Need for foster homes grows

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Resource Family Service Worker Nicole Desmarteau, left, of TFI Family Services sits with RFS Supervisor Pam Richardson at the TFI office in Iola recently. The women work to procure foster home placements for children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. The agency will acquire 2,000 more cases of children in need on July 1.

When the new fiscal year rolls around July 1, TFI Family Services will have 2,000 more children under its wing.
The local foster care agency will assume caseloads from northcentral Cloud County down to Saline and over to Shawnee County in addition to those from Allen and Neosho counties.
The not-for-profit agency works under the guidance of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to care for endangered children who have been removed from their homes. The state’s Social and Rehabilitation Services determines whether children’s homes are either unsafe or unhealthy for them, said Pam Richardson, supervisor of TFI offices in Chanute and Iola.
The new contracts, spanning four years, mean TFI, the largest foster care contractor in the state, has even more need for good foster families with which to house displaced children.
TFI tries first to find a relative to take the children. “If no relative is available, then we try to find a foster family,” she said.
“We do a better than average job of placing kids with their relatives, but (with children for whom relatives cannot be found) we would like to place them in their home communities,” Richardson said.
Unless the children can be placed locally, many end up away from their friends, their schools and the only community they may have known.
“Kids deserve the opportunity and the chance to be raised in their home communities,” said Nicole Desmarteau, a TFI case worker. “It’s traumatic enough to be removed from your parents at a moment’s notice,” she said, “but to also be removed from your pets, your bedroom, your school, your friends is even more traumatic. We really need more homes for these kids in Allen County.”
Richardson said 37 of the children they currently serve are from Iola, yet only 15 are placed here.
There are 89 children, from birth through age 18, in need in Allen and Neosho counties, Richardson said. Of those, 60 percent are teenagers.
“With teenagers, it’s hard to place them because people assume they are bad kids,” Desmarteau said.
“A majority of the time the children are removed due to abuse or neglect,” Richardson said, through no fault of the child.
Richardson hopes to reintegrate the children into as normal a life as possible. Creating a sense of family is imperative. If foster homes aren’t secured for the youth, they are sent to group homes in Lawrence or Parsons. And that’s not a family environment, she said.

ROSALIND Leapheart knows what a family should be.
The Iola woman has been a foster mom for 23 years. Over that time, she has fostered 34 children, mainly teenagers, she said.
She began fostering while married, after her former sister-in-law — a social worker in Kansas City — urged her and her husband to help place a child. After becoming single again, “I kept on doing it,” she said.
“I don’t have a big turnover,” she said of the children she has housed.
“Most of (them) were teenagers,” Leapheart said. She never saw them as outsiders.
Leapheart said she takes the kids to all her family functions, from picnics to reunions.
“It’s not an imposition to my family: They know there will be kids,” she said. “They’re foster kids from the state, but they’re also my kids. If we’re going on vacation, they go, too.”
Leapheart is such a good foster mom that Desmarteau quips, “If we could clone her 100 million times, we would.
“It shows to her character and dedication that in over 23 years she has had only 34 kids,” Desmarteau said.
Most of the children Leapheart has fostered reach legal maturity before they leave her home.
“Some go to job corps,” she said, “Some go to trade school. I had one who finished high school after his 18th birthday, then he stayed another year because he was going into the military.” He now sends her pictures from his active duty placement.
Leapheart tries to instill in the foster teens the same skills she did in her own children.
“I teach them cooking, cleaning, filling out job applications, budgeting for life, including paying rent, cable, cell phone bills,” she said.
She tells the teens that luxuries such as deluxe cable and fancy electronics are frills they don’t need if they’re not going to be in their apartments much because of work.
“I tell my kids to put 80 percent of their earnings into the bank,” while still living with her, she said. “I tell them, ‘You need to be saving your money, because whatever you need — clothes, food, shelter —I’m going to provide it.’”

WHAT DOES it take to be a foster parent?
“We’re really not looking for anybody’s life situation,” Richardson said.
“What I find successful is someone who is flexible, because you’re working with a number of agencies and a child and parent who have been through a traumatic experience,” she said. “When I speak about flexibility, I’m talking more about personality.”
The state does have stringent health and safety guidelines, Richardson said, but “We don’t license the person, we license the home,” said Desmarteau.
State requirements address room sizes and window dimensions, for instance, Desmarteau said.
Once a child is placed in a foster home, a resource worker assists both the foster care provider and the child.
“We evaluate any needs the child may have,” Desmarteau said, “be they mental health, educational or health needs.”
Even after the child is placed in a foster home, the resource worker “will never stop looking for a less restrictive environment,” Richardson said, including reintegration with their original family when suitable, permanent placement with a family member or permanent placement through adoption.
“That is the ultimate goal,” Richardson said.
Consummate foster mom Leapheart agreed: “We just want to find good homes for the kids.”
Those interested in learning more about fostering children in Allen County should call TFI at 406-365-3428, e-mail Pam Richardson at PamR@the-farm.org, or log on to www.the-farm.org.