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.