Stacey Daigle always thought about being a foster parent but the timing never seemed right.
Then, Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast and her 4-year-old son innocently asked a question she had long been pondering: If kids have lost their homes and their parents, why can’t they come live with us?
“I feel as though spiritually I’m being told to do this,” said Daigle, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mom from Crestview, Fla. “This is sort of just an awakening.”
Child welfare offices in states including Texas and Florida have been inundated with offers from people to become foster parents for Katrina’s youngest victims. But even though the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received reports of about 4,600 missing children, officials say nearly all the children who showed up alone at hurricane shelters have been united with family members.
Now, many states are hoping that Katrina-inspired volunteers will take in abused and neglected children from their own communities to help alleviate a severe nationwide shortage of foster parents.
Fostering beyond Katrina
“I try to point out there are children right down the street that have experienced just as serious a trauma as the kids in the hurricane,” said Chris Johnson, a Child Protective Services program director in Austin. “These are kids who have been battered and bruised and left in (trash containers) and ignored.”
More than a half-million children are in foster care across the nation, but only about 144,000 single-family foster homes are available to take them in, said Dennis Ichikawa, Arizona field office director for Casey Family Programs, a national advocacy foundation for children in foster care.
That count does not include an unknown number of people fostering young relatives because not all states require them to be licensed.
The shortage means many kids who would thrive in a single-family home are stuck in emergency shelters, group homes or other facilities where they cannot get the one-on-one attention they need, Ichikawa said.
Others bounce from one temporary placement to another, he said.
“The opportunity that foster parents have to make a difference in the life of a child is just unparalleled,” he said.
In the first few days following Hurricane Katrina, dozens of people posted offers to foster a child on Web sites, such as Craigslist.org. Hundreds of others have called child welfare agencies across the country and the National Foster Parent Association, a Gig Harbor, Wash.-based group that recruits and supports foster families.
About 400 people from the Knoxville area called Tennessee’s Department of Children Services offering to foster refugee children, and 264 of them are beginning the process of background checks, home studies and training sessions required to take in a child.
“This has just been a flood of inquiries and we’re trying to encourage these people to help us because we sure need the help,” said Rob Johnson, a spokesman for the Tennessee agency.
Double the number of prospective foster parents
Johnson’s office in Austin has fielded more than 100 calls from people wanting to foster a New Orleans child. At least 90 people attended an information session for prospective foster parents in Austin in September, double the normal number.
Among them was Dawn Moss, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom from Round Rock, Texas, who’d never really thought about foster parenting before she saw pictures of children who had been separated from their parents by the hurricane.
“It really gets you thinking about wanting to help,” Moss said. “First it makes you want to help those kids, then it just kind of makes you start thinking about helping anybody.”
Officials realize that a lifetime of foster parenting could be a harder sell than taking in a child for a few months until his or her parents are found, said Chris Van Deusen, a Texas CPS spokesman. Some children in foster care have emotional problems, developmental delays or even serious medical conditions resulting from abuse or neglect they endured.
Daigle said she and her husband could not turn away needy children now that they realize they have room in their hearts and their home. They plan to attend a foster parent orientation session in October.
“It sounds like a big process, but now after the Katrina thing, we said, ’Ah, we can do this,”’ she said. “I’m thinking we can take on the challenge.”