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Worcester County needs foster families

Department of Social Services Director Roberta Baldwin said recently that six is the total number of active foster care families in all of Worcester County.

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By Bethany Hooper, Associate Editor

Six homes.

That, Department of Social Services Director Roberta Baldwin said recently, is the total number of active foster care facilities in all of Worcester County.

It’s also the biggest challenge the department faces as it seeks temporary placement for the 30 children who are currently in the local foster care system.

“It’s a national issue,” she said recently. “We struggled before the pandemic, but certainly the pandemic has impacted, and continues to impact, our ability to recruit and maintain a large pool of homes.”

While the goal of foster care is to place foster children in a permanent living arrangement, either with family members or adoptive parents, Baldwin said there is a great need for foster parents who can provide short-term care and support. She noted that more than half of children in Worcester County’s foster care system are currently living in other counties, away from their communities and the people they know.

“When children have to be separated from their families, there’s trauma that’s associated with that,” she explained. “So if we can keep children in their communities and in their neighborhoods, connected with teachers or other important figures in their lives, it helps to reduce that trauma and create some normalcy for that child. And it helps them live a much healthier life.”

Baldwin said the foster care system is a temporary separation of children who are at risk of being hurt or maltreated in their homes. She said children who enter the system are often victims of abuse and neglect.

“In our county, we have a high incident rate of neglect,” she said.

Tess Waller, resource coordinator for the local foster care system, said anyone – whether they are single, married, or an empty-nester – can be a foster parent, so long as they can complete the necessary training program and background check and provide a safe home environment. But most importantly, Waller said, is that they must love children and provide emotional support and stability.

“These children aren’t asking for much,” she said. “They just want to be part of a family.”

Alison Tinker, a Worcester County foster parent, said that is exactly why she joined the foster care system more than 20 years ago. Since that time, her family has housed countless foster children and adopted five.

“There’s always more love to go around …,” she said. “Children can never have too many people to love them.”

Tinker said she sees the need for additional foster families within the community. She added that while there may be challenges, being a foster parent is a rewarding experience.

“It’s worth getting into, even if you don’t want to be a full-time foster parent,” she said. “Being a respite provider is just as important. Who knows, you may fall in love with them and want to keep them. We did that five times ourselves.”

Waller said she will work with prospective foster parents to determine their goals and intentions, whether it be short-term respite care, long-term care or adoption. She said families can also specify age ranges and decline any potential placements.

“Not every child will fit in their home, and it’s OK to say no,” she said. “And we understand that because the children are a priority, and we want to make sure that they’re safe and happy.”

Baldwin added that the department will also offer assistance to foster care families, no matter the time or day.

“We really are here to help and that’s a big point that we need to get across,” she said. “If you are kind enough to open your heart and home and take a child in, you’re not doing it alone, that the department is here to support you, for whatever the need may be, whether it’s getting a youth to and from medical appointments or talking through a situation that a foster parent may be having.”

Officials said there are some misconceptions about the foster care system. Baldwin said that could be one reason Worcester County is experiencing a lack of foster homes.

“Some of it may be that in our county there’s this perception that children aren’t experiencing the issues that would warrant them to be separated from their families, so there isn’t a need. But there is …,” she said. “We do have issues where families are experiencing behavioral health or substance use disorders that prevent them from being the best parent that they need to be. Those types of things are happening, and it’s those types of situations that are probably most prevalent for the majority of the reasons as to why children are coming into foster care.”

Baldwin added that the COVID pandemic also played a significant role in the number of families needing the foster care system.

“I do think that the pandemic has created more issues within families that they’re struggling to deal with,” she explained. “So it’s creating a greater need for this temporary separation, which means we need a larger pool of families to join our team, to support the efforts to help us work with both the child and the family that is challenged with some of these problems.”

As of Feb. 16, there were 3,804 children and older youth in Maryland’s foster care system, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services. And while the number of children entering foster care has declined by 30% in the last decade, Brian Schleter, spokesman for the state department, said officials continue to seek partners when temporary placement is necessary.

“Whenever possible, we want to make sure children and youth can safely remain with loved ones, reduce unnecessary removals and prevent children from coming into foster care in the first place …,” he said. “When children cannot safely remain at home and must enter foster care, we work diligently to place them in family foster homes, including kinship care, whenever possible.”

To date, there are 1,309 licensed family foster homes in Maryland, along with 821 formal kinship providers, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

“In Maryland, we continuously seek to partner with people who choose to step forward to serve as foster parents,” Schleter said. “At the same time, we are actively shifting toward a kin-first culture that consistently promotes immediate kinship placements, helps children in foster care maintain connections with relatives, and tailors services and supports for kinship families. Providing stable and loving homes can make an immense difference in the lives of these children, offering them the support and nurturing environment they need to thrive.”

Officials say the Worcester County Department of Social Services is seeking families to care for children as young as four months to teens as old as 17. Waller said those interested in becoming a foster parent can call her at 410-422-9731. For additional information, contact the Worcester County Department of Social Services at 410-677-6849.

“We really want to support the youth in our community and provide what is best for them,” Baldwin said. “And being in a family is what’s best for children.”