Chris Schulz Published

Understanding The Basics Of Being A Foster Parent

Top view of a family of four placing hands one on top of the other in a conceptual image of love, togetherness and safety. The hands are placed inside of the outline of a home made from small wooden blocks, and all is placed on a dark wood background. The image is bordered by a blue gradient with pastel colored circles above and below. In the top left of the frame are the words "Now What? A Series On Parenting" and in the bottom right is the WVPB logo.
Foster parents can make a difference in the lives of children, but the state continues to face a shortage, especially for older children.
Photo courtesy of Gajus/Adobe Stock

From grandfamilies to kin networks and everything in between, families come in all shapes and sizes in West Virginia, and there is a growing need for one particular type.

In the latest installment of our series “Now What? A Series On Parenting,” Chris Schulz speaks with Terri Lynn Durnal, recruitment coordinator for Illinois, Indiana and West Virginia for the National Youth Advocate Program, about the unique experience of fostering children, and the need for foster parents in the state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Schulz: What does it mean to foster? What does it mean to be a foster parent?

Durnal: We take what it means to be a foster parent very seriously in West Virginia. Really, what it means is to open your heart, your home, your arms to a kid in need, a kid who needs a temporary placement while their parents aren’t available. We’re always hoping to find more homes, find more parents who are willing to take these kids in. I often hear this statistic, “It takes just one person to change a life.” I think that’s the heart of what we do here. We need that one person or that one family to change the direction or course of a child’s life. 

Schulz: What kind of person should consider fostering? 

Durnal: I think anybody that has a heart to help children heal, that’s who should foster. Of course we’re going to take those safety measures to make sure we’re finding the right people to help foster, but we’re not looking for the perfect family and the biggest house. None of those silly things seem to matter. It’s that heart that you have to help children heal, watch them grow and want to make a change in their life. That’s what’s important and that’s what we look for when we have foster parents. 

Some of our foster families have been foster children themselves. A lot of our staff members are foster parents as well. So when I say that we work as a family, it’s because we understand what it is to be a foster kid. And we understand the challenges that come with being a foster parent. That’s really what we’re looking for when we’re looking for people to foster.

Schulz: What all goes into preparing to bring a child or children into your home?

Durnal: We train our families with the state Department of Human Services who trains our families through a training program called Pride, I believe. Then we do the home study portion of that. We kind of all work together at the same time to get this movin’ and groovin,’ so we can get our homes licensed quickly.

They’re doing that pre-service training and learning all the things that they need to learn to become a successful foster parent with us and then we’re in the background, we’re writing their home study, we’re coming out doing the home visits, and things like that to get their license secured with the state. There’s no cost to being a foster parent, so there’s no worries about that. We cover all the costs that you would need for those classes and your CPR and things like that.

Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about the need for more foster parents and guardians?

Durnal: We currently have over 6,000 children in foster care in West Virginia, and right now we have 1,682 children who are in therapeutic foster homes in West Virginia. That means these other children are in all sorts of different placements. Some of them are good, solid placements for them. They’re with kinship placements, that means they can be with grandparents or other family members. 

Then some of them are in emergency shelters or residential group homes. And really, that’s the kids we want to target. We want to be able to find those kids home. These kids should be in family type settings. I’m looking at the numbers here, and it looks like we have almost 500 children that are in residential group cares. Finding them foster home placements is their best chance for success. Every child deserves that family-like setting and that’s our goal.

These kids are only in residential care because we don’t have enough homes for them. These are some older kids, they’re sibling groups, and they’re our harder-to-place kids. So that’s what, when we’re out in the community, and we’re looking for foster parents, and we’re speaking at churches and we’re speaking at events, those are the homes that we’re looking for the families that can take in these hard-to-place children. 

Schulz: How do you all help families prepare for that change? Especially if they’re coming in with the expectation of having a very young child?

Durnal: I think there’s a lot of myths about foster care. I think people just in general will think they want a baby, or babies are going to be easier because they’re not mouthy teenagers. But I’ll tell you, I have two little kids of my own. And I took in an 18-year-old teenager, and by far my 18 year old is 10 times easier. I mean, she can take a bath by herself. There’s no doubt, there’s no diapers. It’s so fun having a teenager in your home and I have to say we have some good teens that come into care. I got to watch my teenager, prepare and get her license. I got to help her, find college classes, help find her first job, get her first apartment, get her first car on her own, and see her make these changes in her life that have led her to be a successful adult. And it’s so rewarding. It’s so rewarding. 

There’s another myth I think people have about birth order. A lot of people who are thinking about foster care probably have some younger kiddos and they think, “I just want to keep my family’s birth order,” and “My oldest kid should stay my oldest kid.” I have to say, my 18 year old came into our lives and my little ones, they look at her very much as their, that’s their sister, that’s their older sister. They have built the best bond over the last few years that anybody could ever ask for. So I would just tell people, it’s not scary, it doesn’t have to be scary. 

This is probably the most important thing to remember, these children and these teenagers are not into care because of something they’ve done. They didn’t get in trouble and get put in foster care. That’s not what happened. They’re in foster care because of something that’s happened in their home life, their family life. These kids want to be loved. They want to be normal teenage kids, they want to do sports at school. We as a society, I think we should feel obligated to give them that, to give them that normal childhood.

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