointments and the like.
SaintA’s approach to difficulties inherent in facilitating foster care is to view birth parents and traumatized children through the lens of trauma informed care – that is, therapies are geared toward understanding how and when trauma occurred and how it impacted the brain. This perspective views parents and children in a nonjudgmental, merciful way.
Pope Francis is an inspirational figure to Connell, who believes many birth parents just need time to heal and to learn good parenting skills to become safe and stable.
“The Year of Mercy is such a fit … for how we approach work for the birth families,” she commented. “Parents want to be good parents …. We really approach our work with both the children and the birth parents from a trauma informed way, not from the standpoint of ‘What have you done?’ but ‘What’s happened to you?’”
Many unstable parents endured trauma in their own childhoods, said Connell.
“If they knew better, they would be better,” she added. “I really firmly believe that.”
Compassion and patience
Those best-suited to foster parenting possess a few key character traits, according to Connell.
“What it boils down to is individuals who have a love for children, who possess patience and compassion, because the children who need the care have experienced traumatic events and so patience and compassion is very necessary, and a sense of humor is also a great attribute,” she said. “And I think also willingness … to learn and work as a member of a team, because the work you do as a foster parent, you are really part of a team, with a focus of the child’s needs and best interest at the center.”
The application process to become a foster parent typically takes from 90 to 120 days and requires background checks, an informational meeting, a physical, a home study and classes.
Applicants must be at least 21 to be licensed as foster parents, but there is no upper age limit, Connell added. Single people, married couples and those in long-term relationships are all eligible to apply.
“Each family is defined by themselves, and we’re asking folks to take in children with needs,” she said. “There’s no one certain qualification.”
To the question of how many families are needed in northern Wisconsin, Connell said they’ll take as many as they can get. Each family has different skills, strengths and experiences.
“Really, research has shown that in order to make a good fit match for a child with a foster family, the [ideal is] five or six options for every child or sibling group in need of care,” she added. “We will take one family at a time … and look at as many families as we could license, because the need is there.”
Having more families also allows the agency to be good stewards of their foster families and not overtax them, she added. After placements end, they like to give foster parents time to rest and regroup; it’s also helpful to have licensed families to provide respite care when foster parents need a break.
In Connell’s mind, fostering is undeniably rewarding – that discussion is coming in a minute – but there is also no denying the accompanying challenges.
“People might think, well, if I just provide a child with love and a safe home, that they’ll automatically do better, but it isn’t quite as simple and easy as that,” she explained. “Children coming into care have had some … pretty traumatic life experiences as well.”
Many children are dealing with stress and anxiety, which Connell said “can kind of come out sideways,” resulting in difficult behaviors.
Children coming from chaotic homes really need stability, she added.
“That is such a big piece of what the children need is predictable, consistent, stable situations,” she said. Predictable responses to behavior, predictable routines, mealtimes, bedtimes … “just some of those basic things that might have been lacking in their biological home environment … provide so much relief to that anxiety.”
Navigating the state’s childcare regulations can also be onerous.
“I think another challenge is the child protection system can be kind of a confusing, acronym-filled system,” she said, adding foster care staff “take their role as advocates and consultants very seriously,” and they offer support, provide explanations and seek answers to foster parents’ questions.
A third difficulty, perhaps most obviously, is the pain of letting go of children who have returned to their birth families.
The sundering of those ties isn’t necessarily permanent. Connell has seen fostering relationships that last into adulthood, and she also knows of situations where fostering evolves into long-term mentoring.
“Oftentimes, they are able to maintain that relationship over the course of years, after the children return home,” she said.
According to the agency’s website, about 70 percent of foster children reunite with their birth parents. However, the agency does handle adoptions of foster children if their biological parents’ birth rights are terminated.
In her work with foster families and children, Connell has witnessed the way fostering changes lives.
“I think the list could be endless as far as the benefits,” she said. “You can make a lifelong difference in the life of a child by opening your home, and that is life-changing, and can really change the trajectory of a child.”
Foster parents, she continued, “are able to see the child … grow and develop and enhance their own spirituality and their ability to form relationships with other people, healthy relationships. I could go on and on.
“Folks who have fostered for many, many years, when they talk about the benefit to them, they love helping children and families,” she added, “being able to provide a safe and stable home to a child or children while their birth family is learning … to become a safe and stable caregiver.”
Connell invites anyone who has ever considered fostering, or those who just want to learn more about the process, to visit Growhope.net or to call 855-Grow-Hope.
“If people are committed and compassionate and have some patience, and feel that maybe it’s their calling … it would be wonderful for them to consider fostering,” she said. “I just know there are folks out there that have been thinking about this awhile.”