GREENFIELD — Deborah and Jon Reynolds met their daughter, Sarah, four years ago. It was two days before the little girl’s second birthday; a chilly night in early December, one marked with a little uncertainty, as all such meetings are for foster parents.
The state, citing concern for the child’s well-being, had taken custody of Sarah, and the Department of Child Services contacted the couple asking them to welcome the toddler into their Greenfield home. It was an arrangement that became permanent when the couple adopted her.
In the five years since the Reynolds became foster parents, they have helped at least 10 other children whose birth parents found themselves in crisis. They’re among XX foster families in Hancock County, but state officials say that’s not enough to meet the growing need for safe homes for children in need.
Children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care when state investigators are alerted to risks of abuse or neglect, and Department of Child Services officials say such cases are on the rise across the state.
Story continues below gallery
The department reported 880 such cases by July 2015 in the central Indiana region encompassing Hancock, Hamilton, Madison and Tipton counties, compared with 640 cases by that time in 2014. In Hancock County, caseworkers saw about a 15 percent increase during that time frame, from 64 cases to 73, officials said.
The holidays — a time centered on family and a sense of belonging — highlight the need to provide the county’s children with a home where they can feel safe surrounded by their caregivers, said X.
In the Reynoldses’ experience, there’s no better time than Christmas to embrace this special kind of parenthood.
Foster children have come to their home at all times of the year, but something about the holidays can settle the nerves of everyone involved, Deborah Reynolds said.
Some of the younger children she and her husband have helped don’t understand why they’re given toys, what a Christmas tree is or why it’s decorated – because they have never had these things before – and these newfound joys help strangers feel more like family.
Last week, the Department of Child Services partnered with the Exchange Club of Hancock County and the Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine to put such traditions on display, hosting its second annual Christmas party for about 35 children living in foster care in Hancock County.
It was an event that provided normalcy for children whose lives have been turned upside down, while also giving parents a chance to network and share their experiences.
Together with their surrogate families, children sang Christmas carols, completed arts and crafts and visited with Santa. Each child left with a stack of presents, donated by members of the local Exchange Club, which exists to promote community service while tackling community issues such as child abuse.
“We wanted to give these kids an idea of what a normal Christmas was like,” the group’s leader, Jeff Young, said.
Lori Shaw, a foster care specialist for DCS, helped place the 35 children who attended Friday’s party with their temporary families. It’s a careful process, she said. She first tries to find a relative to take the child in before looking to foster parents.
The department draws from a database of state-certified foster parents who have gone through a rigorous process, including extensive paperwork, background checks and home visits, to be approved to care for children in need. Shaw said she works to partner children with the family that will best serve their needs. Then, she serves as a support system for those families while the state tries to establish a permanent home for the child — with the biological parents or elsewhere.
Foster parents who attended Friday’s Christmas party say they took on this role for one common reason: to help kids born into tough situations.
Brian Smith said he and his wife, Angie, missed having children in their home after their own grew up and left the nest. They became foster parents 11 years ago while living in Texas, and when they moved to Cumberland, they signed up as soon as they unpacked their boxes. They are often placed with newborns whose mothers test positive for drugs at the hospital, he said.
Gatherings like the Christmas party give foster parents and the children they aid a chance to interact with those who understand the ups and downs foster-parenting can bring, Deborah Reynolds said. While the kids are for the most part distracted by the celebration, they are at least alongside children who have had similar experiences. At the same time, parents can interact with others who share their same values and desires to serve their communities, Reynolds said.
“There are so many kids out there who need someone,” she said. “Every child is different, and their needs are difficult. But we can come together and learn the similarities.”
Foster parents are asked to provide a safe, nurturing and stable environment for children who have been removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, according to the Indiana Department of Child Services.
State statistics show 13,000 children were in foster care in Indiana in June, an increase from 10,550 children in foster care at the same time the year before, the Associated Press reported, and officials say there is a need for more foster parents.
In Indiana, foster parents are required to be licensed by the state. To become a foster parent, you must:
– Must be at least 21 years old.
– Pass a criminal background check
– Demonstrate financial stability
– Own or rent a safe home
– Complete training and assessments, such as first aid, CPR, and Universal Precautions training
– Compile positive personal reference statements
– Keep up with home visits from a Regional Licensing Specialist
To learn more, visit www.in.gov/dcs; select “Foster care” in the left rail.