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Making it clear on foster care

Published: 
Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hundreds of children in T&T face the harsh reality of having nowhere to call home or no loved one to give them proper care and attention. Many of these children have been abused or abandoned. Some are given a chance at life at the various children’s homes throughout the country but sometimes even this setting may not be conducive to their mental and physical stability. It is the hope of the Children’s Authority that a well thought out and effective foster care system will soon change this.

The staff of the Children’s Authority is hopeful that before the end of February, the authority will be fully functional and that the Children’s Act will be proclaimed in parliament. 

Last December, it put advertisements in various newspapers looking for people who may be interested in the new foster care system. More than ten people have already responded. The existing foster care system was created as a pilot project, about two decades ago, and has never been officially commissioned to this day.

“We haven’t really had a proper foster care system in Trinidad so the reason you haven’t heard much about it is that it really in a legal sense didn’t exist,” said Children’s Authority chairman Stephanie Daly, as she spoke with the T&T Guardian at the authority’s head office on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. “What we had was a pilot project which I think was informal for quite a long time. It was perhaps formalised a bit more in 1995. It was a fairly closed project, it wasn’t something which was looking to expand or to provide greater options and resources for people who had to place children. It wasn’t until this legislation, the Children’s Authority legislation that it became a legislative imperative and it is one of our responsibilities to set up and manage that sort of system.” 

It should be noted that there is a major difference between becoming a foster parent and adopting a child as adoption is forever and is the complete replacement of a parent, while foster care usually comes into play when the state has to place children because they don’t have a family member who can take proper care of them and only extends to age of 17, she explained.

There are usually two options when it comes to placing a child, one is finding a place at a community residence and the other is placing children with individual families. Based on the two available options Daly believes it would be better if children are placed in a family environment.

The foster care system will offer this along with a lot more flexibility than community residences because any family that a child is placed with will usually be very focused on that particular child and that particular child’s needs and abilities, she continued.

She said: “I think it’s pretty generally accepted that being placed in a family environment has a better potential for success for the child than as opposed to institutional care. It’s a much less expensive option because the institutional care is disproportionately expensive and that’s not just our experience but a worldwide experience.”

Director of the authority, Sharifa Ali-Abdullah added: “We are going to go out again and in fact do much more in terms of public education because the pilot system has really been a well kept secret. A lot of people do not know about the pilot system. We need to educate about foster care. The foster care system would also be much quicker for placing children than trying to develop additional community residences and trying to staff them.”

They are looking to build a database of at least 25 interested care-givers to add to a registry, Ali-Abdullah continued. Another major challenge that they are facing right now, beside the passing of the legislation, is determining what type of stipend should be offered.

He added: “We have to determine the quantum. At present the providers receive between $1,500- $5,000 per month, per child. The $5,000 would refer to special children with special needs. We are looking at all the budget revisions to see what would be the allocation for foster care, to see what would be a reasonable stipend to pay to parents. We have actually conducted quite a bit of research into best practice and there are some jurisdictions where some people do not receive a stipend and other places where they do.”

The challenge lies in making sure that whatever stipend is agreed on is an appropriate amount. One of the benchmarks being used so far is the cost of keeping a child in a children’s home as compared to foster care. For instance, at the four fully subsidised homes, or even the Youth Training Centre, it cost approximately $10,000 per month to provide for a child, Ali-Abdullah revealed. She believes, based on the several studies that have been conducted so far by the authority, that it would be much cheaper to care for a child staying with foster parents.

Also, foster care would have the added benefit of being able to help even more displaced children from the more remote areas of the country. This would be a great improvement because of the 50 children’s homes in T&T; there are none in the south east area. In fact, there are only three children’s homes in the whole eastern area from Toco all the way down to Moruga.

Daly chimed in: “Because it is new we will be evaluating as we go. Location will be a factor when selecting a placement for a child. If they are in school you want them to continue with their schooling without dislocation. The authority is not just sitting and waiting for legislation to pass and we have already begun to educate key stakeholders on how the new system will work.”

