LUDLOW — Foster care is a program made of children’s personal stories and the adults in them. At a Feb. 12 panel discussion at the Ludlow Country Club, “Foster Care in Western MA: Hard Truths, Multiple Opportunities,” three foster care professionals shared information about the system and the various roles people can undertake to care for children.

As of September 2023, there were 9,153 children in foster care placements in Massachusetts, with nearly 2,000 in Western Massachusetts. Just over a third of the children were between the ages of 12 and 17, with about the same percentage between the ages of 6 and 11. The remaining children were younger than 6 years old. Children of all ages in foster care are cared for and monitored by social workers and volunteers.

The panel was organized and hosted by the Zonta Club of Quaboag Valley, the local chapter of an international organization that works to empower and support women. The organization’s motto is “Making the world a better place for women and girls.” Zonta member Dana Burton said, “Women and children are our focus, so [foster care] does play into that.”

The evening began with cocktails and dinner, over which attendees discussed their roles in the various civic organizations represented. The dinner conversation was designed to generate questions, which were written down and submitted to the panelists after dinner.

The panel featured three individuals who work in various aspects of foster care. Daisy Acosta is a social worker and foster care recruiter with the state Department of Children and Families, which operates the foster care system in Massachusetts. Ginger Elliott is a court appointed special advocate with CHD’s CASA of Hampden County. Lashanda Stone is a coordinator for DCF’s Volunteer Foster Case Review Program.

Stone has worked for DCF for nearly 25 years. In her current position as a volunteer foster case reviewer, she meets with families and children aged 14 and older to determine if a placement is meeting the child’s needs.

The first question asked if DCF was still “pushing” family reunification, even if it is not the best fit for every situation. Stone said the goal is to work toward finding a permanent care situation, “So children don’t languish in foster care.” While that can often be reunification with the child’s biological family, a backup plan is developed for each foster child if living with the family is not in the child’s best interest.

Similarly, Elliott was asked what she advocates for in situations in which there is no good option. She shared that with her current case, which involves a child who is living in a group care situation, neither foster care nor reunification are preferred options. Elliott said it is always important to listen to the child, teachers and others in their life. There is “not always a perfect solution,” she said, but “you do the best you can.”

Acosta was asked about the requirements for foster parents. She said many people tell her they have considered being foster parents but have questions about eligibility. Contrary to misconceptions among the public, she said, marital status and home ownership are not factors in determining the suitability of a foster family.

Instead, Acosta explained, foster parents must be 18 years of age or older, with proof of permanent legal residency in Massachusetts and a stable income. A criminal offender record information check is conducted on all members of the household aged 15 and older. The foster parent must attend an information session about the foster care process and what to expect, complete 30 hours of training, have references and be assessed by a social worker. A home visit is required, as is a national background check. “It’s a really intense interview process,” Acosta said.

Elliott was asked about being a court appointed special advocate and the training that is needed. She has been a court appointed special advocate for about a year and through her background as a former teacher, Elliott had prior experience with foster children. She said her sole consideration as a court appointed special advocate is being a voice for the child. After getting to know the child, she said it is a court appointed special advocate’s responsibility to speak for them ‘from a strictly human point of view.”

After eight to 10 weeks of training in the technical aspects of the job, such as writing court reports and understanding the legal parties involved, Court appointed special advocates are assigned to a foster child and work with that child until they leave the foster care system. The commitment involves visiting the child at least once per month and attending all court appearances, which usually occur every six months, she said.

One of the questions was about resources for grandparents who have assumed custody of their grandchildren. While Acosta said all foster parents have resources available to them, including respite, Gloria Williams, founder of the support group Grandparents N’ Charge, told a different story.

“There’s no book out there with resources,” Williams said.

She talked about the stress of raising grandchildren.

“It’s okay to be angry. You lose your friends. Your family don’t want to be bothered,” she said. “It’s a hard job.” That said, she acknowledged that the children are just as confused as the grandparents.

The panelists were asked about the best way to raise awareness about the needs of foster children. Stone and Acosta encouraged people to share information they had learned from the panel with friends. Elliott suggested exposing people to books and other media about foster care, including “Demon Copperhead,” by Barbara Kingsolver. Referring to society, she said, “We don’t react to something until it’s real to [us].”

Stone explained that people interested in becoming volunteer foster case reviewers can apply to DCF and provide references. Stone said the applicant will undergo a background check and be interviewed to check for biases, complete training and shadow a reviewer before working on cases.

Zonta Club of Quaboag Valley is supporting foster youth through its “Period Project,” putting together care packs of feminine care products and sanitary needs for teens and young women in foster care.

Zonta Communication Chair Mary Knight said that aside from becoming a foster parent, there are myriad ways people can touch the lives of foster children, including becoming more informed, donating money or items to foster youth, volunteering and supporting caregivers.

To learn more about foster care and how to become a foster parent, visit mass.gov/dcf.

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