Every holiday season Nancy DeWeese and her husband, Gary, host a Christmas party. But it’s not your average family gathering, because this is not your average family. At these parties, three dozen children from all walks of life, including the couple’s four biological kids, gather to share in a common experience: Each child has spent part of their lives growing up at the DeWeese family home in Moraga. “They see each other and they’re like, ‘Oh, we started out as babies in the same house,’” Nancy DeWeese said.
The DeWeeses are among the many Bay Area families who have opened up their homes to the thousands of children in the foster care system. Over more than twenty years, the DeWeese family has welcomed 33 foster children under the age of 18 months to their home. Today Nancy DeWeese works for Contra Costa County, leading information sessions for prospective foster parents and using her own experience to share with others the rewards of the job.
The family’s modest ranch house is full of photographs. The refrigerator alone is a hodgepodge of baby pictures, and so are the walls of the “baby room” at the back of the house. “We tell them if they were here six months they get one picture, one year they get two pictures,” DeWeese said, gesturing to the two large collages hanging on the wall. There are two cribs in the room, and plush toys like Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh litter the floor. “This room has always been like this,” she said.
Nancy’s eyes light up as she tells the story of one kid after another. For an outsider, it’s hard to keep track of the names and stories of 33 lives, but as she touches each photograph, it’s not difficult to see how deeply each child has touched this foster mom. “I didn’t realize what an impact it would have on my life,” she says and smiles.
Being a foster family has meant a busy household for the DeWeeses. But Nancy, who also works as a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, said she would not have it any other way. “You’re doing it because you want to help other people,” she said.
Foster care is temporary housing for children whose parents or caregivers have been found unfit to look after their children, as determined by the county’s Child Protective Services agency. The reason for the child’s removal could be anything from physical or sexual abuse to neglect as the result of a parent’s drug addiction. Foster care stays can last from a few days to a few years; they differ from adoption services, which attempt to find a new, permanent home for the children.
There are a number of local agencies that are charged with placing children in foster care. In the Bay Area, Contra Costa County’s Children and Family Services does the job, and in Alameda County it is the county’s Social Services department. But each county also has a number of foster family agencies, which are private non-profit groups that help to place children with special needs who require more demanding care.
Becoming a foster parent requires a county-issued license. The process begins with an orientation session and paperwork, through which parents are asked questions about their financial security and physical health. The county then screens the families, which includes a home inspection and criminal background checks on the adults living in the home. Foster parents must also participate in 27 hours of training, spread out over the course of several Saturdays.
Though there is some compensation for the job, it isn’t much, Nancy DeWeese said.
In Contra Costa, rates for foster parenting vary by age of the foster child; they range from roughly $450 to $630 a month. The older the child, the more assistance is provided. Additional funds are given for children with special needs.
“The rate that’s paid to foster parents is very modest,” said Amy Lemley, founder of First Place For Youth in Oakland, a program that aids foster children in preparing for adulthood, who is the current policy director at the John Burton Fund for Children Without Homes. “Most people who are foster parents financially come out on the losing end of that deal.”
In 2011 there were close to 1,000 children in Contra Costa County and around 1,600 children in Alameda County who depended upon foster care, according to KidsData.org, a California-centered data collection program run by the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. Over the past several years, the numbers in both counties have decreased by nearly half.
But despite the drop in the number of foster youth, Alameda and Contra Costa counties still struggle with a serious need for foster parents, according to child welfare workers in both cities. Historically, older kids and teenagers are more difficult to place than babies, county workers said. “Most people want cute little babies or kids they can mold and shape,” said Antoinette Harris, Regional Manager for EMQ Families First, a foster family agency in Contra Costa County.
Kathy Marsh, a social worker for Contra Costa County’s Children and Family Services, said the need for more families could be a matter of economics. The recession of the past several years, coupled with the high cost of living in that county, has left many potential foster parents struggling to support their own families, let alone a new child, she said.
For many foster children, the lack of available foster homes in their area means being sent away from their neighborhoods and schools, or sometimes moved to a new county entirely. This can be troubling for kids who have already suffered the trauma of being taken from their home, Marsh said. “If you put yourself in a young person’s shoes, it’s going to cause disruption in your life,” she said. “Some get a fresh start, but for others it’s just another trauma.”
Lemley, who was recently a candidate for Oakland’s District 1 city council seat, said the need for foster families in both counties could be linked to a lack of government resources targeted to foster families.
Figuring out funding for kids in the foster care system is something of a juggling act. When children first enter protective services, the birth family’s income is compared to a standard set in July 1996 under the old welfare program AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. If the family meets that standard, then funding for the kids comes from the federal government, which would pay for 50 percent of the cost of caring for the child. But over the years, the standard has not been adjusted for inflation, which means that as we move further from 1996, rising income rates mean fewer families meet the standard, Lemley said. The way the 1996 standard has become outdated due to inflation is known as the “lookback provision.”
