Friday, April 19, 2024

Hundreds of children arrive at foster homes with nothing. This woman is changing that

WILMINGTON — In the last several years the Cape Fear area has seen a drastic increase in the number of children taken into county custody. It has also seen record numbers of families sign up to foster those children.  That’s good news, but those families sign on for unpredictable challenges.

New Hanover County has seen a drastic increase in the number of children taken into the foster system. The county also has a lot of foster families ready to help. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)
New Hanover County has seen a drastic increase in the number of children taken into the foster system. The county also has a lot of foster families ready to help. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)

Allison Davis works in the foster home licensing program for New Hanover County’s Department of Social Services. She has seen the foster care system taxed by the influx of children.

“I started working for the county, for Child Protective Services, about 10, almost 11 years ago. At the time, we had about 300 children in the system at any given time. But now it’s closer to about 450. Opioids are a big part of that, the family situations we see can be much more severe,” Davis said. (Read more about the opioid epidemic and children in foster care here).

A county responds

Davis has also seen families in New Hanover County step up to the challenge.

“We have 120 foster families in the county, that’s the second most in the state. The number one is Wake County, Raleigh, which is a big county,” Davis said.

For perspective, Wake County has nearly five times the population of New Hanover County, something that made Davis “very proud of our county and our families.”

But foster families face serious and unpredictable challenges. One of the most daunting issues is a lack of preparation for the actual moment when a child comes into their house. The county provides a 10-day, 30-hour training course, as well an extremely thorough background check, but what they can’t do is let foster families know exactly when they’ll receive a child – or who that child will be.

The unknowns of fostering children

Foster children sometimes arrive with a few belongings. Often, the arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their back. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)
Foster children sometimes arrive with a few belongings. Often, the arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their back. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)

When children are moved to foster situations, it happens in different ways. Sometimes there is plenty of advanced warning, especially when children are moved to relatives’ houses or can spend some time there. According to Davis, the time table is on a “case by case” basis. But without question, sometimes the move can and does happen fast.

“Parents aren’t always in the right mindset. When CPS (child protective services) gets involved, it can happen that day, sometimes faster. It’s not that the parents are malicious, it’s just that it’s a very difficult situation that unfolds quickly. Parents don’t always pack well, or at all. They’ll pack things for the wrong season, or the wrong size, they’re just not prepared for it,” Davis said.

The ability to prepare varies for foster parents as well; those in the foster program can specify preferences for age and gender, but there are no guarantees. Likewise, the county tries to give foster parents as much advanced warning as possible, but sometimes it’s a matter of a day, or even hours.

Helping those who help others

Emily Klinefelter, who founded Foster Pantry with her husband, has fostered 12 children since becoming licensed last year. Her organization grew out of those experiences. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY FOSTER PANTRY)
Emily Klinefelter, who founded Foster Pantry with her husband, has fostered 12 children since becoming licensed last year. Her organization grew out of those experiences. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY FOSTER PANTRY)

Emily Klinefelter and her husband Derek became licensed foster parents in October 2016. Since then, they’ve fostered a dozen children, sometimes with a few days warning, sometimes less. In one extreme case, Klinefelter got a potential heads up only an hour before the child arrived.

That foster child was a newborn –– a baby girl who was two weeks premature and hadn’t eaten in five hours. Klinefelter and her husband had to scramble to prepare.

“You’re goal is to make everything about the transition as peaceful as possible. It’s a real upheaval for the child, and your own family. But you just can’t be prepared. You could have, you know, clothes for boys and girls for every season and every age range, but it would fill your garage. You have 3-month-olds that outgrow infant clothes, 6-month-olds that outgrow that,” Klinefelter said.

There’s no doubt moving a child to a foster home is a shock to everyone’s system. After several months of fostering, Klinefelter came up with an idea on how to ease the transition.
Klinefelter started the non-profit group Foster Pantry and began organizing and collecting donations to create kits to help foster parents through their first week.

“It’s not so much about money – about not being to afford taking care of the children. It’s about families that are going through something, and maybe both parents work, and the most important thing is to have time with the child to make them feel comfortable. So, you’re not taking a child in and then immediately running out to the store,” Klinefelter said.

Of the 12 children Klinefelter and her husband have fostered, only two came with any kind of change of clothes to wear. There are also special needs that are hard to plan for – including the increasingly common needs of babies born with opioid dependencies.

The Mama Roo can be expensive, but they are particularly effective in soothing infants born with opioid dependency. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY 4 MOMS)
The Mama Roo can be expensive, but they are particularly effective in soothing infants born with opioid dependency. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY 4 MOMS)

“Preemie (premature infant) clothes have been a big one lately. Also, one of the things we’ve been collecting are the Mama Roo rockers,” Klinefelter said. “They are a pricey item, but they’re very good at soothing (opioid) positive babies to relax.”

So far, Foster Pantry has built and delivered dozens of starter kits to social workers like Davis.

“It’s unbelievable what she’s accomplished,” Davis said. “Last time we met she literally filled my car with these kits. And I don’t have a small car. I have an SUV, full of these.”

Foster Pantry kits are broken down by specific age range, gender and season to try and make sure they are as good a fit as possible. They also contain toiletries like tooth brushes and, for younger children, diapers.

“The families that do this have huge hearts, and they are a little crazy, and our goal was just to make that process a little easier on them, so they could devote themselves to the children – because that’s the only reason you would do this, you just love the children”

Foster Pantry accepts a variety of donated items, with a few exceptions, including cash and used car seats — you can see a full list here. The organization also has a form for new foster parents to request things they need.

Klinefelter and her husband are currently running Foster Pantry out of a storage locker and their home, and so they are also looking for donated office space.

Foster Pantry also offers “Food, friends and fostering,” a series of informal gatherings for potential foster parents, to provide information without the pressure or paper-work of a signing up for a county license.

For those who are ready to foster, contact Alice Moore, MSW, the social work supervisor for New Hanover County at 910-798-3566 or Amoore@nhcgov.com.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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