Viewpoints: Foster parent shortage has a dire, domino effect on kids

A Molotov cocktail flew through the window of a North Natomas home in 2007, setting fire to the empty rental where 4-year-old foster child Amariana Crenshaw was found dead.

The foster mother, Tracy Dossman, was cleared as a suspect, but questions remained. Why was Amariana asleep on a floor in an empty rental home? Why had she gained only a single pound in the three years preceding her death?

Despite lingering concerns, Dossman continues to be a foster parent. Many in the community are outraged. I understand this outrage, but I also struggle with the vilification of yet another foster parent. In addition to concern over the suitability of Dossman, this tragic case illustrates broader problems within the foster care system, including what I believe to be a growing obstacle to meaningful reform: the shortage of qualified foster parents.

A study released by the Child Welfare Directors Association in 2007 reported the number of licensed foster homes statewide dropped 30 percent over the previous 10 years. This number was even higher in Sacramento County: 45 percent to 50 percent.

This shortage has dire consequences for children. First, it creates an environment in which agencies are unable to be choosy about who is licensed: a foster parent must only pass a background check and meet minimal requirements. The county is also less likely to decertify a parent – even when that parent comes under incredible scrutiny, as Dossman has – if it is in desperate need of the six beds that home provides.

Less obvious, but just as harmful, is the effect this shortage has on foster placements. Dossman considered herself an expert in adolescent care, but was "apprehensive" about mothering young children. Yet Amariana was placed in her home. Placements such as this – in which the foster family and child are not well matched – increase the likelihood a placement will fail. Failed placements correlate with increased trauma for children.

As new foster parents, my husband and I experienced this firsthand. Recently married and idealistic, we became foster parents, requesting one school-age child. The children we received, after a series of pleading calls from social workers, were sisters ages 3 and 13. We were wholly unprepared. As full-time working professionals, we had to put the toddler in private daycare, which cost hundreds of dollars more per month than we received from the county. The sisters were sweet and loving. They also suffered medical problems that made their care far more intense than we anticipated. Finally, we made the hardest decision of our life: we gave notice. The girls were removed from our home. We failed.

I do not blame the system for our failure – but I do believe that a system desperate to make a placement, regardless of fit, makes it difficult even for foster parents with good intentions to succeed. As a society, if we are serious about helping youths in foster care thrive, more families need to become foster parents, and we need to help these foster parents be successful.

This will happen through responsible placements, more support services and increased reimbursement rates.

It will also happen when those of us who have resources, support and perseverance to reform the failing system start within our own families. It's easy to critique a government system: journalists investigate injustices, policy-makers write legislation and philanthropists write checks. All of this is necessary and good. But it is only part of the solution. Reforming the system must include these same people – professionals with a passion for young people – opening the doors of their homes to foster children. It is essential that the professional class shoulder its share of the burden that falls heavily on lower-income families.

It may seem I am calling on people to sacrifice, but I know this from experience: When you fall in love with a child, what I am asking is not a sacrifice.

After our initial failed attempt, my husband and I were given a second chance to be foster parents, this time to a teenage boy. Tre'von Lyle was a freshman at Sacramento High School, where my husband is the principal. Tre'von was a perfect match for our family, and while foster parenting – like parenting of any kind – is never easy, we received support from the entire Sac High community. In the past three years, no one has brought us more joy than Tre'von. He is everything a parent could wish for: honest, smart, hardworking and kind. Last fall he applied to college, and we will support him wherever he goes. We love him as if he were our own son.

My husband and I do not take credit for Tre'von's success. He was as bright and ambitious when he came to us as he is today. But we know that Tre'von is exactly the kind of child foster home shortages hurt most – adolescent, male and African American. Young men like Tre'von, no matter how bright, are placed in group homes in shocking numbers.

Currently, 2 percent of emancipated foster youths go to college. Fifty percent experience homelessness or incarceration.

It is in our hands, as individuals and as a community, to improve outcomes for foster youths.