Fort Worth

Foster care redesign begins in North Texas

North Texas is the testing ground for a new state initiative designed to improve the foster care experience for children and the families who take them in.

Instead of contracting with dozens of individual providers, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has selected Fort Worth-based ACH Child and Family Services to oversee foster care services for Tarrant, Johnson, Parker, Palo Pinto, Hood, Somervell and Erath counties for the next three years.

By creating a network managed by a single provider, the state aims to address problems within the foster care system, such as the lack of resources in communities that can lead to siblings being separated or children being placed hundreds of miles away from their families, homes and school.

“The primary goal is to develop the homes and the services they need in their home community so they don’t have to go somewhere else,” said Marissa Gonzalez, Child Protective Services spokeswoman. “It’s important to stay in contact with other family members, with their siblings and stay in the same school if possible. It is a lot of upheaval for children to be removed from their home. You don’t want to put them through more changes than necessary.”

About 1,300 children are in foster care in the seven-county region, which currently has about 1,200 registered foster homes, said Wayne Carson, ACH Child and Family Services chief executive officer. As part of its contract with the state, the Fort Worth nonprofit created a new division, Our Communities, Our Kids, to oversee a network of more than 40 service providers for the region. That network went into effect Sept. 1.

“That’s why we call this project Our Communities, Our Kids because we know for our kids to get the help and resources they need it requires all of us working together as partners,” Carson said last week at a kickoff celebration at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

Staying close to home

One of the state’s main goals is to ensure that children are placed no more than 50 miles from their home. Previously, where a child was placed may have depended on which of the region’s 40-plus foster care service providers was first to respond to the state’s call for assistance. That resulted in about 35 percent of foster children being placed outside of their home county, Carson said.

Now a new database, called Every Child a Priority, aims to find the best placement for children, not only based on their needs but also as close to their home community as possible, Carson said.

“It sounds simple but it’s very new to foster care,” Carson said of the technology. “One of the most important decisions is to make sure you can get them in the best home you can, the home that is in their neighborhood, the home that is experienced and has the right mix of children.”

Another priority is to recruit more high-quality foster families, which will allow more siblings to be placed together and provide for the best match between kids and families to create stability.

“We don’t want to place children in a home. We want to place them in the right home,” Gonzales said. “The more foster homes you have, the more homes you have to chose from in finding a good fit between the foster parents and the children you place there.”

Though the average length of time a child is in foster care is 10 to 12 months, Carson said the goal is to ensure that children who may be in the system longer are moved no more than twice in a two-year period.

‘Lend a helping hand’

The nonprofit hopes to recruit more people like Keller resident Lynn Garnett, 65, who has fostered for 20 years.

“My goal was to help make a difference in a kid’s life, not to change what they had been through but to help them see a better future. My goal was just to lend a helping hand,” said Garnett, who also has four adult children, 13 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Earlier this summer, Garnett adopted 13-year-old Sierra, whom she had fostered for 21/2 years. The special needs eighth-grader enjoys braiding her dolls’ hair, making bead bracelets and singing, Garnett said.

“It is hard not to get attached to the children when they are placed in your home. You simply fall in love with them,” Garnett said. “It’s really challenging, but you do fostering from the heart.”

To help with those day-to-day challenges, Our Communities, Our Kids plans to offer foster families additional training and support, expanded mental health and crisis respite services and more power when it comes to making decisions about the children’s care.

“The crux of good foster care is having good foster care families and doing a good job of training and supporting and working with them to make sure they have what they need to take care of children,” Carson said.

‘One child at a time’

One problem some foster families face is being given short notice about doctor’s appointments arranged by CPS workers or the foster care provider without any input about the foster parents’ work schedule. To remedy that, Carson said 40-plus foster care providers are looking to establish protocols that either allow families to set up their own appointments or be given a minimum amount of advance notice.

“Foster parents are so busy taking care of the children they are often not involved in making decisions about the children at the level they need to be, whether that’s having their voice heard in court or getting them involved in setting goals or a plan of service,” Carson said.

Children should not grow up in the foster care system, John J. Specia, the Department of Family and Protective Services commissioner, said. The redesign will help the state better work with nonprofits to provide the support and resources needed to create stable, permanent homes for children, whether that means being returned to their families or adopted. Unfortunately, he said, 1,300 chlidren age out of the system in Texas each year.

“We are going to do a better job for children, one child at a time,” Specia said. “This is a far better system than what we’re doing today.”

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