Hundreds of kids need fostering in Sonoma

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Foster families are needed in Sonoma Valley

Attend an information session to explore foster parenting at 2255 Challenger Way in Santa Rosa.

February 25, from 6 to 7 p.m.

March 25, from 6 to 7 p.m.

Meet staff from local agencies for a brief introduction to foster parenting. Talk with us and get your questions answered. Call us at least three days before the meeting you’d like to attend at (707) 565-4274. Adults and teenagers are welcome, but no child care is provided.

On any given day in Sonoma County, nearly 500 children separated from their biological families are sheltered within the foster care system. In January, there were 460 kids in foster placements, 24 of them in the 12 foster homes registered in the Sonoma Valley.

The children may have been removed from their parent’s custody in response to an emergency situation, or after weeks or months of investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS). All are minors – under the age of 18 – and all of them have been subjected to abuse, neglect or abandonment. “They’ve all had experiences that kids should not have had,” said Meg Easter-Dawson of the Sonoma County Human Services Department.

Emergency foster care works as one might expect: a child at risk is removed from an unsafe situation, and a phone call is made to a foster family.

Often within just a couple of hours, the child arrives on their doorstep. For all parties, the change of circumstance is abrupt. For the child, it can be frightening and traumatic.

Children removed after longer investigations sometimes transition somewhat less abruptly.

If they can safely be shifted to living with extended family, that outcome is preferred. If they can remain in their own cities and schools, CPS endeavors to do that.

“Kids do better when they’re with family. If we can find a relative caregiver — aunts, uncles, even a neighbor — while the biological parents work on getting their ducks in a row, that’s the best case scenario,” Easter-Dawson said.

On average, children in the system spend two years in foster care.

Nationally, 6 percent spend five years or more. They are moved an average of four to six times, and some rotate through more than 15 placements.

In Sonoma County, the median age of foster children is seven. In 2018, 51 foster youth were adopted from their foster placements. 144 were reunified with a biological parent.

The foster care system is tiered by age and the child’s social, emotional and physical health. Children under age 6 are optimally placed with a foster family, all of whom undergo a 90-day training and repeated home inspections. Older children often end up in the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home in Santa Rosa.

Ideally, all placements are short-term and temporary. “The intention is for the foster placement to be 90 days or less,” Easter-Dawson said. “All foster care is intended to be temporary until it looks like it can’t be.” Reunification is always the primary goal.

Fairly often, though, the children are not able to return home, Easter-Dawson said, and must forge a new way through life separated from their families of origin. The luckiest of these get adopted.

Like the now 2-year-old girl who entered foster care as a 2-month-old infant. She has a head full of dark curls and is careful with strangers, but demonstrative with the two women who are now officially her moms.

Mimi and Petie, who preferred their full names not be used in this story, have fostered 33 children in just over four years. More than 10 of them lived with them for seven months or more. But the little girl with the curls is the first one who’s stayed.

There were others the two women had hoped might stay, as well.

Foster families are needed in Sonoma Valley

Attend an information session to explore foster parenting at 2255 Challenger Way in Santa Rosa.

February 25, from 6 to 7 p.m.

March 25, from 6 to 7 p.m.

Meet staff from local agencies for a brief introduction to foster parenting. Talk with us and get your questions answered. Call us at least three days before the meeting you’d like to attend at (707) 565-4274. Adults and teenagers are welcome, but no child care is provided.

One little boy, nicknamed Papa Bear, was fostered by Mimi and Petie as a “bypass baby.” That’s a designation the system uses for children coming from circumstances so severe that reunification with their biological parent seems highly unlikely.

Papa Bear was thought to be such a child, and Mimi and Petie loved him like a son. But his biological mother stuck with the long road back to responsible parenting, and she was eventually allowed to take her child home.

It was both heartbreaking and heartening for Mimi and Petie.

Mimi has a big personality and is quick to laugh. Petie is softhearted, often dabbing away tears. The two women exchange a long look that seems to contain the history of Papa Bear. “If you’re doing it wrong, not loving them with everything, then you wouldn’t be hurting when you have to let them go,” Mimi said. “Our hearts can take a lot.”

Their house is a happy cacophony of children and toys. The Suburban in the driveway is equipped with four car seats. In the extra bedroom, four bunked beds are kept ready should the telephone ring. In the garage, four cribs are crammed next to six strollers, ready to be swapped with the bunks in case babies need care.

Last September, Mimi and Petie agreed to foster 2-year-old Hispanic triplets, and admitted to getting a bit of side-eye from strangers. Interracial lesbians, one adopted daughter, and three Latina toddlers were an anomaly in Sonoma.

The triplets forced the women to upgrade their licensing capacity.

“It has to do with space,” Easter-Dawson explained. “But then there’s also the individual comfort level. It starts with their willingness to say ‘if we take them we can keep all those kids together.’ Mimi and Petie have been great about that. They know there are kids at the other end of that phone call.”

When a new child arrives, the women let things unfold. They don’t force a false closeness, they patiently wait. Mindful that hidden triggers could be anywhere for the children they foster, they are careful about how they proceed.

Once, they planned a little vacation for a set of siblings who’d been with them for months. “When we told them we were taking them to a hotel, their faces just dropped. Like, literally, a bomb had gone off.” Mimi said.

“What we hadn’t known was that the kids had been living in a filthy hotel with their mother, and that was their only association with the word. We had to get out our phones and show them pictures of the place we were headed, because they were just terrified of the pictures in their heads.”

Fostering is complicated and hard and oftentimes messy.

But while the need for safe places for children to live is consistent, the number of kids is trending up in recent years.

“We’ve seen a spike recently,” Eater-Dawson said. “The fires impacted some, and income disparity is increasing. There are addiction issues, mental health issues. There’s such a need — all over the county — we can’t cover it all with the foster families we have.”

Mimi and Petie are doing their part, and they take on the task with real joy. When one starts to fade, the other steps up. They are determined to make a difference in the world.

“Not every family is going to foster the way that me and Petie do,” Mimi said. “Some are going to do it, you know, not so big. Every family has to find the way that works for them. It’s scary sometimes, but we trust the process.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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