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Can you foster love?

—Foster care in Trinidad and Tobago, Lara Pickford-Gordon

There are many children in care who long for a stable, happy home even if it’s not with a biological relative. Adoption can respond to this need either on a long-term basis or even as a temporary foster care option lasting one night, a couple weeks or possibly longer, depending on the situation.

Providing a safe, comfortable environment and the child’s basic needs—food, shelter and clothing are important “but most importantly, is love” said Anjuli Tewari Team Lead Foster Care at the Children’s Authority (CA) of Trinidad and Tobago in an interview with Catholic News at the Authority’s Wrightson Road office.

Children in foster care come from diverse circumstances. They can be removed from dire situations while the CA looks for “fit persons” or family members to welcome the child into their home.

This environment, she said allows the child to resume “normal activities” such as attending school. The temporary arrangement is not appealing for some persons but children coming from traumatic situations need to feel safe. Tewari said short stays even for one or two nights “can make a difference in a child’s life”.

She told of one foster child placed for one night with another adopted child in the same household. She “helped take off the shoes of the child, gave a juice box, [and] they sat down looking at TV together. I thought how nice for this child removed in the middle of the night and he was able to come into a home, get a hot meal and be seen to and the next day he was able to move on.”

The foster care system tries to ensure the child maintains “familial bonds” through supervised access. The meetings are handled with confidentiality and never take place at the home of the foster parent/s.  Access is denied by the court if it receives a report of any danger to the child or threats made to CA staff by relatives.  The best interest of the child is always priority.  In cases where the CA tries to support a family and the home environment is still not conducive, permanent placement is then considered.

This is an option when a year or more has passed and there are no parents, family members or fit persons found. Tewari explained that under the “old system” (when foster care was under the National Family Services), children sometimes stayed in foster care five to seven years because alternative placement could not be found.  She explained permanent/long-term placement is not only adoption, but also settling the child with a fit person or legal guardian: “We don’t want them to just stay in the system with uncertainty.”

The foster care system since becoming operational three years ago under the CA has “transitioned” with new protocols and processes for moving forward. A lot was learned during this period. “We’ve had placement breakdowns; we’ve had people who had different expectations of what foster care was so it helped tweak our system. We tweaked our training to try and prepare people for what to expect,” Tewari said.  Basic training covers behaviour management, child protection, health and safety and they are exposed to “real-life scenarios”.  She explained, “For example if a child comes into a home and starts stealing food or hoarding food, it could be they have been denied food.  So it is explained to foster parents what to expect…to give them a real reality check. They are not getting a perfect child; it is not a doll and if that doll gets broken you return it.”

Tewari stressed that fostering a child can be rewarding and meaningful to the child and foster parent/s. One foster parent with over 16 years’ experience has cared for more than 30 children. Tewari described her as a lovely lady with a big heart, adding “She has three children in her care. I can call her today and she will say bring more. We have to respect her limitations and not force more upon her just because she said ‘yes’.”

During foster care, Tewari said there is continuous monitoring through home visits, school visits, contact via telephone, and supervised visits with birth parents. Foster parents are required to alert the CA of any changes such as address and financial state. The CA determines if it is in the child’s best interest to remain in the household.

Children with developmental and physical disabilities and multiple siblings are also difficult to place. Another challenge for the CA foster care team is “no one wants older children”. There are many toddlers, pre-teens and teens, the latter of which is the hardest to place. Recalling her experience working in the United Kingdom with at-risk children including youth offenders, Tewari observed that although teens, “are coming with all their baggage, if you make a difference to them you can change their whole lives. We’ve seen it”.

Highlighting one “amazing case” in which a 16-year-old was paired with a couple she said, “They bonded. They are so different but they just learn to live with each other and like each other.”