Driving up to the home of Suzanne and Cameron Fischer, one notices the bright plastic toys scattered across the green lawn. The interior of the house is neat – considering that six kids call it home.
Three are the Fischers’ own and three are foster children. All are crammed onto the sofa to watch movies.
“You can tell which are mine by the hair,” said Suzanne Fischer, indicating the three whose tousled mops are, like their mother’s, flaming red.
The infant, toddler and 5-year-old who are the foster additions are otherwise indistinguishable from the Fischer kids.
The toddler tumbles off the sofa, and Fischer’s 14-year-old daughter scoops him up.
“Check his pants,” Fischer said, “and see if you can find his shoes.”
With so many children to look after, the older ones learn to help out and the younger ones become more independent.
“And structure,” Fischer said. “Lots of structure. It’s the only way.”
Bedtimes and mealtimes are regulated. Conflict is swiftly resolved.
Fischer admits that while she has received a lot of support from her fellow parishioners at Eagle Harbor Congregational Church and the Bainbridge community, fostering can be a little lonely.
In fact, the Fischers are one of only two Bainbridge families who do “pure” foster care – taking in children they don’t already know or intend to adopt.
The state places about 215 Kitsap children in foster care a year, according to Department of Children and Family Services foster family licenser Fred Determan, with an equal number of children fostered through private agencies.
Bainbridge has as many kids who enter the system, proportionately, as the rest of Kitsap, and the shortage of families who do foster care on Bainbridge is a perennial problem.
“Historically, that’s the way its been,” DCFS area administrator Sophia Kouidou-Giles said. “In Kitsap, there are over 300 homes licensed for foster care, but Bainbridge children wind up in Port Orchard or Bremerton because of the severe lack of island foster homes.”
Kouido-Giles believes that one reason may be misunderstanding of the foster care system.
“What people don’t realize,” Kouido-Giles said, “is that there are different levels of engagement. Foster care doesn’t mean six kids long-term.”
Families may do “respite care” for another foster family, taking in children for the occasional weekend, or they may elect to care for a single foster child.
Fischer says her own family moved slowly into fostering. It was the enjoyment they derived from visiting youngsters that made them decide to foster a single newborn.
Over time, they grew into their role as full-time foster parents of multiple children.
Foster care needn’t mean a parent at home full time, Kouido-Giles says; DCFS will even help arrange the daycare.
Families are compensated for taking in a foster child. The rate varies with age and with difficulty of the placement but it is always just a partial reimbursement.
Kouido-Giles believes that many Bainbridge parents would be particularly well-suited to act as “receiving home,” one of the first stops for children who enter the system.
“Those homes are short-term and specialized,” Kouido-Giles said. “Those parents need to be sophisticated observers, to tell us what we need to know about children’s behavior and medical condition.”
Fischer believes that the popular conception of foster children as trouble-makers is another sticking point.
“When you say ‘foster child,’ they think you’re getting horrible children and that somehow it’s the kids’ fault,” she said. “Really, it’s their families that are dysfunctional. None of my foster kids has arrived with overwhelming baggage.”
Fred Determan licenses foster families for DCFS in Kitsap, and helps train them.
A family applying for license to foster spends 18 hours in classes that include blunt advice from experienced foster parents.
Of the last class of 36 prospective parents, 21 completed the course.
“There are two types of people who come in to foster care,” Determan said. “There are people who need a child to make them feel complete – and there are people who are so well-grounded in themselves that they have something to offer a child.”
Determan looks for people with enough sense of self to know what kind of placement they can handle.
Determan’s next step, after a family completes the coursework, is to pay them a three-hour home visit.
Determan says he isn’t necessarily looking for a spotless environment.
“As a matter of fact, I always give people a bad time if I see ‘tired marks’ on faces because they’ve been up late dusting and cleaning,” Determan said. “Through the training, I’ve already got a sense of the parents, but I want to meet the other children in their home, and see how they feel about foster kids.”
For the Fischer family, growing from three kids to six didn’t happen without adjustment. There has been some mild rivalry between a biological daughter and one foster child close in age, Suzanne Fischer says, but the experience has been a generally positive one.
Fischer said the decision to take in a third foster child was done by unanimous vote of all family members.
Determan figures that the state’s investment in each prospective foster family comes to $5,000, including the training, his time and the paperwork.
“With that expenditure,” Determan said, “we want to retain the families and not have them leave the system.”
Determan says that while he doesn’t have a lot of contact with families after the initial licensing, he is there to answer questions. Fischer says her many questions have been addressed clearly and promptly.
Families enter the system at about the same rate as they leave Determan says, but he needs more than he has. The state has 90 days to issue a license to a family, but Determan has gotten some families licensed within the month.
If there were even a small group of interested Bainbridge families interested in fostering DCFS would send the licenser to the island, instead of making families travel to Bremerton.
Foster families must preserve confidentiality with those outside the system, but are allowed to discuss cases candidly with other foster parents. Fischer hopes that enough families will foster so that the parents can support each other.
“Some people just don’t understand why we are doing this,” she said. “My mother doesn’t understand. She says, ‘Don’t get involved.’
“How can you not get involved?”
Family reconciliation is the goal for foster kids, and that means saying goodbye to foster families. Fischer chooses to get attached to her foster children, even knowing that it will not be easy to let them go.
“I can’t reserve myself at all,” Fischer said. “I can’t not hug them.
I think it’s our responsibility as adults to understand that parting is hard, but be willing to take it on anyway.
“The comfort is knowing you’ve given that child someone to depend on, someone who loves them.”
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Those interested in finding out more about becoming foster families may call (800) 423-6246, ext. 3598.