Vicki Prichard, NKyTribune reporter
Each May, during National Foster Care Month, the nation focuses on the needs of children in foster care, raising awareness and encouraging involvement in the lives of these children, whether as foster parents, volunteers or mentors.
But for Gene Blair and Ron Bertsch, focusing on the needs of children seeking foster care goes far beyond a single day of national recognition – it’s a year-round focus.
Bertsch is the director of the DCCH Center for Children and Families Therapeutic Foster Care & Adoption Program, and Blair is the Therapeutic Foster Care/Adoption Recruiter. DCCH provides foster care, adoption, residential treatment, therapy and training services to children, families and residents in the community.
During a month’s time, Blair says DCCH can receive more than 300 referrals for from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) to place children in foster care. In 13 years DCCH has had 83 adoptions.
“You can look at the numbers and say you only have X amount of families, and you start to see how desperate the system is for quality families,” says Blair.
Applicants for foster parents must be at least 21 years old, with sufficient income. Applicants may be married or single, and must be in good health. They must meet requirements for housing and space and provide at least three references and authorize the release of criminal records, including a check of the child/spouse abuse registry. Applicants must complete 30 hours of training to understand the needs of children in foster care.
Bertsch says the children need adults who are going to be available to provide time, love and patience.
“We want good families to step forward,” says Bertsch. “We want families that have the right mindset and motivation to help with the kids.”
Speaking from experience
Blair, who works to help recruit and train foster and adoptive families, speaks from personal experience. He went to school for business but when he began working with children he said his perspective and priorities changed. An encounter with a member of his family’s church congregation spurred other changes.
Back in 1994, when his birth daughter was two-years-old, there was a foster family in the church that he and his wife attended.
“My wife said, “We can do that too,”” says Blair. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess we could.’”
They attended an informational meeting, went through the training and signed up to do emergency, short term foster care in instances when children come through the system and need care until a placement is found.
In 1997 they adopted their oldest son. Over time, they adopted three children.
Blair says he advises parent that regardless of experience, it can be difficult working with some of the backgrounds the foster children come from. Very often their experience with adults is that they cannot be trusted.
As for what makes a good foster family, Blair ranks flexibility and realistic expectations high on the list of qualities.
“I think you have to be flexible,” says Blair, “You’re going to have to learn to bend because if you don’t you’re probably going to break.”
Some of the frustrations that he sees from families are based in unrealistic expectations.
“We have kids come into the home and they’re nine-years-old, and that’s their chronological age,” says Blair. “But developmentally they may be six or seven.”
He says the children can’t be parented with the expectations one would have of a nine-year-old.
“If you do, you get frustrated with the kids,” says Blair.
Primarily, all of the kids DCCH works with in foster care are from Northern Kentucky.
“There may be some that we get from the state that represent the whole state,” says Blair. “Some kids are more difficult to place and sometimes they will open it up.”
In Kentucky, 8,084 children are in foster care system, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Finding families can be a challenge but Blair says the fact that DCCH is a non-profit distinguishes it a bit from other agencies that do similar work. It is also a faith-based organization.
“If I were to profile our typical family, they volunteer, are community-oriented and have a faith-based background. “
Many families, he says, cannot have children themselves and are looking for a foster-to-adopt scenario.
“I think that’s a win-win,” says Blair. “If a child can go home – and in foster care that’s always the plan, we want to promote that when possible. When not though, that child doesn’t have to be transferred to another home when the foster considers adoption. That’s a win-win.”
Not unlike Blair, Bridget and Mike Striker of Burlington, provided a “win-win” scenario for foster children.
Striker and her husband fostered and adopted two daughters, Rhonda and Alison.
When Striker and her husband experienced difficulty having a birth child they decided to look into adoption instead of fertility.
“We looked into international adoption, and looked into Kentucky Special Needs Adoption Program (SNAP, and said, “Do we really need an infant?”” says Striker. “For us, we have always said if we got foster care placement we would work it out.”
As grateful as she is for her children, Striker says she grieves that they couldn’t stay with their birth mother.
“I empathize with the birth mom because how devastating that they couldn’t raise their children. They would rather not be from a broken home.
“I can’t imagine life without children.”
Blair says the message he hopes to get to people is that the trajectory of a child’s life can be changed with one meaningful relationship with an adult.
He says they know that over and over the outcomes can be dramatically changed and it doesn’t matter whether it’s with a volunteer relationship with one of their residential kids, a respite parent, a foster parent. It doesn’t matter if they’re just in a home for three months, if they can learn to trust you and attach to you, you can set that child up for success the rest of their lives.
You can’t change the world, says Blair, but you can change one child at a time.