By Adam Orr
County seeking additional families able to help
Looking down at a content baby girl with a full belly, Jason Reardon knew he had a decision to make.
Eight years ago, Reardon and his wife Mary committed to serving as foster parents for children just like the one-month-old girl who was staring back at him, he said, but they’d felt emotionally torn when previous foster children they had parented for more than a year had moved on.
“When they left that hurt me so much,” Reardon said Friday. “So when I’m staring at this little girl in my arms, I had a lot of reservation about how much love I could truly give. I’d been hurt. I spoke to God in my quiet time and realized he had never denied me love and that made an impact on me. I made a commitment right then to open up and give this child all the love I had.”
Over the past eight years, the Reardons said they’ve fostered 25 children in their Spartanburg home. They’ve adopted two sets of sisters and are caring for two more boys on a foster basis today.
Unmet need grows
Families like the Reardons serve a critical need for children who have been removed from their biological families for any number of reasons, according to Jocelyn Gibson, the Program Coordinator for South Carolina Department of Social Services Region I Foster Family and Licensing Support.
The problem, Gibson said, is that the need for foster families simply outstrips the supply. She said Spartanburg County has 152 licensed foster families, but some 315 children who need placement.
“Spartanburg has the second highest amount of foster homes in the state but the amount of children is just so high,” Gibson said. “Some families we lose because they’ve had a bad experience, but we also lose a lot of foster families when they adopt. So it’s hard to increase the number of families at the rate we need.”
Statistics indicate the need for foster families won’t decrease any time soon, according to the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
Statewide, between 2011 and 2018, the number of children placed in some form of foster care rose from less than 4,000 children per year to approximately 4,500 children in 2018 alone.
That’s due in part to a spike in the number of Child Protective Service referrals for investigation, which have grown statewide from 30,000 in 2013-2014 to more than 55,000 in 2017-2018. The number of “founded,” investigations have also climbed from 7,139 in 2013-2014 to 10,928 in 2017-2018.
Following a referral, the agency investigates households with children for a variety of problems including physical abuse or the potential for physical abuse, along with neglect, child sexual abuse or other problems. Depending on risk factors, the agency could promote in-home interventions called community-based preventive services. In others, children could be placed in the care of foster families.
DSS data for Spartanburg County also tell a similar story. In 2009, investigators uncovered 280 cases of neglect, 98 cases of physical abuse and 27 cases of sexual abuse. By 2013, neglect cases had climbed to 475, along with 149 instances of physical abuse and 26 sex abuse cases. Last year, there were 702 cases of neglect in Spartanburg County, 280 instances of physical abuse and 38 instances of sexual abuse.
Sonya O’Neal is the vice president of program and clinical services for Thornwell, an organization that works with a network of foster facilities and families in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, among other services.
She believes at least some of the rise in founded investigations can be attributed to a public that is better informed about the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma.
“The public awareness and willingness to talk about things going on has increased,” O’Neal said this week. “I think people are more vocal and willing to intervene when they don’t feel right about something, and that’s not just mandated reporters but other people recognizing situations that maybe we might not have understood as well 10 years ago.”
She thinks some of the rise in abuse statistics can be attributed to the nation’s opioid crisis, which has hit South Carolina hard. In 2009, there were less 300 opioid-related overdoses compared to 749 in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Poverty also takes its toll,” O’Neal said. “We can always find folks on the edge of poverty and really just struggling. Maybe they’re one paycheck away from homelessness. It just puts you in a different situation. Maybe you have limited options on where you live, and maybe that puts you at greater risk for violence. Maybe you can’t afford to miss work, so you have to leave your kids alone by themselves.”
Children who suffer the kinds of abuse that warrant placement with a foster family – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control call them Adverse Childhood Experiences – are at risk for a host of negative consequences later on.
Experts link ACES to risky health behaviors and chronic health conditions, lower life potential and even early death.
As those traumatic experiences mount, the risk for negative consequences in later life grows, according to the CDC.
In situations that warrant foster placement, families like the Reardons, Roebuck’s Jordan and Kelly Bomar and Emily and Nathan Forrest of Simpsonville step up.
With three biological children of their own, Kelly Bomar said the couple received their license in August 2018 and took in a 19-month-old boy.
“There was some hesitancy at the thought because you just don’t know what this child has been through,” Bomar said. “But once we got our license and got the call, there was no question we were going to do this.”
After several months, the boy was reunited with his biological family, Bomar said, which she described as a “gut wrenching” experience. The child later came back into the foster system, and was placed with the Bomars again earlier this year.
“We had to re-establish routines and boundaries,” Bomar said. “But is it worth it? Absolutely. It’s our hope that he can overcome any trauma he’s experienced in his short life and bounce back.”
That license was granted in October 2017, and the couple have fostered a trio of children since then. They also have three biological children of their own.
“It was just the opportunity of realizing there was a need, and there was nothing stopping us,” Emily Forrest said. “Some of these kids have a lot of baggage and have experienced more stuff in their young lives than some people ever will. So you have to meet them where they are and just work with them.”
Gibson said she believes a number of factors keep potential foster parents from following in the footsteps of families like the Forrests. She said many people believe each foster child must have their own room, that families must have a surplus of income or that one parent must stay at home with the children.
“In general, kids do have visitation with their biological parents, which worries some people, unless a termination of parental rights has been completed or by court order,” Gibson said. “Foster families are encouraged when it’s safe and appropriate to engage with the biological family at some point. They may team up for a doctor’s visit. But generally visitation is facilitated by DSS.”
Help on the way
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, President Donald Trump’s Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 included the Family First Prevention Services Act, which will go into effect in South Carolina in October of 2020.
The group said the act has the potential to “dramatically change,” child welfare systems across the country, opening up for the first time federal funds for preventive services that could reduce the number of children entering South Carolina’s foster care system, according to Chamlee Loscuito, the Chief Executive Officer for the Hope Center for Children.
“The idea is to catch problems early and come up with interventions that would keep kids in their homes,” Losciuto said. “The current system really only kicks into effect after something horrific has already taken place with these kids. It’s really important that we figure out a way to have a system of support for families at all times. That’s really what this law is doing. it’s shifting dollars to preventive measures.”
Groups like Thornwell and Miracle Hill also offer continuous support for foster families, including sharing resources, tips and sometimes offering a place to simply “vent and lament,” according to Gibson.
A Spartanburg-based technology startup has also partnered with United Way of the Piedmont to create a new application that will make available, for free, resources for struggling foster families.
Jason Reardon said the point is not to stretch yourself or your resources to the point of exhaustion.
“There’s something everybody can do to help,” Reardon said. “So you might not be able to foster someone long term, but you might be able to help on an emergency basis or just to give another family a break. If you had meals ready-to-go for a family who’s taking some kid in at 10 p.m., that’d be appreciated. There are ways to help for anybody.”