COVID-19 pandemic drives increased interest in foster parenting in El Paso County

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Colorado Springs agencies that find temporary homes for children who have been removed from their families because of abuse or neglect see a light amid the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past six months, there’s been a noticeable increase in inquiries about becoming foster parents, officials say.

The pandemic is thought to be a large contributing factor.

Calls to the Department of Human Services from El Paso County residents wanting to know about becoming foster parents have doubled since March 31, said Jenni Swogger, assistant manager of kinship and foster care.

The department has had 107 inquiries, she said, about twice as many as usual in that time.

Kids Crossing, one of 13 child placement agencies that contracts with El Paso County to provide foster care services, also has seen an uptick, said Executive Director Lee Oesterle, a licensed clinical social worker.

The agency fielded 168 calls requesting information about becoming a foster parent from April through July, he said.

“When in crisis, people are introspective and think about what’s important in life,” Oesterle said. “They see kids needing help and pick up the phone and make that call.”

COVID-19 “pushed the pause button” on dreams and aspirations that people often are too busy to make happen, said Ross Wright, executive director of Hope & Home, a local foster care service, which also has experienced an increase in interest.

“People who have always wanted to do foster care but felt like there was never the right time, found the pandemic an actual opportunity,” he said. “Suddenly, they were working from home, laid off or furloughed, creating the perfect opportunity to take children in.”

Some have been thinking about it for a while, but not all.

“A lot are curious for the first time,” Swogger said. “Prospective foster parents have said their schedules are more flexible now.”

Child placement agencies that contract with the county do recruitment and provide licensing, training and support programs for foster care children from birth to age 21.

Kids Crossing has been targeting its marketing at harder-to-place older children, Oesterle said. In addition to being subject to neglect or abuse in their homes, older adolescents may have been involved with juvenile crime, substance use, trauma, runaway activity or other difficulties.

“They don’t need a forever family; they’re not looking to be adopted,” Oesterle said. “They need someplace that’s safe to be for a while, until they can go back home. But the impact foster parents can have in just three to six months can be pretty amazing.”

Tax-free financial reimbursement for care can be an incentive for fostering youth, he added.

The state pays foster parents to cover food, clothing, educational needs and travel to therapy or other medical appointments, for example. Medicaid covers health care bills.

But other community assistance is available for basic needs as well as technology needed to do schoolwork.

The reimbursement for teens can be $50 a day, Oesterle said, with some foster parents taking multiple children at a time.

The basic reimbursement in Colorado is $32 a day, Swogger said. The amount is set by the state and varies based on a child’s age and needs, she said.

That’s not to say that foster parents want the role just for the money, Oesterle said.

“No one says that about the case workers or judges or therapists who don’t have to feed the kids, get them up in the morning and transport them,” he said. “We do a careful job of screening and training so we end up with quality families.

“We want people who have the hearts, caring and ability to do it.”

El Paso County has the largest need of all 64 counties in Colorado for finding homes for teens, according to human services.

El Paso County also tops the state in referrals to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, which can turn into child welfare cases.

From June 2019 to June 2020, El Paso County had 15,772 hotline calls, of which 6,583 were accepted for assessment.

Denver County, Colorado's most populous county, had the second highest with 12,750 calls, of which 4,399 were accepted for assessment.

Finding homes for sibling groups and children with disabilities also is a challenge, said Wright of Hope & Home.

“The type of children parents are interested in hasn’t changed — unfortunately,” he said. “We still struggle to find homes for older kids.”

There are different ways to foster children, Wright said.

“Some parents want to adopt and grow their family through foster care,” he said. “Some just want to be bed-and-breakfast parents, taking kids in during times of crisis. Some parents just want to do respite care.”

Supplemental support during the pandemic has meant online schooling for children, video counseling, telehealth appointments and visiting remotely with their parents, who may be in jail, in a treatment program or working to get their children back.

School is usually stressful for kids in foster care, Oesterle said, as they are often struggling and academically behind because of problems at home and moving around. In that way, COVID-19 lessened the angst, he said.

“Foster parents are used to dealing with challenges in meeting the needs of kids,” Oesterle said. “COVID-19 was just another set of challenges, and they had to adapt.”

The need for singles and couples, who may or may not have parented children in the past, to open their homes, lives and love to children displaced from their families for a variety of reasons is constant, Swogger said.

On any given day in El Paso County in September, for example, about 700 children needed to be placed in foster care, according to the Department of Human Services.

El Paso County also moved a pilot foster program that started last year for older kids ages 12 and up to a full-fledged program in January.

The county began licensing homes in August 2019 and now has 10 homes on board to accept teens, many of whom have exhibited dangerous behavior or have experienced significant trauma.

Many “have seen a lot of hard stuff,” Swogger said, and need help dealing with it.

For every foster parent the department licenses under the program, it refers 20 or more to child placement agencies, she said.

The new program was born out of a desire to have fewer children in congregant care, Swogger said.

“We recognize group homes and residential facilities are not the best for children.”

El Paso County has reduced the number of children in congregant care from 150 to 55, Swogger said. The youth live in a care facility that’s run by a staff and is not in a family setting.

On Friday, what Wright called "a bombshell" dropped from state officials, who ruled that any residential child care facility with more than 16 kids falls under the 1965 definition of Institution of Mental Disease and is ineligible for Medicaid or funding specific to foster children under the Social Security Act. 

The decision affects 500 kids who are in residential and group homes statewide.

"Across the state, giant residential child care facilities are in crisis," he said.

Anyone interested in the foster care program can call El Paso County at 444-5515 or email jenniswogger@elpasco.com. The webpage is https://humanservices.elpasoco.com/child-protective-services/foster-care/.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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