Every holiday season Nancy DeWeese and her husband, Gary, host a Christmas party. But it’s not your average family gathering, because this is not your average family. At these parties, three dozen children from all walks of life, including the couple’s four biological kids, gather to share in a common experience: Each child has spent part of their lives growing up at the DeWeese family home in Moraga. “They see each other and they’re like, ‘Oh, we started out as babies in the same house,’” Nancy DeWeese said.
The DeWeeses are among the many Bay Area families who have opened up their homes to the thousands of children in the foster care system. Over more than twenty years, the DeWeese family has welcomed 33 foster children under the age of 18 months to their home. Today Nancy DeWeese works for Contra Costa County, leading information sessions for prospective foster parents and using her own experience to share with others the rewards of the job.
The family’s modest ranch house is full of photographs. The refrigerator alone is a hodgepodge of baby pictures, and so are the walls of the “baby room” at the back of the house. “We tell them if they were here six months they get one picture, one year they get two pictures,” DeWeese said, gesturing to the two large collages hanging on the wall. There are two cribs in the room, and plush toys like Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh litter the floor. “This room has always been like this,” she said.
Nancy’s eyes light up as she tells the story of one kid after another. For an outsider, it’s hard to keep track of the names and stories of 33 lives, but as she touches each photograph, it’s not difficult to see how deeply each child has touched this foster mom. “I didn’t realize what an impact it would have on my life,” she says and smiles.
Being a foster family has meant a busy household for the DeWeeses. But Nancy, who also works as a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, said she would not have it any other way. “You’re doing it because you want to help other people,” she said.
Foster care is temporary housing for children whose parents or caregivers have been found unfit to look after their children, as determined by the county’s Child Protective Services agency. The reason for the child’s removal could be anything from physical or sexual abuse to neglect as the result of a parent’s drug addiction. Foster care stays can last from a few days to a few years; they differ from adoption services, which attempt to find a new, permanent home for the children.
There are a number of local agencies that are charged with placing children in foster care. In the Bay Area, Contra Costa County’s Children and Family Services does the job, and in Alameda County it is the county’s Social Services department. But each county also has a number of foster family agencies, which are private non-profit groups that help to place children with special needs who require more demanding care.
Becoming a foster parent requires a county-issued license. The process begins with an orientation session and paperwork, through which parents are asked questions about their financial security and physical health. The county then screens the families, which includes a home inspection and criminal background checks on the adults living in the home. Foster parents must also participate in 27 hours of training, spread out over the course of several Saturdays.
Though there is some compensation for the job, it isn’t much, Nancy DeWeese said.In Contra Costa, rates for foster parenting vary by age of the foster child; they range from roughly $450 to $630 a month. The older the child, the more assistance is provided. Additional funds are given for children with special needs.
“The rate that’s paid to foster parents is very modest,” said Amy Lemley, founder of First Place For Youth in Oakland, a program that aids foster children in preparing for adulthood, who is the current policy director at the John Burton Fund for Children Without Homes. “Most people who are foster parents financially come out on the losing end of that deal.”
In 2011 there were close to 1,000 children in Contra Costa County and around 1,600 children in Alameda County who depended upon foster care, according to KidsData.org, a California-centered data collection program run by the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. Over the past several years, the numbers in both counties have decreased by nearly half.
But despite the drop in the number of foster youth, Alameda and Contra Costa counties still struggle with a serious need for foster parents, according to child welfare workers in both cities. Historically, older kids and teenagers are more difficult to place than babies, county workers said. “Most people want cute little babies or kids they can mold and shape,” said Antoinette Harris, Regional Manager for EMQ Families First, a foster family agency in Contra Costa County.
Kathy Marsh, a social worker for Contra Costa County’s Children and Family Services, said the need for more families could be a matter of economics. The recession of the past several years, coupled with the high cost of living in that county, has left many potential foster parents struggling to support their own families, let alone a new child, she said.
For many foster children, the lack of available foster homes in their area means being sent away from their neighborhoods and schools, or sometimes moved to a new county entirely. This can be troubling for kids who have already suffered the trauma of being taken from their home, Marsh said. “If you put yourself in a young person’s shoes, it’s going to cause disruption in your life,” she said. “Some get a fresh start, but for others it’s just another trauma.”
Lemley, who was recently a candidate for Oakland’s District 1 city council seat, said the need for foster families in both counties could be linked to a lack of government resources targeted to foster families.
Figuring out funding for kids in the foster care system is something of a juggling act. When children first enter protective services, the birth family’s income is compared to a standard set in July 1996 under the old welfare program AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. If the family meets that standard, then funding for the kids comes from the federal government, which would pay for 50 percent of the cost of caring for the child. But over the years, the standard has not been adjusted for inflation, which means that as we move further from 1996, rising income rates mean fewer families meet the standard, Lemley said. The way the 1996 standard has become outdated due to inflation is known as the “lookback provision.”