Foster care “used to be 95 percent federally funded and now, in most states, not even half the kids are federally funded,” Lemley said.
With fewer families qualifying for the federal aid standard, funding for more foster youth is being shifted to the state, Lemley said. However, California has increasingly shifted fiscal responsibility for child welfare programs from the state to the county level, which means that counties like Alameda and Contra Costa are receiving less state support and must provide funding for more and more foster youth. Counties must now pay 50 percent of all costs—administrative, foster family payment…etc—for those children whose birth families qualify for federal funding and 100 percent of the cost for those whose families do not.
“One thing that’s starving our system is the federal government’s unwillingness to take action and to update that eligibility standard,” Lemley said. “If it’s not updated, we will have a fully county-funded program. And counties can only do so much.”
Because counties are now paying for more children in the foster care system, that means less money for the programs needed to support foster parents, Lemley said. “What you have is a system that is reliant on a very small, fragile, under-resourced network of people that are willing to do something because they believe in it,” she said.
Though the financial picture for foster parents has changed, the need for their services has not. If a child is being maltreated, it’s a legal entitlement for them to be placed in foster care, Lemley said.
In her work as a nurse, Nancy DeWeese often came across children who were placed in the foster care system because of neglect or because they had drug addicted parents. “My husband used to say, ‘Isn’t work enough for you?’ I wanted to bring them all home,” she said. “Particularly the ones we worked so hard on that didn’t have a good homes to go to, where it wasn’t safe to release them to.”
Once the youngest of her own children was old enough for elementary school, DeWeese and her husband decided to open their home up to foster children. Soon the whole family was involved. “Our kids got all excited about this, too,” she said. “And, as time went on and we had more kids come and go, they’d all fight over whose turn it was to come and pick up the baby.”
Over the years, some of DeWeese’s charges included children who had spent time living in motels and other unsanitary conditions, or were born in prison to mothers with drug addictions and other legal problems. She said she spent many nights caring for crying babies as they detoxed after being born with drugs in their systems.
DeWeese said the most common reason children are placed in foster care is neglect—defined under California state law as a failure to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care and other protection—which in many cases is tied to parental drug use. “In our county, 90 percent of the children are taken away because of allegations of severe neglect,” she said.
When a child is reported to Child Protective Services, the agency investigates the claim and a social worker may choose to remove the child from his or her home. The foster family is meant to provide a safe, stable home for the child while the child’s parent recovers from drug and alcohol addiction or works to prove to the court that they are able to adequately care for their child.
Child welfare workers in both counties agree that what foster children need most is permanency. “What’s most damaging is when you move around,” Nancy DeWeese said. “When nobody wants to commit to you.”
The primary goal, then, becomes finding a permanent home for a child. The first priority is reunification with the birth family, or kinship care with a close family friend or relative provided that will be a safe environment for the child, Kathy Marsh said. “As an organization its not the goal to take kids away and give them to somebody else,” DeWeese said.
“The primary goal is to bring all the services we have in the county to make that family better,” DeWeese continued. “And part of that goal is keeping them in touch with one another.” For foster families, this means making court-ordered visits with kids and their parents and reaching out to birth parents to not only learn more about the child, but help prove to the parent that the county is not just some “big bad system” that has taken their child away, DeWeese said.
But reunification can take time, and in some cases—when parents are unable to overcome addiction, or disappear, or are imprisoned indefinitely—it ultimately is not possible. In these instances, with permanency still in mind, the goal switches to finding an adoptive family.
In their role, foster families are meant to give the child stability over a lifetime, says Harris of EMQ Families First. Harris said that the young people she has worked with over the years need nothing more than a sense of family and belonging. Even as they mature, foster children need someone to come home to on Christmas or Thanksgiving or to contact in case of emergency, she said. Or, like one former foster child told her, “I was looking for the person who walks me down the aisle.”
“There’s always a need for families who can commit to permanency, either through adoption or lifelong connections,” Harris said.
Foster parents like the DeWeeses have maintained these connections whether the children they fostered were eventually reunited with their birth parents, or adopted by other families. Nancy DeWeese says the weight of having to eventually give up a child you care for can at times be emotionally exhausting. “Be good to yourself,” she advises foster parents who struggle after relinquishing a foster child. “Say, ‘I’ve got to recover from this. So does my family. Maybe I’m not going to do this for a few months.’ Step back, replenish emotional support and then be able to take another case.”
But despite the difficulties, DeWeese said, fostering children has fulfilled her innate need to extend a helping hand to those in need. “It’s not a job. It doesn’t replace a salary,” she said. “You have to do it because your heart is drawn to it.”