A host of foster families, concerned citizens and childcare experts gathered together to help families who are fostering or adopting children and provide information to those who are considering doing the same.
About 150 people attended the fourth annual Foster Care and Adoption Recruitment and Retention Conference on Saturday in Ardmore. Amanda DiMiceli, recruitment supervisor, said the event started out purely as a foster and adoption recruitment event.
“We’re in desperate need of foster families in this area, specifically in Carter County” DiMiceli said. “It’s hard to get the community engaged, so what was happening was our current foster families were coming.”
DiMiceli said they reworked the event to serve two purposes; draw in people who are considering fostering or adopting, and give information and resources to families who already are.
Child Welfare Supervisor Leland Jones said that while the number of foster children in the system has decreased slightly overall, the number of foster families has fallen as well. In addition, more children are coming to the system with trauma related to substance abuse and neglect.
“The level of need has gone up, as far as behavioral, emotional needs that these children have,” Jones said. “It has risen, because our children have compound, complex trauma.”
Foster parents and former foster children gave their personal testimonies as well, an addition to the program since last year.
There are currently about 166 foster children in Carter County, with roughly 8,500 total in the state. DiMiceli said there are about 25 traditional foster families in the county, meaning families who have no previous relation to the children they foster. Foster families can care for up to six children, including their biological children, according to state law.
“We have no vacancies,” DiMiceli said.
After the presentations, families were free to explore the vendor’s room, where counselors, health care providers and other groups were stationed and ready to offer help. Some were new to the event, while others have been part of it from the beginning.
Nicole Johnson, with Heartline, an Oklahoma City-based organization that operates and answers several hotlines, including a Suicide Prevention hotline at 833-885-CARE attended.
“We answer for 76 counties, and our newest one is our youth crisis mobile response line,” Johnson said. “We came to this event to promote and get the word out about the response line.”
Johnson said the line was created by an Oklahoma Systems of Care initiative and funded through a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance abuse. The 24/7 hotline is specifically for callers 24 and younger who are experiencing a mental health crisis. The line launched last February.
“We will de-escalate, and we can connect you with a mental health provider in the county,” Johnson said.
Pam Kerkstra, a counselor with Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers, said she’s seen the same long shadow of addiction in her work.
“This is my fourth year here,” Kerkstra said. “We’re seeing more problems within families. With our drug problem the way that it is, it’s intensified the work DHS does. So many of these kids are coming out of the most difficult situations.”
Kerkstra said the chaotic environment created by addiction is especially traumatic. Lighthouse offers family counseling, parenting classes, psychiatric help and specialized programs for children.
“That’s really also kind of advocacy for (foster children),” Kerkstra said.
She said she’s also seen community awareness of the issue grow within the last few years in Carter County and surrounding areas, something she said she finds encouraging.
“There’s more awareness for how trauma effects kids,” Kerkstra said. “People are seeing that it’s not so much ‘What’s wrong with that child?’ It’s ‘What happened to that child?’”