The need for foster care providers in Yellowstone County is climbing so rapidly that an agency that trains and supports prospective foster parents can’t print its brochure quickly enough to keep it current.
“Every time we publish a number it’s wrong,” said Steve Scansen, community director for Child Bridge, a support agency for families and churches working to provide more foster homes for children. “In Yellowstone County, we went from 488 kids in foster care in June to 623 kids three months later. That is an increase of 45 kids on average per month. Yellowstone County is leading the charge in removing kids from unsafe circumstances.”
Scansen’s job in part is to work with area faith communities “to create awareness of the need. When families hear that call (to consider becoming foster parents), I walk them through the process.”
One Billings foster parent who heard the call and responded to it is Tina Ott, a single mother who’s a foster parent to sisters who are 12 and 13. Ott, who welcomed the girls to her home in August, can’t identify them to protect their privacy.
“They were home schooled for the first few years, but they’re doing well in public schools, getting great grades and playing sports like normal kids,” she said.
Ott said she's learning to understand some of the behavior she's witnessed.
“Being pulled from their home is a traumatic experience,” she said. “They get angry and say they don’t like the food I’m serving, but it may be that they are missing their mom’s cooking.”
Ott, 54, has children and grandchildren of her own. She’s on Social Security disability with a back injury, “and I was thinking through how I can give back to the community.” She took classes from Child Bridge and then Youth Dynamics, which trained her to become a licensed therapeutic foster home provider.
That means, “I get the kids to their doctor, dental and therapy appointments, all the things that make them healthy and successful,” she said.
The sisters share a bedroom adjacent to Ott’s. All three share a bathroom.
“They argue like teenage girls,” Ott said with a laugh. “‘You took my fingernail polish!’ ‘Where is my mascara?’” she said. “But then they get angry at you because you’re the safe one. I think of what they have gone through, and I think I would be angry too.”
Ott receives a stipend to help with the girls’ expenses, and their medical care is covered by Medicaid. “They try not to make it a burden” on the family providing the foster care, she said.
Inspired by her mother's efforts, Ott’s daughter, Maria, is now taking classes to learn how to provide foster care for infants.
Ott said enjoying an occasional break from foster care has been an important contributor to her success so far, and will be for her daughter as well.
“It is very demanding work, and so having a family member say, ‘I can take the kids for a week while you take some time with your biological children,’ is big,” she said. “I also need time to be with my grandchildren.”
“It is important,” she said, “to have a network around you, and that includes Child Bridge.”
For his part, Scansen is spreading the message about the growing need for foster families in every church that invites him. Recently at Faith Chapel, 49 people attended an informational meeting, he said.
“Right after the meeting, five people said we want to be trained immediately,” he said. “That is not typical.”
To date, 240 children have been cared for by Child Bridge-affiliated families, 96 of them so far in 2016. About a dozen churches partner with the agency.
“Child Bridge is convinced that the best recruiting tool is happy and supportive foster families who tell others, ‘You can do this,’” Scansen said. “It is not a short journey.”
The journey includes an investment of many months to obtain certification, including completion of the Keep Children Safe program required by the state, a licensing process, and ongoing monthly training.
Child Bridge, which last month earned a congressional award designating the agency as Angels in Adoption, is convinced that support and training given to foster parents gives children who need the help a better chance at succeeding and saves tax dollars along the way.
Children who age out of foster care can cost taxpayers more than $300,000 in services over the course of their lifetime, Scansen said, “and the likelihood of their graduation or being employed is low.”
One study showed that 71 percent of those children become single mothers, and 77 of the young men are incarcerated, he said.
“We look at the economics and the statistics and we are convinced that something has to be done,” Scansen said. “These kids are not the problem, but they bear the brunt of the problem.”