Montgomery County leads the way in better foster care

Tony Joseph and his wife, Chris, with daughter, Sienna, 5, are expecting to welcome a foster child any day now.
Tony Joseph and his wife, Chris, with daughter, Sienna, 5, are expecting to welcome a foster child any day now. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 12, 2013

Antonio Joseph grew up on the bad side of foster care.

As a teenager, he was bounced to 15 homes in four years. He encountered abuse, neglect, manipulation, and abandonment. One foster family promised to take him on vacation if he got a job; instead, they took his earnings to a casino and left him at a stranger's trailer for a week, he said.

"I know what not to do," Joseph, 30, of Abington, said. He and his wife, Chris, spent the last two months getting training and background checks to become foster parents. "We want to give kids what I didn't have, which is parents or someone who cares about them."

Montgomery County is continually recruiting foster parents. With a larger pool, caseworkers can place children closer to their homes, where they can remain in the same school or church or community activity. And they can be more selective in meeting foster families' needs (the Josephs can take only girls ages 6 to 14 who can share a room with their 5-year-old daughter, Sienna.)

Those considerations may sound basic, but they represent immense progress in the foster care system since since Joseph's childhood.

Meanwhile, public perception of the system hasn't caught up.

The overwhelming majority of residents never come in contact with foster care, so they only know what they read in the newspapers or hear from neighbors.

"You always hear the worst-case scenario," one prospective foster parent said during a February training session.

Foster care is, by definition, difficult. It is a last resort for children whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them. The children have been through many struggles before they get to the point of separation, and then you add strangers to the mix.

Montgomery County has come up with several procedures to make it a more positive experience, said Kathleen Sullivan, who supervises the county's foster home unit.

In 1993, the county began a pilot program to promote interaction between foster families and birth families.

"Maybe 15 years ago, the foster parents weren't invited to court hearings," and birth parents weren't invited to doctor's appointments or school meetings, said Fred Blankenburg, a county caseworker and foster parent.

"You didn't meet the birth parent," Blankenburg said, "and if you did, you wouldn't know what to do or say. We used to put the child far from the birth parent because we believed they were bad people."

Once that approach was turned upside down, officials said, tensions between families decreased greatly. Children were less likely to feel torn, and parents were more successful in meeting their reunification conditions.

In many cases, the foster parents became mentors to the birth parents and remained in the children's lives well after they left the foster home, Blankenburg said.

In November, Montgomery County implemented "team decision making," in which birth parents, foster parents, caseworkers - and in some cases even the children - work together to map out a reunification plan. A Family Court judge still must approve the plan, but outcomes are better with all parties agreeing on the terms, Sullivan said.

Officials hope the team approach will lead to more family reunifications, even though the county already does better than the state average in that regard.

In Montgomery County in 2011, 70 percent of families were reunited within 12 months, and 90 percent were reunited within 24 months; according to the Office of Children and Youth's annual report. The state average that year was 54 percent.

After returning to their birth families, 91 percent of children did not return to the system, the report said.

The process requires a lot more work on the part of caseworkers and foster parents. Blankenburg, who serves as a neutral moderator at the meetings, said they sometimes run for hours.

"If they had these processes back then, a lot of those foster parents who weren't doing it [for the right reasons] would have been pushed aside," said Joseph, who works as a home health aide. Most of his foster parents, he said, were in it for the money.

At today's rates - $17.50 to $21.50 per day - Sullivan said the state's reimbursement usually isn't enough to cover food, shelter, clothing, and gas for visitations and other requirements.

The Josephs set some money aside to cover foster child expenses. They traded their truck for an SUV to fit what will sometimes be a family of five. They bought a second bed and double dresser for their daughter's room.

They also spent a lot of time explaining to Sienna what was going to happen. "This is for another kid," she said, brown pigtails swinging as she ran over to the new bed. "She's not going to stay here forever, just a little sleepover."

Sienna is used to having her 17-year-old brother around, but a girl will be different. She promised, "I'm going to share my toys with her" and asked her mother whether the new child could go to the beach with them.

Of course, her mother replied - if she is here by then.

"You just never know when you're going to get the call. It's like, 'Are you ready?' Yeah, we're ready," said Chris Joseph, a CT-scan technician at Abington hospital.

Even if they get a call in the middle of the night and the child shows up with nothing, Antonio Joseph said, "There's a 24-hour Wal-Mart right down the street."


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, jparks@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JS-Parks.

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