Inside the First Baptist Church a small group of people, eight adults, have come to hear Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ Vera Robinson’s pitch about becoming certified to offer foster homes to children without a home they ca.
“So, if no one else has any questions, you can definitely stick around after the meeting for any one-on-one for any personal questions you may have,” Robinson tells the crowd. “Be sure to pick an application. Tell your family, friends, coworkers, randomly knock on strangers’ doors to tell them about the need.”
Robinson has a big smile and a friendly tone but her underlying message is quite urgent: there’s aren’t enough foster care families to care for children in crisis in our area.
Paul Zimmerman, regional spokesman for Texas Family and Protective Services, laid out the statistics.
“In the El Paso area, which we call region 1, and that actually encompasses El Paso, Culberson, Hudspeth, Ft. Davis, Brewster and Presidio Counties, in the last five years we average about 300 kids at any given time in the foster care system and we have 166 homes currently,” he said. “In the Big Bend area right now we have one foster family.”
Azucena Carrasco is supervisor for the out-county units of the department. She and her team are the people wake up in the middle of the night to answer distress calls and must decide where they send kids safely for one night or for months at a time. Right now, Carrasco has a single family to turn to for help– and that’s just not enough.
“I would like to see at the very minimum one in each community, at the very minimum,” she says. “It’s really difficult to gauge how many we need because the need changes constantly. Sometimes it’s low, sometimes it’s high. So just to have them available is very helpful.”
So who is this foster family, the only one for 20,000 miles around?
The Wells family is made up of Ron, his wife Marsha and their son Zack. The family in Alpine is not much different from any other family, barring the state-mandated fire exit drawing posted by the front door. They began foster parenting when they lived in Missouri and there they adopted two teenage sons, now grown and out of the house.
So far while in Texas, they have taken in four kids. They are designated an “emergency placement,” meaning they expect to have a child or children come into their home and leave soon after, although recently they siblings that needed a home for six-months. Keeping a daily routine but being flexible within it, the Wells say, is key to foster parenting.
“I wouldn’t encourage everyone to become a foster parent,” Marsha says. “It’s definitely a calling and if you don’t have that, it can be very, very difficult.”
Generally, a child is removed from parental custody because CPS has been alerted to a situation, investigated, and the agency has reached the conclusion that they are unable to form a plan that keeps the child safe. CPS strives very hard to keep children with family and if not family, then family friends. After those options are exhausted, that’s when foster parents are called in.
“I think another misconception is foster care are bad kids, and that’s not true,” Marsha says. “They were in a bad situation and they’ve had bad things happen to them and they don’t know how to handle that.”
At the foster care informational meeting in Alpine, the empty chairs do not portend a good outcome. The number of kids in foster care system is growing. University of Arlington School of Social Work did a study that said the number of kids in foster care is growing 33 percent faster than the general child population, but the number of foster homes is going down. Most people who start the foster care certification process drop out.
In a rural area that hits doubly hard. For example, in a metropolitan area, potential foster parents set aside a few hours a week for 11 weeks of training. In Big Bend, foster care staff can’t practically make the long drive back and forth every single week, so instead they pack 11 weeks of training into a two-day seminar. With only one family certified, every family that drops out of the program places the burden of care solely back in the Wells’ court. So why do it?
“So, one of the most common responses I get when I tell people I’m a foster parent is, ‘Oh I could never do that, it would be too hard. It would just tear my heart up,'” Marsha says. “And I understand that perspective but I always counter with ‘but think about these children.’ If the people who should be willing to love them aren’t willing to do it, who’s going to take them?”
And that’s a refrain heard throughout the foster care system. They have a slogan they hope opens up hearts and minds of potential families: “If not you, who?”