Commitment wanted: State seeking more foster parents

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Rachel Kornilakis, who has been a foster parent for several years and adopted three children out of foster care, says being a foster parent creates a sense of helping others and belonging to a community.

“It is lovely and fulfilling to see children heal, grow, develop and experience firsts,” she said. “Take a kid to the zoo or for ice cream for the first time and your heart will be forever changed. It’s magical.”

Her foster children have stayed with the family for as short as three months and “as long as forever.”

Kornilakis, who lives in Southeast Michigan, says she doesn’t differentiate between her foster children and her own. “Out of the thousands of families I know, I don’t know any who think otherwise.”

According to a national study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of foster parents quit in their first year.

And while Michigan experts say that’s not a major problem in the state, they see a need for more adults to sign on.

According to Kornilakis, a foster parent should possess patience, stamina, flexibility, communication and parenting skills, as well as trauma training.

Kornilakis is the founder and co-president of Fostering Forward Michigan, a nonprofit group started in 2014 to help families through the process of becoming licensed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and going through the initial placement processes.

The organization took the name as a reminder that “no matter how difficult or slow progress seems sometimes, we must push to move forward,” she said.

According to the Michigan Health and Human Services Department, the state has about 6,000 licensed foster families, and more than 13,000 children are in foster care.

“We are always recruiting,” said Heidi Raubenolt, the director of child welfare at Judson Center,

a nonprofit human services agency working in Wayne, Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland and Genesee counties.

A license is required for prospective foster parents. State Health and Human Services marketing specialist Erica Quealy said it takes seven months on average for a family or individual to complete the steps to becoming a foster parent.

The process includes contacting a foster care navigator who will help them get started and answer questions about the process, selecting an agency to work with, attending orientation and training, and participating in a home evaluation, Quealy said.

Quealy said her department is always looking for more foster homes.

“When a child is being placed in foster care, we first make it a priority to find them foster homes with appropriate relatives whenever possible,” Quealy said. “That helps maintain stability for children who have experienced trauma.”

If children can’t be placed with relatives, the department tries to place them close to their home   so they can stay in the same school and be near their friends and family, she said. “Having more licensed foster families throughout Michigan provides a greater opportunity to keep children in their community.”

“There are a lot of different reasons,” said the Judson Center’s Raubenolt. “Sometimes there’s a good reason, such as they have run out of rooms in their home, or they had a child reunify to their own family and they want to take a break after that.”

She said another reason is that foster parents are struggling. “That is when the agency comes and tries to support them, to really help them stay and care for children.”

Kornilakis, of Fostering Forward Michigan, said new foster families are rarely prepared for the challenge of traumatized children who’ve been abused or neglected by their own parents. “They think they are simply going to love kids.”

Increasingly stringent and often confusing rules and regulations could also contribute to the drop-out rate, Kornilakis said.

“The investment of time and resources that families have to provide while undertaking a great deal of risk cannot be overstated,” she said. “Most foster families say you have to be ‘all in,’ and it takes a very special family to do this difficult work.”Some foster parents encounter difficulties that could be due to system failures such as delayed payments and services, or returning children to their birth families, said Kornilakis.

Raubenolt said, “Anyone who’s even thought about becoming a foster parent or might be passing the idea around cant call the statewide phone number at 855-MICHKIDS to speak to a foster care navigator and see if it might be right for them.

“If not, that’s OK too, but at least there is more awareness,” she said.