Foster family burnout, complexity of care addressed with new program

Group finds template for community foster family support

Foster family burnout, complexity of care addressed with new program
Some members of the Lily Initiative lead team at a recent promotional event. From left to right, Sam Hapip, Annika Hapip, Dana Fleck, Sierra Guches, Leslie Pearcy, and Kaari Landblom. (Photo provided by Annika Hapip)

About half of all foster parents in the nation quit after a year, and only about a quarter make it past a second.

“I would say that’s a huge problem,” said Annika Hapip, who felt her church needed to act. “You have a lot of kiddos who are in the foster care system, and they’re waiting to be placed in a home, and foster families are stretched.”

Hapip’s solution, the Lily Initiative, working within Evangel Assembly of God in Bismarck, aims to address burnout by supporting foster families and encouraging others to become foster parents. The program started with 15 foster families in 2021 and has now grown to 32 families.

Meanwhile, new legislation aims to make it easier to keep children with extended family, providing assistance that helps children stay in a more familiar environment and, hopefully, prevent some of the trauma that otherwise might occur.

Children over the age of seven now make up 46 percent of kids in foster care, a rate that has risen steadily in the past 10 years, from 419 children age 7 and over in 2013 to a high of 689 last year.

Foster children at or entering their teenage years need increasingly complex care, placing another strain on foster families, those active in the system say.

Efforts like the Lily Initiative, and the new legislation, are aimed at making it more likely foster parents continue to offer care, while providing potentially better long-term outcomes for foster children.

A team effort

As a single mother with two pre-teen children of her own, Bismarck resident Leslie Pearcy wouldn’t strike most as your usual foster parent.

Five years ago she was called to help vulnerable, often traumatized kids, she says, by providing them a home. This can often be in an emergency, where a child needs a home for a few days, a few weeks, or sometimes a more long-term placement lasting several months. Pearcy has welcomed individual children into her home and as many at one time as a sibling group of four.

Her task would be much harder, she said, without the backing of a community peer support system set up for foster parents like her at Evangel.

“Overall, foster parents can’t do it alone,” Pearcy said. “So having a support system of some sort is important, whatever that looks like.”

There’s a “Grandparents” team of older, sometimes former foster parents, who can offer guidance, emulate basic life skills for children, or act as elder role models. There’s a “Meals and Errands” team to shop for groceries and fix a home-cooked meal before a child is placed in a home.

There’s a “Game of Champions” team to work with biological parents on the steps of reunification with their child. And there’s a background-checked and trauma-trained “Babysitting” team that can fill in for foster parents in need of a breather.

Pearcy said that many foster families can burn out without a network to call upon. Having someone to query about a tricky situation, having someone to watch kids for an hour or two, or help with errands, really reduces the overall stress, she said.

“Whatever that looks like, I think having that network around and having foster parents as peer support, and having the support and encouragement that can come alongside helps,” Pearcy said.

It is an attempt to create a sense of normalcy and community, she said.

“We're a normal home where kids get to experience normal things that are typical of childhood,” Pearcy said.

Focus on kinship care

At the state level, North Dakota’s Department of Health and Human Services is trying to address some of the turnover by increasing the ability of relatives to become kinship foster parents.

Rules requiring 40 hours of training for foster parents before they are licensed as well as some annual training to retain licenses have become hurdles for kinship foster care. Only licensed foster families can access full funding.

The state wants to safely keep children with family, out of facility foster care, and aims for eventual reunification with parents, if possible.

House Bill 1091, which eases some rules and provides more support for kinship foster care situations, was recently passed unanimously by both the House (1/13/2023) and Senate (3/13/2023). Those changes could help reduce foster family turnover and keep kids in a better state of normalcy.

“We do want to really get to the point where we’re not having regulations on family to take care of family, we can pay them as a family member, get supplies, bedding and school supplies to kids that are being taken care of by their own family,” Cory Pedersen, North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Children and Family Services Division director, said.

“The research would say that if they stay with family, that’s best,” Pedersen said. “Once they get into the facilities, that’s where we see a falloff and the outcomes aren’t as good.”

Complexities grow

As more older children come into foster care, the challenges caring for them often increase. This also contributes to turnover. Keeping kids with family, or in a situation where there’s community support like Evangel, may engender greater success.

Pedersen raised the hypothetical of a foster youth with complex needs, maybe requiring four or more appointments per week for psychiatric and other counseling.

“There’s a lot of trauma,” Pedersen said. “If they can stay in their same school, with the same friends, maybe go to church, we know that long term that’s a lot more successful plan than taking them two, three or four hours away from their home.”

Christen Olson, a program lead at the Agassiz Valley Human Service Zone, said recruiting and retaining foster families has become more challenging in recent years.

The complexity of problems faced by teen foster children has also grown, she said, which can limit options for placing them in a foster home.

“We're seeing a lot more complex mental and behavioral health challenges with our kids,” Olson said. “And so a basic family foster home with littler kids in the home may not be an appropriate fit for, you know, a teenager who has destructive or aggressive or sexually reactive behaviors.”

Children entering the foster system at or near their teenage years often grow up surrounded by trauma. Addicted parents create instability, inattentive ones anxiety, and abusive ones the lasting fear of violence. The statistics show how this bears out.

Substance abuse is the primary destabilizing force leading to children being separated from parents with 37 percent of child removals related to substance abuse, according to DHHS statistics. In 2022, neglect led to 25 percent of removals and physical abuse 10 percent.

Hapip also sees a huge need for placement of teenagers and an equal need for communities to not give up on them.

“They’ve walked through a lot of trauma in their life, and you know, may have some behavior issues, but again, not all teenagers are like that, and some have really victorious stores of how foster care is part of their story,” Hapip said.

“It’s not the end of their story,” she said. “We want our foster kiddos to know they are loved and that they are seeing they’re valued. We firmly believe that every kid needs a home.”

In North Dakota, the number of licensed foster providers dropped from 1037 to 985 between September 2021 and the end of September last year, according to figures recently presented to the legislature.

These homes currently provide care for the 1,490 children in foster situations in the state, a number that has held steady in the 1,500 range since 2018.

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