As foster care program revamps in Sonoma County, families urgently needed
Dominique Soileau humbly admits she and her husband, Kevin McPherson, have big hearts - but she insists they aren’t any bigger than most.
Five years ago, when a doctor told them that birthing a child would require a medically invasive procedure, the young west county couple started thinking about adopting a foster child. Soileau and McPherson, who years ago took in and raised a goddaughter from birth, knew they could love a child that wasn’t “biologically our own.” But like many others, they had misconceptions about what the foster care system was looking for.
Did they have enough money? Were they normal enough? Did they have the patience and empathy to care for child who would possibly require special attention and an extra amount of love? The answers to those questions came with time, after permanently taking in Kymber, who turns 5 years old next month, and Bella, 3 - both adopted as infants.
Seven months ago, they took in 1- and 2-year-old siblings in an emergency foster placement, a temporary arrangement. But Soileau resists the label of super-parent.
The need for more couples like Soileau and McPherson has become even more urgent. Beginning in January, counties are expected to start phasing in statewide foster care reforms that recast group homes as short-term residential treatment programs, establish new levels of provider accountability and bolster supportive services for youths placed with relatives and foster families. The shift, known as Continuum of Care Reform, follows four years of planning by state officials and county welfare directors, guided by the principle that the best placement for a child who has been removed from his or her family is another family. But the success of the plan largely depends on whether the county can get more families to participate and provide stable, permanent homes for the system’s most troubled kids, officials said.
With that goal in mind, the county and local foster care and adoption agencies have formed a partnership aimed at recruiting couples such as Soileau and McPherson.
The partnership, branded the Family Finding Collaboration and funded with state monies, will be the county’s largest ever foster recruitment effort. It includes organizations such as TLC Child and Family Services, Alternative Family Services, Lilliput Families and the county Family, Youth and Children’s Division, or FYC.
Previously, these agencies competed against each other somewhat for families, said Meg Easter-Dawson, program development manager for FYC. But with the coming foster care overhaul, which will dramatically reduce long-term group home placements, the county and agencies will be forced to work together, she said.
“The minute those kids come in, we’re going to have to have families available,” Easter-Dawson said. “We need to have a pool of families ready so we can have the right match for those kids.”
She said the collaboration allows each agency to exhibit its strengths and also will give families the option of picking which agency they want to work with.
Susan Fette, associate director of TLC’s foster family and adoption agency, said the collaboration allows agencies such as hers to “think outside the box” to reach the broader community with a collective message addressing the need for greater participation from local families. TLC also received a grant from the Community Foundation to help cover the cost of its collaboration.
Fette said that each day, roughly 50 to 70 Sonoma County children in the foster system are in need of a safe place to live, and eight out of 10 local residents don’t realize they are eligible to be a foster parent.
Soileau said she was among those parents who did not realize she could become a foster parent. Agencies weren’t looking for the perfect family.
“They want real families, normal families,” she said. “One thing that I’ve found is it’s actually helpful to have those real-world experiences. If you yourself came from the perfect family, it’s kind of hard to relate to what these children are going through.”
Hector Matias, program director for Alternative Family Services, or AFS, in Marin and Sonoma counties, said his agency has strong ties to the Latino community and offers all its services in both Spanish and English. AFS also has expertise in intensive treatment foster care, a high level of support provided to youth who would otherwise have a difficult time with family placement.
The collaboration has always been needed, said Matias, who has been with the agency for 19 years.
“In all of my years, I’ve yet to have more families than the number of placements that are referred to our organization,” he said.