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LIVE IT!: Kandiyohi County focused on providing permanent homes for foster kids

Tina Mages, left, and Deb Ostlund, social workers with Kandiyohi County. LIVE IT! PHOTO

Editor's note: Each year, November is recognized as National Adoption Awareness Month, with Nov. 21 designated National Adoption Day, a collective national effort to raise awareness for the more than 100,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since National Adoption Day was established in 2000, more than 54,000 children have been placed with adoptive parents, per the National Adoption Day website. While many people seek adoptions through agencies or independently, few consider the services and options provided by their county. Officials in Kandiyohi County are working to change that. Tina Mages and Deb Ostlund are social workers at the county’s Family Services office and work hand-in-hand with foster families to provide permanent housing for children whose parents, for one reason or another, have lost their parental rights. Live it! Magazine recently sat down with both women to discuss how the county foster system works and how those looking to become a foster or adoptive parent can get involved.

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Live it!: How many families do you have licensed for foster care at this time?

Deb Ostlund: Right now, we’re very low on licensed foster care homes. We have 14 families licensed. Because we don’t do private adoptions at the county level — only public — any adoptions will either be through those foster homes or relatives.

Tina Mages: … And relatives also have to go through the licensing process like a foster family would. So if anyone wants to adopt through the county, they would have to become a licensed foster parent. And we only license people within Kandiyohi County.

Live it!: So what are the stages of becoming a foster parent and/or ultimately adopting through the county?

TM: It’s different for every kid. I would say in short … typically … we get an intake phone call. It might be a doctor, a neighbor, school personnel, a relative, and they’ve seen bruises on a child or have seen the child get abused or know there is an issue with the parents. At that point our intake team screens the call to make sure it meets the statutory requirements to conduct an investigation.

DO: … and the situation has to be so bad that it warrants the child’s removal from the home. It’s important to stress that law enforcement and a court order are the only two entities in Minnesota that can remove a child from a home. But at that point of removal, the child goes into foster care. Their case is then assigned a case manager, who is responsible for working out a reunification plan with the family. That’s typically a year-long process. But, if at some point the family is not doing what they need to do to get their kids back, that social worker can petition the court for permanency (a permanent living situation.)

Live it!: Please explain how you screen prospective foster parents and the intricacies of the process.

DO: There’s a lot they have to go through. It starts with a fingerprinted criminal history background study, which runs an FBI check across the nation. Then they go through an intensive home study, which is also the same study required for an adoption. That’s done so if those foster parents ultimately choose to adopt the child, they don’t have to go through that study again. Through that, we learn everything there is to know about them and their family history. And, if there’s reason to believe it’s required, we can seek a mental health evaluation. But we’ve rarely done that. Also, if there’s any reason to suspect chemical dependency use, we can ask for an assessment on that. And then their home has to meet certain guidelines similar to those of a daycare provider: approved egress windows, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, a fire extinguisher. Basic safety things we piggyback off the state Fire Marshal’s standards. They also require training on children’s mental health, Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome (SUID), abusive head trauma and car seat safety training, much of which is provided at no cost.

Live it!: How do you find or recruit foster parents?

DO: (laughs) We’re hoping from this article.

TM: We do low-cost recruitment. Years ago, Deb and I secured a grant and we were doing billboards and everything. But times have changed and the reality is a lot of people don’t know you can do an adoption through a public realm. So we go out and speak to the Rotary Club and the Ministerial Association. We do bulletin inserts at churches. I do a promotion every November during Adoption Awareness Month in which Lakeside Press will print me 5,000 flyers and Papa Murphy’s will place those flyers on every pizza: “papas and mamas needed in our county for foster and adoptive parents.” So we have tried to be very creative in our approach. Deb’s made table tents for the coffee shops. We’ve made posters and asked the local schools to hang them in teachers’ lounges and in the lounges at the hospital and ACMC. Word of mouth is another great tool. And, frankly, our foster and adoptive parents are great recruiters.

Live it!: Obviously, the checks wean people out. But can anyone try to be a foster parent?

DO: Yes. You can be a grandparent, single, married. You can be a great-grandparent.

TM: … You can work full-time. You can have children of your own. You can be a gay or lesbian couple. Some people ask me that: “can you have two moms?” Heck, yeah.

STEPS TO ADOPTION

Starting the process

It usually takes about a year from the time you first contact an agency to the time when a child is placed with you, according to AdoptUSKids.com. This estimate can vary depending on the agency you’re working with and the state where you live.

Early on

The application process can be long and arduous, and you will usually be minimally required to provide letters of reference from your employer and those who know you; a criminal record check at local, state and federal levels; proof of meeting the minimum age requirement in your state of residence; and verification of income sources.

Home study

A home study is conducted after you have completed an application to adopt. The home study is a document your caseworker writes about you and includes basic information drawn from interviews with family and information provided by third parties. Often, the study includes: family background, statements and references; education and employment; relationships and social life; daily life routines; parenting experiences; details about your home and neighborhood; readiness and reasons about your wanting to adopt; and approval/recommendation of children you seem most likely able to parent.

Cost ranges greatly

The Child Welfare Information Gateway, a U.S. government-funded adoption information service, estimates that the average U.S. adoption costs $8,000 to $40,000.

Geography plays a role

If you’re adopting a child from another country, the range is $15,000 to $30,000. If you’re adopting through foster care, which generally involves becoming the parent of an older child, the cost is much lower: zero to $2,500.

ADOPTION STATS

Thousands need homes

In the U.S. 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the U.S. foster care system, according to a November 2013 report, the most recent of its kind. More than 101,000 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32 percent of these children will wait more than three years in foster care before being adopted.

Nearly one quarter are adopted out

In 2012, 22 percent of all children left the foster care system through adoption. Nearly 60 percent were reunited with their parents/primary caregiver or went to live with relatives.

Thousands adopted from overseas

According to the U.S. State Department, American families adopted more than 7,000 children in 2012, with the highest number of children adopted from China followed by Ethiopia, Ukraine, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Long time coming

The median time spent by a child in the U.S. foster care system is 13.4 months, though, through 2012, 13,997 children had spent five years or more in foster care.

Many are babies, toddlers

The median age of a child who exits the U.S. foster care system through adoption or other means is 8. However, more than one-third of all children exiting the foster care system are ages 1-4.

Key ages

40 percent of all children waiting to be adopted from the U.S. foster care system are between the ages of 7 and 14. Of all children waiting for adoption, 52 percent are male and 67 percent are either white (41 percent) or black (26 percent).

Source: Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

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