The number of people willing to become foster parents has dropped sharply as Hawaii’s struggling economy appears to be discouraging people from taking in children who need homes.
The number of families that completed the necessary background checks and finished classes toward receiving foster care licenses jumped to 157 in fiscal year 2009 from 82 in fiscal year 2008, according to Hui Ho’omalu, the nonprofit group that has the primary contract with the state Department of Human Services to recruit and train families for their foster care licenses.
But as Hawaii’s economy struggled, the number of foster, or "resource," families across the islands dropped to just 100 in fiscal year 2010 from 157.
Hui Ho’omalu has an annual goal of training 280 new resource families every year.
"A lot of families look into it and some will get the process started," said Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services. "But because the economy has been so bad, people here and nationwide are having a hard time providing for their families. So it makes it hard to take on another child."
Midway through fiscal year 2009, Hui Ho’omalu had been able to get only 49 new families prepared for their licenses, said Stephanie Helbush, Hui Ho’omalu’s statewide general license recruitment and training coordinator.
Last month, the number of new families dropped to 40.
"They say, ‘For economic reasons, we don’t have room because family (members) have to move in because they’re losing jobs,’" Helbush said. "People have to cut back all over the place. They may not have the extra money to care for another person. But there’s still the need, for sure."
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Oahu has the largest number of new resource families, with 55 ready for licenses in fiscal year 2010 — down from 101 in fiscal year 2009.
The eastern side of the Big Island has the second biggest number of resource families — 17 in fiscal year 2010, down from 23 in fiscal year 2009.
The numbers reflect only the number of families that go through training and background checks each year en route to receiving licenses, "but it’s rare when someone doesn’t actually get their license," Helbush said.
DHS estimates that 1,300 to 1,400 children around the islands are living in some arrangement that does not involve their birth parents.
While more resource families are still needed, the number of foster children has dropped dramatically — from nearly 4,000 six years ago — primarily through DHS’ emphasis on working with parents so they can be reunited with their children in foster care.
While parents work on problems, such as anger management and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, in hopes of getting their children back, DHS still relies on resource families to take care of foster children.
Resource families receive room and board reimbursement every month of $529 per child, although the amount can increase for a wide range of factors, such as taking in groups of siblings, Schwartz said.
The greatest need is for families to foster teenagers, groups of siblings and families of Hawaiian descent, Helbush said.
Hui Ho’omalu especially wants to recruit new resource families that live in the same school districts that foster children are accustomed to.
"There may be a place to put them, but it’s often only for a short time and all the way across town and not in a place that’s familiar," Helbush said.
So Hui Ho’omalu representatives have been recruiting new families at churches, fairs, canoe clubs, Rotary clubs "and everywhere you can think of," Helbush said.
Patti and Len Poleshaj had been independently thinking about becoming foster parents after their second child went off to college in Arizona two years ago, leaving them with a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Kailua and no children.
"My husband said, ‘What are we going to do with this big house? What about being foster parents?’" Patti said. "It was something I had thought about."
The Poleshajs run their own carpet-cleaning business out of their house and specifically were not interested in having young children around.
A friend and fellow church member at Hope Chapel in Kaneohe works at Hui Ho’omalu and quickly recruited the Poleshajs — "especially when we said we would be willing to take older kids," Patti said. "We found out there’s a great need for resource families to take teenagers."
The Poleshajs were impressed by the rigorous criminal background checks that began in July of anyone who spends time in their household, including their bookkeeper and their adult children who attend schools in California and Arizona.
There were home inspections, fingerprints, verifications on their children with officials in California and Arizona, and three- to four-hour interviews with the Poleshajs separately and together "talking about our childhoods, our children, our marriage," Patti said. "It was very intensive."
Patti added: "We understood we would be investigated. And I was glad this much goes into it. It’s not just ‘We have lots of kids, apply — here you go.’"
They underwent four nights of training in which the Poleshajs learned they’re not supposed to be "replacement parents."
"We’re to be alongside the child, much like an aunty or uncle would, to help while their parents go through anger management, rehab or whatever they need," she said. "Because the main goal in Hawaii is reunification."
When the process was complete, Hui Ho’omalu had compiled several hundred pages of reports on the Poleshajs that went to DHS, which led to their license and appointment with a "matcher" who had a 17-year-old boy in mind for them. He was already attending high school on the Windward side.
He had been in Hawaii’s foster care system since he was 8 months old and had lived in nine different shelters or foster homes from Haleiwa to Ewa Beach to Kaimuki.
"We learned that every time a child is placed in a new home, they regress a year," Patti said. "Isn’t that horrible?"
The Poleshajs met the boy in August. Patti said he had several questions for them, based on his experience in previous foster homes:
» "Could he practice his trumpet in the house? Because he wasn’t allowed to in other homes.
» "If we weren’t there, would he have to wait outside? Because that was the situation at another home. They didn’t trust him.
» "Could he cook his own food and go into the refrigerator? Because he wasn’t allowed to at other homes.
"We gave him a key to the house and said he was welcomed to eat whatever was in the house," Patti said. "He came to live with us the next day."
The Poleshajs did have rules, though.
The boy had to make his bed, take out the garbage, vacuum when asked, and keep his bedroom and bathroom tidy.
HE continues to struggle through his senior year in high school "because he has never had anybody to encourage him or require him to succeed," Patti said.
But she’s determined to see him graduate this spring, go on to Windward Community College for two years of general education, then study music at the University of Hawaii, which will be paid for with various scholarships offered to foster children.
Then a few weeks ago, the boy had another question for the Poleshajs: Where will he live when he turns 18 in July and "ages out" of Hawaii’s foster care system?
"We said, as long as he’s in school and moving forward, he’s welcome to stay," Patti said. "I’m not going to let up on him."