Home away from home

GREENFIELD — There is usually a phone call, Deborah Reynolds said, a few days before or maybe just a few hours. A warning that somewhere nearby, there is a child in need. The call is usually quick; there are few details. But each call seeking a foster parent has one thing in common: The state is looking for a safe haven for a child at risk.

Eventually there comes a knock on the door, Reynolds said. She and her husband introduce themselves as Deborah and Jon, not mom and dad; the child has parents, and there is no need to make a hard time even more confusing. But those first meetings are always marked with uncertainty for everyone involved, as all such meetings are for foster parents.

In the five years since the Reynolds became foster parents, they have helped more than a dozen children whose birth parents found themselves in crisis. But state officials say they need more people like the Reynoldses to open their homes. State records show the number of children living in foster care in Hancock County has more than tripled since 2012.

Sixty-four children were living in foster care in Hancock County in November, compared with 21 kids in 2012.

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 believe such cases are on the rise across the state for a number of reasons, spokeswoman Jeannette Keating said.

Namely, increased awareness of the department’s anonymous abuse reporting hotline has resulted in more investigations — and ultimately more children being removed from dangerous homes, she said.

In the first half of the year, the department handled 880 cases 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.

Having a sufficient number of local foster parents is important, officials said; having to remove a child from their school and friends to place them with an out-of-county foster family compounds an already difficult transition, officials said.

In the Reynoldses’ experience, fostering children has been a beautiful, albeit stressful, blessing. When the couple learned they wouldn’t be able to have children, they turned to foster parenting.

It took them six months to receive their first placement — a 10-month-old girl who was with them only a few weeks, Deborah Reynolds said. That first experience was the hardest, from start to finish, a difficult adjustment and a tough goodbye, she said.

“You fall in love immediately,” she said. “You can’t help it.”

The Reynoldses met their daughter, Sarah, four years ago, two days before the little girl’s second birthday. Sarah had been living in foster care with an older couple for at least a year. When the Department of Child Services decided Sarah could not returned to her biological mother’s care, she became eligible for adoption.

Sarah came to live with the Reynoldses in Greenfield a few days before Christmas that year. She was the second child the Reynoldses welcomed into their home. Over the years, at least 13 children have stayed with them, usually infants and toddlers younger than Sarah. The now-6-year-old has only ever known children coming and going, her mother said, and she loves to help take care of the younger ones.

The family doesn’t hear much about what happens to the foster children they help after they leave — the goal is for them to be reunited with their biological families — but a photo of each hangs on a wall in their home, Reynolds said.

“… You love them like they’re yours until they’re gone,” she said. “Our family is very different from their family sometimes; meshing those two worlds can be a challenge. You just do the best you can. It takes a lot more than love, but love helps a lot.”

Lori Shaw, a foster care specialist for DCS, helps place all Hancock County children with their temporary families. She first tries to find a relative to take the child in before looking to foster parents.

In Indiana, foster parents must be licensed by the Department of Child Services, a process that takes about four months, officials said. Applicants must be at least 21, pass a criminal history and background check and complete first aid and CPR training. Foster parents can be single or married as long as they demonstrate financial stability and own or rent a safe home.

Becoming state-certified is 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.

Foster families are provided a per diem to cover the child’s expense, Keating said. The amount — which varies based on a child’s age and any special services they require — is intended to cover food, clothing, child care costs, school supplies and necessities like shampoo, soap and medicine. Foster families receive $300 extra each year to put toward extracurricular sports, musical instruments or other activities.

Small stipends also are provided by the state for the child’s birthday and Christmas, should the child still be in foster care at the time.

DCS hosts regular gatherings to give foster parents and the children they aid a chance to interact with those who understand the ups and downs foster-parenting can bring, 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.”

A home for the holidays

Recently, 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.

Becoming a foster parent

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.

In Indiana, foster parents are required to be licensed by the state. It is a long, tedious process that requires interviews, home visits and extensive background checks. These are among the qualifications; 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.

Pull Quote

“… You love them like they’re yours until they’re gone. Our family is very different from their family sometimes; meshing those two worlds can be a challenge. It takes a lot more than love, but love helps a lot.”

Deborah Reynolds, Greenfield foster parent

By the numbers

Kids in foster care in Hancock County

November 2015: 64

November 2014: 41

November 2013: 46

November 2012: 21

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.