Norfolk Numbers Show the Need for Foster Parents
For more than 22 years, Family Services Worker Nina Painter has had one single goal in her work with the Norfolk Department of Human Services (DHS) – finding families for the children in the City’s foster care system.
She works with children who have entered foster care after being abused or neglected. Finding the right family placement for each child is her calling, and memories of her successes make her smile. But the great, continuing scarcity of foster parents for the dozens of children in the system at any one time is sobering. “There’s so many of them in need,” Painter said.
In Norfolk’s Open Data portal, where the numbers related to adoption and foster care are publicly available, years’ worth of numbers demonstrate need for more foster parents: In September 2021, the average time in care for the 177 children in the system was 22.76 months – just shy of two years. The data goes back to February 2011, showing that the number of children in foster care in Norfolk has been as high as 268, in March 2015.
In September 2021 – the most recent month for which figures are available -- 51 of the 177 children in the City’s foster care system were seeking adoptive families. Thirty-six of them, or nearly 71 percent, were waiting for permanent families after their biological parents’ rights had been terminated.
Help Is Always At Hand
When it comes to foster parents, Kimberly Lewis, Norfolk’s foster care program manager, said the department looks for people who are willing and able to bring children into their homes and their hearts, while understanding that this crucial relationship might not be permanent. “It doesn’t matter how old you are -- if you are able to parent a child, to care for that child, you can be a foster parent.”
The department workers often hear from prospective foster parents who, for some reason or another, have already decided that they wouldn’t be considered for a foster care placement. “We have all kinds of families -- we have older parents, single parents, married parents, same-sex parents, divorced parents,” Lewis said. “And we welcome and support them all.”
When foster children come into care, the first priority and ultimate goal is reunification with their biological parents. This requires those parents to get the help they need to become the caregivers their children need, so the children can be returned to them.
Foster parents “need to know that our goal is reunification,” Painter said. But “when it doesn’t happen that way, when I can’t put them back with their family,” adoption then becomes a possibility.
Norfolk’s Human Services staff members work with foster and adoptive parents every step of the way, providing whatever help is necessary to help each unique family thrive. Virginia, as well as the City of Norfolk, provides adoption subsidies that take into account the cost of caring for a child’s special needs, including medical treatments and other therapies. That help is ongoing.
When an adoptive or foster family’s circumstances change, Christina Lenhart, the city’s adoption supervisor, said DHS staff will explore options and potential solutions that change with them. For example, when the pandemic kept school-age children at home, some parents needed help they couldn’t have expected. They reached out for additional or different support services.
“Foster parents and adoptive parents need to know that they’re not in this alone,” Lenhart said. “Some parents say, ‘I want to do this by myself,’ while others say, ‘Don’t leave me.’ Either way, we’re going to do all we can to get them what they need.”
Becoming a family, forever
Painter takes a creative, warm-hearted approach to finding the right solution for every family. In one instance, a family of five siblings, one of whom was severely autistic, was placed with an older couple in Franklin who adopted them. Because of the couple’s ages and the ages of the children, the couple was asked to find a guardian for the children. “Her daughter stepped up and said she’d be willing to adopt the children if necessary,” Painter said.
Many of the City’s foster families have become adoptive families, making their relationships permanent. Often, the foster parents had intended solely on fostering and not necessarily adopting, but in about 60 to 70 percent of cases, foster parents in Norfolk “have had these children in their homes as a part of their families for several years, so that when the goal becomes adoption,” Lewis said, “the foster parents are ready and willing to adopt.”
“While we have recruitment services that we utilize for finding adoptive homes for our children,” Lenhart said. “For the most part, our foster parents want to keep the children after they’re placed with them.”
Rachel Trail and her husband, Scott, adopted two children through DHS. Rachel said that, while “we simultaneously acknowledge and grieve the loss that accompanies adoption, and we’re going to work every day to keep their birth family present in our children’s lives,” the adoption “made legal what we always knew in our hearts – that we are a family.”
However, parents need to understand “how very long it takes for a child to be adopted,” Lenhart said. “It’s a lengthy process. We diligently work toward permanency, but it takes a lot of steps, a lot of paperwork, a lot of back and forth between the agency, the attorneys, and the courts.”
Patience, then permanence
The timeline for adoptions got longer during the pandemic. With courts closed, adoption hearings couldn’t be held. Once the courts reopened, families were eager to finish the paperwork and finally get their adoptions finalized. “Eight or nine months ago, it was like this onslaught of cases ready for permanency. Christina’s team was overloaded, but we called on foster care workers and supervisors in other units and did whatever it took to get adoptions finalized.”
Throughout the process, the City’s Human Services staff members work with foster and adoptive parents every step of the way, providing whatever support is necessary to help each family thrive. The state of Virginia, as well as the City of Norfolk, provide adoption subsidies that take into account the cost of caring for a child’s special needs, including medical treatments and other therapies.
Lenhart built a supportive relationship with a particular child, a teenager who had decided that she didn’t want to seek a permanent family. She had been adopted, then the placement broke down, and the parents’ rights were terminated. “She came back into care,” Lenhart said, with the emotional scars of a child who was scared to trust people again. “We had her come into the office a couple of times, to talk to her, to find out what was going on. She was so hurt. Now she’s found a family where she feels at home, and now she’s ready to be adopted again.”
Lewis said DHS staff “work hard to keep families together,” noting that Painter has a particular talent for finding placements for sibling groups. Recently, Painter had a set of young twins, a boy and a girl, who needed a permanent family. One of the children has multiple medical issues.
The siblings were adopted by Katie Sasser, who had been their foster parent. Sasser says, “People always say that I am a gift to them, but in reality, they have been and will always be my greatest gift.”
In another case, Painter said, a 13-year-old boy – “he’s a good kid, a real good kid” – was returned to foster care after a planned adoption fell through. Painter is working to find a permanent placement for him. “He doesn’t care what kind of family, he just wants a family.”