Ali-Abdullah echoed similar sentiments and added that it was imperative that all the people who would be affected by the new foster care system fully understand how it works for it to be fully effective.

She said: “We don’t want to wait until we proclaim and then do all of this because there must be transition, so we are going to begin assessing the children currently in foster care at our service centre where we have our social workers, doctors and psychologists already in place.”

A lot of care will be taken to ensure that children are not hurt even more through the new system and there will be several different monitoring tools for those who are selected. A licensing and monitoring department will be set up and will use various monitoring tools like unannounced calls, visits at nights and on the weekends. These surprise visits could be conducted at least twice a month. 

One of the major changes that the authority is looking forward to is the move away from the dormitory type facilities so that there can be an introduction of smaller group homes which will help create more love and attention for a displaced child.

There is no intention to introduce the system and not ensure that it gives all the benefits that a child needs as well as the correct support to foster parents, Daly said.

“We are looking at providing ongoing support whether it is a helpline or training for parents during the time that they would be fostering children or periodic sessions to really provide that type of support.”

Also present at the interview was Christalle Gemon the acting deputy director of Care, Legal and Regulatory Services who assured that entire foster care system would be based on a carefully prepared guide.

The assessment is very scientific because they have developed assessment tools which takes into consideration the history and the background of the applicant. The assessment tools are aimed at determining how effective a person would be as a foster care provider. 

In the lead up to the programme, there will be rigorous training of staff which includes looking at real life cases, she said.

Strategies have been developed which will help address the regularly occurring problems that are usually associated with foster care around the world. In the event that all the protocol is followed and there is still a breakdown in the relationship between the child and the foster parent, there are mechanisms in place to ensure an easy transition for both parties involved said acting Team Lead of Foster Care, Anjuli Tewari.

“Built in to the system we would take into consideration placement breakdown because it is very likely that sometimes children will act out, therefore we do have mechanisms in place to offer support, to do mediation, to even maybe have a system like a timeout. Our first initiative would be to support the relationship not to have that child removed. We do have systems in place to address placement breakdown.”

She admitted though that if at the end of the day a relationship is deemed unfixable there is a procedure in place to review the case and try a better placement option.

HOW THE SYSTEM WILL WORK

Christal Chapman, Senior Legal Associate with the Children’s Authority, broke down how the entire system would work, from application to selection.

The expressions of interest will be published, and a more detailed package will be forwarded to responder. This package would contain an application form and other documentation that highlights the roles and responsibilities of a foster parent. 

The person then has to submit a medical certificate attesting to their physical and mental well being. This can be obtained from a private doctor. They then have to submit a police certificate of good character which would have been obtained within the last six months preceding the application.

The person will then have to submit the contact information for two references and also photo identification. 

Once the completed application form and all the other required documents are submitted, the information is then verified and the process begins by opening a file for that applicant and starting the initial stages.

The first stage of the screening would be a home visit to assess the suitability of not just the applicant but the applicant’s home. As part of that screening process both the applicant and their family members as well as the home, the premises and the environment will be reviewed.

The applicant has to be able to provide for the health, education and the general welfare needs of the child. Once the initial screening is done at the home, a more in depth interview is conducted with the applicant. 

Background checks on members of the household outside of the applicant are also part of the process which means any adult living in the household or anybody in a visiting relationship and any regular visitors who do not live at the home will be investigated. 

The authority receives reports at each stage of assessment. A final report is then completed and submitted to the board for their approval. The board will then come to a decision.

If the applicant is accepted they will be added to an approved register of foster parents. The person is then trained by the authority.

The training will be used to highlight parenting skills, behavioral needs of children and child development issues. Those who are undertaking specialist roles with children with certain specialist needs may receive more in-depth training. 

Once the person is placed on the register, they can be added to the list of approved parents that can now be matched with a potential child in need.

Things like proximity to schooling, cultural and religious background of the foster carer are also taken into consideration because the authority will try as much as possible to have a child remain in the same background that they are familiar with as much as possible. 

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