NY foster care facing critical need

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 4:26 PM EDT
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PERU, N.Y. (WCAX) - There’s an urgent need for foster families in New York’s North Country, a problem that experts say has been made worse by the pandemic. Our Kelly O’Brien has been looking into what’s driving these numbers and what is being done about it.

If you ask the Wheatley family of Peru, they’ll tell you they’re blessed. “We both knew we wanted a big family,” said Peter Wheatley.

Kristin and Peter found each other in their 30s, fell in love, and started a family fast. They always knew that fostering was in their hearts. “We saw there was a need in our county, so while she was pregnant with our first daughter Grace, we became certified foster parents,” Peter said. They took in their first foster child when Grace was just six months old.

But the North Country needs more Wheatleys. “Definitely, I would call it a crisis,” said John Bernardi with the United Way of the Adirondack Region. “There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, but always dozens of children.”

He says the pandemic is adding more stress to an under-resourced system. “The isolation and the mental health and wellness concerns that have been exacerbated by the pandemic have increased strain and tension within households. which have led to an increase in homes being unstable,” Bernardi said.

There are currently more than 16,000 children in New York state in foster or kinship care. For our region that breaks down to 79 in Clinton County, 137 in Franklin County, and 58 in Essex County. In Clinton County, about 40% of the children are under five.

As they get older and enter their teens, the Department of Social Services finds it harder to find a family willing to take them on. “Where it’s easy to find a home for a baby, it might not be able to find a home for five siblings. It might not be easy to find a home willing to take a baby and a 17-year-old,” said the department’s Christine Peters.

And if they can’t place a child in their home community, they are sent to another county, or even out of state. Ideally, foster parents adopt the children in their care, but Peters says even that wonderful outcome has a downside. “It’s almost always a little crisis because as children get adopted out of foster care, I need to continue to replace the roster of parents for when new kids come in,” she said.

“I was in foster care for four years now,” said Keanna Wheatley. The 15-year-old says she entered the foster care system when she was 11, moving around and sometimes being separated from her seven brothers and sisters. “I felt like the whole world was against me. I felt trapped. I felt like I was in a tiny box and I couldn’t get out.”

But she says something changed over the last year. “I think my maturity level has changed a lot. Before, I was a bit of a bad kid. Now, I’m on top of school,” Keanna said.

After working with her caseworker and her newly adopted family, she’s understood the situation in a new light and has a new appreciation for her caseworker. “Hated them. I felt like they just wanted me to get taken away from my family,” Keanna said. “At the end, I knew she was doing the right thing for me and had faith in who I was and she just wanted to help and be there for me every step of the way.”

Keanna and her 12-year-old brother Josh are the newest addition to the Wheatley family. They were formally adopted earlier this year. “I wanted to stay with my brother even without getting adopted. I didn’t want to be in the foster care system anymore. There was a lot of pressure and weight on my shoulders,” Keanna said.

The Wheatleys family has now grown to nine, including their newest foster child, who is a sibling of Keanna and Josh. “There are kids out there that are in need, there are kids out there that are hurting,” Peter said.

“There is a role for everyone. Everyone can do something for foster care. There are so many things that are in need. Literally, I say just ‘Be the village.’ Help us be a support, be an ear for us to talk to,” Kristin said.

She says the biggest reason they hear someone won’t foster is the fear of being attached. “You’re going to get attached, you’re going to love them and it’s going to be hard but it’s going to change your life and it’s going to change theirs. There is nothing you can do that can make it easy but at the end of the day the reward that everyone gets from it is amazing,” she said.

The Wheatleys say that for those who can’t take in a foster child full-time, there are other ways to help. They include respite services, which are short-term, like weekends or a few hours. They say also just being a friend to a newly placed foster child will make a world of a difference.

New York just started the federal Family First program in September that focuses on keeping kids with relatives. Next week, Kelly O’Brien will take an in-depth look at how that’s changed the foster care system.

Click here to find out more about foster care in New York.

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