Foster care system works to reunite families

Erin Smith Staff writer

April 17, 2014

ELIZABETHTOWN — The foster care system sees many children walk through its doors because of numerous circumstances.

Drucilla Wright, who oversees the foster care unit for the Bladen County Department of Social Services, and Bladen County DSS Director Vickie Smith recently talked about the unit and its function.

Wright said that, initially, Child Protective Services receives a report and and they will work with the family for 30 to 45 days.

“CPS will develop a case plan within 30 days if they need services,” said Wright.

The CPS will continue to work with the family for 60 to 90 days. If the family is not complying with the plan or cannot provide a safe environment for the child or children, then foster care becomes involved, said Wright.

Both Wright and Smith said children enter into the foster care system for various reasons, ranging from abuse and neglect issues to adjudication.

“We were working with this mom at least six months. We thought the judge would order the mom to comply (with the plan), but he placed the children into foster care,” said Wright of a recent case.

Ideally, according to Wright, they try to find a close family member or friend to place a child before resorting to a foster care home.

Smith added the reason the agency attempts to place a child with a close family member or friend is so the child can remain in their current school and/or with or near their family, if at all possible.

“We get the children when the parents can’t provide a safe home,” said Wright.

When this occurs, Wright said the family will be asked to name a placement. If they cannot name a placement, then the agency must go to the magistrate and file a petition.

“In the petition, what we have to include is why we feel the child is not safe and needs to be brought into our care,” said Smith.

She added that once that information is submitted to the court, it is up to the judge to decide.

Before a child is brought into the foster care system, Wright said the case worker(s) will consult with the unit supervisor and the county attorney for their input. There is a seven-day hearing process that takes place, then the adjudication.

“Sometimes the judge will make a court-appointed placement,” said Wright.

Following the court hearing, a disposition order is issued. Smith and Wright said that after the adjudication and disposition, there will be a review hearing.

A Child and Family team is also assembled and a case plan is developed at this time, which is state mandated. Smith said the family can say who they want to have on their team — for example a pastor, co-workers, friends, therapists, teachers or other family members. The team meets and develops a case plan with input form the family and children, said Smith. Everything discussed in the Child and Family team meetings is confidential said Wright.

After developing the case plan, the team continues to meet to assess how the family is progressing. There will be a meeting of the Child and Family team before the each court date and the family is briefed about what they will hear in court.

At the review hearing all of the information gathered and case plans are presented.

“We have to show what effort the parent is making. We have to show what we have done,” said Wright. “Whatever is put in the case plan goes into the court order.”

Wright said they will then work with the family through foster care for six months. She said there are two plans that will usually run concurrent to one another — the primary plan is reunification of the family and the secondary plan which is an appointed care giver and adoption.

“When we ask for relative placement, we have to do a home study,” said Smith.

“We go out and look at the home. We talk with the potential care giver about things like child rearing practices, finances, work history,” said Wright. “We also see if they are willing to work with our agency.”

Just because a potential care giver is willing to accept a child and work with the agency to reunify the family, that doesn’t preclude from a certain amount of training.

Potential foster parents must undergo rigorous training and certification. They must pass such things as achieving a SBI certification, pass a criminal background check, the home must pass a fire inspection, a social worker will come out and perform a home evaluation and they must be able to be licensed as a foster care giver by the state of North Carolina, said Smith.

Potential care givers are enrolled in a MAPP (Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) class which helps them to make the decision if they want to become involved as foster parents. The course is a 30-hour course, said Wright.

“We follow a child through the class and what she experiences,” said Smith.

She said sometimes the case studies are difficult, but depict potential situations and discussions foster care givers could find themselves in. The reason behind such an undertaking?

“Foster parents start knowing things that we don’t even know,” said Wright.

She added that perspective foster parents have to understand these children are there sometimes through no fault of their own and the kinds of emotional, psychological and physical trauma they may have potentially suffered.

“We’re explaining what is foster care. What is their role in parenting a child that has been neglected or abused. We want to ensure when children are removed from the home, they aren’t retraumatized,” said Smith.

Now, thanks to MAPP, the foster care system uses a system of “shared parenting” that allows the children and their biological family to remain in contact while the children are in foster care and have visits while the family works through their issues towards reunification.

“Shared parenting came about as the result of the multiple response system. The new caregiver actually works with the biological parents,” said Smith. “The old way there was no contact, but we have found that by the biological parents participating they have a lot to offer to help the new caregiver.”

Smith said that the agency had one foster parent who, through the shared parenting process, invited the biological parent to go out and eat on Mother’s Day. Smith said the foster caregiver purchased a Mother’s Day gift for that mother and the child was able to spend Mother’s Day with her biological mother.

“I’ve actually heard of cases in other counties where the biological parent may go to the caregiver’s home and help bather the child,” said Smith.

She and Wright reiterated the ultimate goal is to reunite the family and the shared parenting process helps with that.

Wright said the unit had a case where a biological parent simply couldn’t care for their child and child went back to the foster caregiver and was eventually adopted by the caregiver. She added that the biological parents and the adopting parents are still using the shared parenting skills to raise the children.

“Even when it (reunification) has been successful, they (the biological parents) can still reach out to the foster parent (for support),” said Smith.

She added that currently, Bladen County’s numbers in foster care are low because CPS is putting services and programs in place in the home up front which help reduce the rate of removal.

“It can be a very trying job and a rewarding job to see the families come back together,” said Smith.