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Finding homes for children in need

County photo gallery designed to draw foster, adoptive families

June 9, 2011

Danielle E. Gaines, Staff Writer

Gazette.net

Monday was a hard day for foster mother Sandra Mitchell. She had to say goodbye to Josephine, the bubbly, warm-hearted 14-year-old girl she had come to love over the past year. Josephine came into the Mitchell family’s Germantown home at the end of last school year and was scheduled to leave Monday, just days short of a year later.

Mitchell got the call Friday and it shook her. She was happy because Josephine was going home to her birth family, but also profoundly saddened at her own loss, which weighed on her like a ton of bricks.

“This is the part of the job I don’t like. I’m so sad,” said Mitchell, who has been fostering Montgomery County children for eight years. “She’s like my little best friend. Everyone loves her to death in this house.”

Mitchell is one of 285 registered foster parents who serve 555 foster children in Montgomery County. She adopted a child, 14-year-old Jasmine, two years ago, after she’d fostered the girl for five years.

With three biological children a 31-year-old daughter and two sons, 15 and 20 and a loving husband, Alan, Mitchell is the matriarch of just the type of “forever family” that Montgomery County Child Welfare Services wants to reach out to.

Josephine had to change schools to live with the Mitchells, as do many older children in the system. The county’s older foster children and other vulnerable groups are often placed far from their friends, schools, neighborhoods and families because their age or other factors makes it harder for county social workers to find foster placements close to home.

Child Welfare Services is also trying to find adoptive parents for children who have sometimes spent years in the foster system. “We have kids that are 18 or 19 years old and could have let go of the idea, but they’re still holding out hope for a permanent family,” said Erin Stillwell, a social worker and foster parent recruiter for the county agency. By the end of June, the adoptions unit of Child Welfare Services will have finalized 52 adoptions in the 2011 fiscal year.

The most common age for children in the child welfare system in Montgomery County is 15 to 19, followed by 10 to 14, Stillwell said. So Friday evening, Mitchell was looking for another teenage girl to foster and possibly adopt. She and more than a dozen other foster and prospective adoptive parents attended a first-of-its-kind event by the agency in Germantown.

Inside a small, second-floor gallery at BlackRock Center for the Arts, county employees hung posters featuring portraits of children, their dates of birth and short descriptions of their life and interests. All the pictured children come from county families where abuse or neglect was an issue; the parental rights of their birth parents have been terminated by the courts.

Ashley, 13, who is wearing a ruffled, baby blue cardigan and colorful jewelry in her picture, enjoys singing, dancing and reading, and shines academically. “I would love to be matched with two parents who could spend lots of time with me!” her poster read. On tables around the room were framed stories of other children who are now in group homes and want to be in foster homes instead.

One frame held the story of Nadia, Rebecca and Jaylen. The three sisters, ages 8 to 11, wanted to be placed together in a foster home.  Ten more photo posters were hung in the lobby, promoting children from the larger metropolitan area. The Freddie Mac Foundation Heart Gallery has hosted a traveling photo exhibit since 2005, helping place 71 children with adoptive parents.

For Tonia Jones, the event could not have been more different than her introduction to the county’s foster system. The mother of three grown boys ages 20, 19 and 15, Jones had always wanted to adopt a daughter. During a visit to the library in 2008, she spotted a tri-fold brochure about the foster program and took it home. A short while later, she was fostering a beautiful 9-month-old baby girl. Jones adopted her first daughter, now named Sasha Natalia Jones, in April. She attended the event Friday because she hopes to foster or adopt another girl, Jones said.

Mitchell came to the event with her mother-in-law, who also is an active foster parent in Montgomery County. Her own mother fostered children in New York, so she has always had support for opening her home, Mitchell said.

For children like Josephine, the stability of a loving foster home can make all the difference in the world. Mitchell said Josephine opened up and became very close with Jasmine while she stayed with the family. They vacationed together in South Carolina and New York and celebrated birthdays as a family. The Mitchells hope to keep in touch with Josephine after she returns to her home. “I was happy that I met [the Mitchells], but I’m also happy that I’m leaving,” Josephine said. “They’re such nice people, willing to help anyone.”

Filed in: In the Press, Local News, Montgomery County

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