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Changing needs, strategies in foster care as number of children in Missouri’s system increases

Ryan Dowis (at left) and Melanie Scheetz joined Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” to discuss current challenges facing the region’s most vulnerable youth and those who care for them.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

For the first time in two decades, a growing number of children in St. Louis and Missouri are in foster care, and the opioid epidemic is a driving factor.

“[The number of children in foster care] had really been declining for many years, and especially in the St. Louis region but all across Missouri we saw fewer and fewer children in the system,” Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the St. Louis-based Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air. “Obviously that’s our goal – not to have children in the foster-care system. But unfortunately, when we have parents with substance-abuse issues, especially opioids, we see more kids coming into care.”

Scheetz joined host Don Marsh to talk about the region’s changing foster-care needs and some of the latest strategies aimed at helping vulnerable children and families across the city and the state. Ryan Dowis, chief operating officer for Cornerstones of Care, was also part of the conversation.

Dowis noted that more than 13,000 youth are currently in the system within the state of Missouri, and both he and Scheetz expressed gratitude to the foster and adoptive parents who step up to assist.

“When a decision’s made that a child can’t safely reside in the home, those [children] become all of our responsibility,” Dowis said. “And it’s amazing that we have folks open their home and volunteer to be foster parents, because I don’t know what we would do with those youth and those kids and be able to provide the care that they need.”

His Kansas City-headquartered organization provides “trauma-informed” therapy and other health and safety support to children and families across the state.

“A lot of the youth that we work with in the foster-care system have experienced some type of trauma, and what we tend to know about is the trauma, or negative experience, of possibly abuse or neglect in their biological home, the home that they resided in,” Dowis explained. “Maybe they’ve been experiencing that trauma for some time, whether it’s getting yelled at at home, or their educational needs not being met, or it not being a safe environment to live in.

“And we know about that trauma,” he continued, “but the other piece of trauma is [that] when the children can’t safely live with their parents and they’re brought into the foster-care system, that’s traumatic as well. Imagine going to stay with someone that you don’t know for the first time and being taken away from everything that you’ve ever known.”

Scheetz noted that about 5 to 10 percent of the children and youth her organization works with have experienced “complex trauma” that can present itself in many different ways. For example, a child might break windows or even become violent with a foster parent.

“My husband and I are foster-adoptive parents,” she added. “In our case, it was with our daughter running away to very dangerous situations. … It comes down to trust. They do not have trust for people to care for them. And so what are you going to do when you’re a kid? That comes out in a backlash. We call it behaviors, but behaviors isn’t really what it’s about. It’s their trauma response.”

Such challenges can sometimes seem overwhelming to a foster parent, but organizations including Cornerstones of Care and the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition aim to provide support along the way.

“Most people come into fostering traditionally because they want to help,” Dowis said, “and that’s a good reason to get involved. [But they] are maybe at times unprepared for some of the challenges that our youth in foster care might exhibit. And so one of the things that’s very important is that we do walk alongside the foster parent and support them.”

Scheetz noted that fewer traditional foster homes, overall, have been needed around the St. Louis region in recent years as the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition continues to put more emphasis on placing children with relatives wherever possible.

“That being said, with the [recent increase] with the number of children in foster care, we do need those traditional homes so that we can catch up,” she said. “We’re doing better – last year we were able to bring on 43 additional foster homes – but we still have a big need.”

She added that while not everyone is equipped to be a foster or adoptive parent, there are many ways to help.

“We have volunteer opportunities for 800 people a year, and our premier group is the Foster Friends,” she said of her organization. “These are folks who are background checked and with the supervision of our staff can provide fun activities for our kids. Lots of times foster parents just need a break, so we do lots of fun Foster Friends parent-day-out events – for example, Circus Flora.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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