STANTON — Raise hope and foster dreams.
That’s the slogan sported on new Department of Human Services billboards on M-46 and M-91.
DHS workers in Ionia and Montcalm counties are hoping the new billboards will remind people of the constant need to foster local children.
Foster is literally defined as “to promote the growth or development of, to encourage, to bring up, raise or rear, to care for or cherish, to feed or nourish.”
“The purpose of the billboards is to raise awareness within the community that there is a need for children’s foster homes in Montcalm and Ionia counties,” said Linda Schrauben, the children’s services supervisor for Ionia-Montcalm DHS. “The goal is to increase the number of individuals or families that inquire about fostering, which in turn will hopefully lead to more foster homes in Montcalm and Ionia counties.”
Currently, 103 children are in foster care in Montcalm County and 64 children are in foster care in Ionia County. While Ionia County’s number has remained unchanged for some time, Montcalm County’s number has been on the rise. Schrauben thinks this could be due to the increased awareness of mandated reporting. The Michigan Child Protection Law requires certain people — including counselors, doctors, nurses, teachers, school administrators and members of the clergy — to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to Children’s Protective Service at DHS.
The foster care system works like this: When a child is removed from a home due to abuse or neglect, a judge typically orders the goal of reunifying the child and the parents. DHS officials first look to place the child with an appropriate relative. If an appropriate relative is not available, then the child is placed in a licensed foster home within the community that is able and willing to care for the child’s specific needs.
Due to a lack of available homes in the community, DHS officials are sometimes forced to seek licensed foster homes outside the area. This becomes even more difficult when a child is part of a group of siblings.
And then there’s the issue of transportation.
“Due to the rural communities of Montcalm and Ionia counties, transportation is oftentimes a barrier that interferes with parents getting to court-ordered parenting time,” Schrauben said. “The farther away a child is placed outside of the community, the more difficult it becomes on the family to participate in visits. It also means that the child has to spend more time out of his or her own day traveling to visits, rather than doing normal activities, such as homework, playing with friends and extracurriculars.”
The goal of DHS workers is always to keep a child in his or her own community whenever possible so the child can continue to attend the same school, maintain relationships with family and friends, maintain cultural identity within the community and have continued access to the same caseworker and services throughout the duration of the case.
“Allowing a child to remain in the community is positive and is one less trauma and loss they experience,” Schrauben summarized. “Increasing the number of foster homes in Montcalm and Ionia counties increases the likelihood for maintaining children in their current communities when removed from their homes due to abuse and/or neglect.”
Schrauben said any time a child is able to achieve permanency with a family, it is considered a major success.
“A misunderstanding about fostering is that foster parents are afraid to form attachments with the children that come into their home due to it being a temporary situation,” Schrauben said. “The exact opposite is true. Foster parents are encouraged to form attachments with the children that come into their care. These attachments affect how our children survive, learn, work, love and empathize with others. At times, the attachments that foster children form with their foster parents may be the only attachment that they know.”
DHS officials recently hosted a special event with a carnival theme to honor local foster parents. Ionia County Probate Judge Robert Sykes even got in on the fun by participating in a dunk tank.
“It’s just kind of a way for foster parents to network with each other and a way for us to thank you for everything they do,” said Jacqueline Sutton, the children’s service specialist for Montcalm County DHS. “The more foster parents we have in the community, the more it increases the likelihood that the child can remain in the community. It also makes it easier on the birth parents too, which increases the chance of reuniting the child with their parents, which is what we ultimately want to do.”
For more information about becoming a foster parent, call 1-855-MICHKIDS.
“Although the role of a foster parent is challenging at times, the rewards last a lifetime,” Schrauben said. “Some of the rewards including working with a natural parent for the child’s return home, knowing that you are a positive force for children and families in the community, and the former foster child who returns just to say ‘hi.’”