MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — More foster parents are always needed in the state of Tennessee. However, right now the Department of Children’s Services says the state is especially in need of foster homes for siblings or teenagers right now.
In the Smoky Mountain Region, there are 788 kids that are in the state’s custody for dependency and neglect, according to the Smoky Mountain Regional Director Wendy Forster. She said there are only about 350 foster homes in the seven counties in her region.
As a foster parent, Sara Felts knows how bad the situation is right now for how many kids need to be placed in foster care. She is currently fostering three with her husband, on top of the two she adopted and her three birth children, and she says that is always changing.
“It’s too often that they’re calling us. Knowing that they’re not supposed to put children in a home that’s already got eight unless it’s dire circumstances. Then, that’s where we’re at. We’re at dire circumstances,” Felts said.
Felts said in the last few weeks, she’s received calls from DCS at least twice a week asking for temporary placements. She says nothing is like being a foster parent. It’s challenging but rewarding.
“The process is long and hard, but when you see children’s lives changing, and families’ lives changing. When you’re working with birth families, who are trying to do everything they can to take care of their kids and get them back in their care; it’s very rewarding,” Felts said.
She’s often asked how she deals with making the connection and then letting go because the kids are moved to a different home, or go back to their birth families.
“They say, I can’t imagine the heartbreak that I’m going to go through when those children leave my home.’ And you know, if you just take a minute and say, ‘what about these children, the heartbreak they’re going through,'” Felts said.
She said it’s bad for the children when they don’t have a place to go immediately. “That child is lost, confused, and really take it personally that there’s something wrong with them that keeps them from getting a home,” Felts said.
Of course, these children are worth it, she said. It’s not their fault they’re in the system. Forster said DCS is always looking for more foster parents willing to take in teenagers and siblings.
“We do our best, especially when kids come in you know, as sibling groups of four or even larger–we’ve had sibling groups of eight and six and seven here recently. We want to keep them in the same home whenever possible,” Forster said.
Felts said she always tries to take in siblings because she knows how hard it can be for DCS to find a home that is available. The issue is, more kids require more room. Felts said many of the foster families she knows are already full and can’t take that many extra in.
Both Felts and Forster said that sibling love is so important for these kids in some of their darkest and scariest times.
“They need each other. They need their brothers and sisters. That’s their family. That’s their only constant they’ve had. If I had a bigger house and more of me, I would take as many more as I could. There’s a point where I have to say I can’t do anymore. And that’s why we need more. We just need more support,” Felts said.
She said teenagers can be tough for the obvious reasons: they are teenagers. They can have attitudes and are going through hormonal changes. But, Felts said, teenagers have their perks.
“They’re able to care for themselves in most situations. You can sleep in and you can say, ‘hey help me out making dinner,’ and they can do that,” Felts said.
Forster said foster parents can have fun going through big life milestones for teenagers as well, like helping them learn how to drive. She knows not everyone can be a foster parent. However, it takes a village to help these children grow. So, she said, if you can’t foster, you can support foster families in several different ways.
“We do have our children in foster care that want to be involved with extracurricular activities and live as much of a normal life as possible. So, maybe giving them a ride to ball practice or dance recitals, or dance rehearsals, you know as a practical way they help as well,” Forster said.
Forster said sometimes when foster families don’t receive that extra support, from neighbors, friends or churches, then it’s hard for them to continue helping the children. She said it can be difficult for foster parents to constantly make sure kids get new clothes or school supplies whenever they go into a new home.
That’s where friends, family and the community can step in. “It’s just as if one of your friends is having a baby. What would help them as a new parent? Those kinds of things can help us as foster parents,” Felts said.
Forster said it’s not difficult to become a foster parent. They will go through the necessary training, and they need to have patience and compassion.
“Through (the training) process they will learn about the trauma that our kids experience, they’ll also learn how to work within our system,” Forster said.
Forster and Felts said there is no average length of stay for the kids. It can be a night, a weekend, a week, a few months or a few years according to Forster. It’s whatever the kids need, and whatever is available.
Since Felts has a full house already, most new kids only stay for a night or a weekend.
“You just never know, are they going to be here long? Are they going to be here short? I don’t know. But, I’m going to love them the whole time they’re here and even after they leave,” Forster said.
Felts said you don’t have to accept every call for a foster child that comes in either. It’s whatever best fits with you and your family. She also said it’s best to not guilt yourself into saying ‘yes.’ She knows that from working at DCS in the past.
“A worker would much rather a family say ‘no’ to something they know they can’t work with, then to place that child for an evening and you go, ‘no! We didn’t sign up for this,'” Felts said.
If you would like to learn more about becoming a foster parent, you can head to the DCS website here or call 877-DCS-KIDS.