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Couple opens their home, heart for foster children

fr newfostersAs Caroline Kernahan talked about why she wanted to be a foster parent, her 4-year-old daughter Claire climbed into her lap and asked when her new brother or sister would be coming to stay with them.

“Soon, honey,” Kernahan replied before sending her daughter back into the living room with a snack. “A lot of this process is above her level, but we’ve tried to prepare her for another child coming into her home as best we can. We just tell her some children’s parents can’t take care of them right now and they might need to come stay with us so we can keep them healthy and happy.”

Preparing their young daughter has been only a small hurdle on the way to becoming foster parents. Kernahan and her wife Elizabeth Balof-Bird have been working toward being foster parents for nearly six years, and it looks like the process is finally coming to fruition. With only one more home visit and some more paperwork, the couple should be licensed to care for foster children within a month or so. 

“We’re told we could have our license by the end of January and could have a placement immediately,” Kernahan said with a sigh of relief. “The classes teach you that you can never really be prepared so I don’t know if I am, but I’m ready to try.”


Weeding out the weak

As soon as they relocated to Haywood County this August and settled into their new Crabtree home, Kernahan and Balof-Bird signed up for the foster parent training classes through the Department of Social Services. In the meantime, they’ve done their best to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for the roller coaster ride that is coming their way. 

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They are excited, nervous and anxious — and with good reason. Becoming licensed foster parents is a long and arduous process. It includes 30 hours of initial training followed by an additional 20 hours of training every year after that to maintain the license. They also have to take CPR and first aid classes, go through in-depth interviews, background checks, health physicals for everyone in the house including pets and numerous home visits and inspections.

“You have to really want to do it badly to jump through all those hoops,” Kernahan said. “They pry into every portion of your private life.”

There’s simply too much at risk for DSS not to extensively vet people wanting to be foster parents. Rachel Young with Haywood County DSS said the screening process is extensive so people who want to foster for the wrong reasons won’t make it through. The last thing social workers want is for children to be re-traumatized after placing them in a foster home. When she goes for a home visit, Young said she checks everything in a home from tasting the water to inspecting the way the family stores its cleaning chemicals. 

“We pretty much pry into every aspect of their lives making sure we know the homes to prevent anything else from happening to that child,” Young said. 

Even though foster parents do receive a monthly stipend to make sure the child has what he or she needs, they must prove they have the financial means to care for the child without the stipend. The stipend is paid a month after the child is placed in a foster home, but the cost of having the child is instant. Many children need new shoes, clothing and medical care as soon as they are placed in a foster home. 

Young said the training sessions help prepare foster parents for how to deal with a variety of behavioral problems they could encounter with foster children. Best-case scenario, the child has been traumatized simply from being removed from their home. However, that is usually the tip of the iceberg. Children are often removed from the home because they are being neglected or abused, there is drug abuse in the home or because the family has experienced some kind of tragedy. 

Kernahan has no doubt that the training sessions are meant to scare off those who may not be ready for the challenge. Given the shortage of foster homes in the area, she wishes the process were a little easier for those who want to become foster parents. 

“I’m not perfect and I feel like they want us to be perfect,” she said. “You definitely get the feeling they’re trying to scare you off by telling you worst-case scenarios, but you also know they are trying to scare you off so the remaining people are in it for the right reasons.”


It takes a village

In many ways, raising someone else’s child can be more difficult than raising your own — something Kernahan is starting to understand. She and Balof-Bird decided to have their own child before fostering to have a better grasp of parenting. 

While having a child has definitely taught them a level of personal sacrifice and patience, taking in foster children will teach them a new level of compassion and flexibility. Even if your style of parenting and discipline is successful with your own children, there has to be a different set of rules and expectations for a foster child depending on what they’ve been through. 

Paula Watson, foster care supervisor for Haywood County DSS, said children taken from their home without much warning have gone through enough change and can’t be expected to immediately abide by a new set of house rules without some transition time. They need time and endless patience as they try to adjust.

“It’s much different fostering than being a parent,” she said. “You absolutely have to be flexible with your time and energy.”

Before starting the foster care classes, Kernahan said she wasn’t aware of the “shared-parenting” expectation for foster parents. DSS’s first priority is to have reunification between the child and their biological parents, which means foster parents have to be willing to make every effort to keep that parent/child relationship going as long as social workers deem it a safe situation. 

“North Carolina puts a huge emphasis on shared parenting with the biological parents, so you have to be willing to work with the parent if there aren’t any safety issues,” Young said. “Some parents fail just because they’ve never seen good parenting, but through shared parenting they can learn a lot from the foster parents and the foster parents can learn from biological parents ways to make the child’s transition more comfortable.”

Foster parents are responsible for getting the child to DSS once a week for visitation with the parents. If a child isn’t allowed parental visitation or if the parents fail to show, the foster parents are still expected to make every effort to keep them connected — even if it’s only through emails, letters or phone calls. 

“The foster parent is partners with the social workers and the biological parents and we have to accept that,” Kernahan said. “No matter what your personal feelings are (toward the biological parent), you can’t share that with the child — you can’t damage that relationship.” 

The biological parents are given a picture of the foster parents so they can put faces to the names of the people caring for their children. Foster parents have to maintain a high level of confidentiality regarding the biological family’s situation. That means Kernahan can’t call her mother and vent about what is going on with her foster child and parent, but she can discuss any issues with her social worker. 

Lastly, Young said all privacy goes out the window when you become a foster parent. With a support system of social workers and children’s court advocates, foster parents quickly become accustomed to having people in and out of their homes each month checking in on the family. 

“You really have to open up your life to be a foster parent because you’ll have two or three different social workers coming into your home on a monthly basis,” Young said. 


Ready to receive

Despite all the obstacles and a little fear of the unknown, Kernahan and Balof-Bird can’t wait to begin helping children who need a home. Because of Claire’s young age, they are looking at only fostering children up to the age of 10 at first to make sure Claire is comfortable with other children in the house. If all goes well, they are open to fostering teenagers.

Even though they were told in their training classes that fostering is not a fast track to adopting a child, Kernahan and Balof-Bird still have the long-term goal of some day adopting if the opportunity presents itself.

They haven’t mentioned adoption to Claire for fear of getting her hopes up. They know it will be hard for all of them to see a child leave their home whether they stay for a few months of a couple of years. Either way, Claire seems like she’s more than ready to have a sibling. Her New Year’s resolution was to have a baby brother or sister.

“I know it will test us, but we feel like it will be worth it and we feel like we have a lot of love to give,” Kernaham said.  

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