ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kirk and Lara Triplett were parents for 20 years, a few years away from having all adult children. But in October, they welcomed three foster kids into their Belen home.
At first, the 10-year-old girl was quiet and withdrawn and didn’t leave her room. The 3-year-old girl and the 2-year-old boy, when in trouble, would fearfully offer their hand to be slapped. “I just shook it,” Kirk Triplett said with a laugh.
By all accounts from the state Children Youth and Families Department, which operates the foster system, the Tripletts are doing well, and their foster children are making huge strides.
|If you go
Informational meetings and booths on becoming a foster parent in Valencia County:
WHEN: 6-7:30 p.m., Monday and Tuesday
WHERE: Children Youth and Family Department Office, 475 Courthouse Road, Los Lunas
HOW MUCH: Free
WHEN: 4-7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Belen Public Library, 333 Becker Ave.
HOW MUCH: Free
For more information, contact CYFD at www.cyfd.org or 1-800-432-2075.
“We want to be part of the solution,” Lara Triplett said.
But even the Tripletts can’t do it all. In the past five months, CYFD asked them five times to take on more kids. They couldn’t.
More than 200 children from Valencia County need foster homes, but fewer than 20 homes in the county are open for placement. Almost half of Valencia County’s foster children are placed in homes as far away as Farmington or Las Cruces, which is a huge strain on children and CYFD’s resources.
It’s a troubling situation that, about a month ago, prompted the agency to much more actively recruit foster parents in Valencia County. Partnering with area nonprofit groups and the Chamber of Commerce, the department is hosting informational meetings and booths over the next month to attract parents in this troubled area.
“This is a time when we need people to assess themselves and ask what are the time, talent and treasure that they can provide,” said CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines.
Jump in foster kids
The main cause of Valencia County’s problem is an explosion of children in the system.
At the end of 2010, 119 Valencia County children were in state custody, said Cynthia Chavers, CYFD’s Valencia County office manager. As of Thursday, there were 211.
Yet the number of foster homes hasn’t increased – 15 to 20 foster homes in the county are open for new placements, and they are often full – so many children from Valencia County have been scattered across the state.
“We have kids placed in Taos, Farmington, Las Cruces, Grants, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Gallup,” Chavers said. “We’ve had to place kids in homes that are four hours away, which makes it really difficult to maintain relationships with parents and siblings.”
In all, 101 of the 211 Valencia County children in foster care are in other counties.
That’s terrible for the children, said Michelle Threadgill, CYFD investigation supervisor in the county. It’s traumatic to remove children from the only home they’ve ever known, Threadgill said, but it’s only compounded if the children must also leave their town, their school, friends and teachers.
Children in that situation need as much as possible to remain constant, Threadgill said. CYFD even arranges visits with children’s pets.
More foster parents are needed, she said, “to keep the children in our community safe in their community and keep them connected to their community.”
Gov. Susana Martinez is also taking part in the recruitment. She spent three years as a children’s court attorney, she notes, and during that time, she said she saw foster children fare better when they had less disruption to their lives.
Martinez planned to appear at a Heart Gallery of New Mexico opening in Los Lunas on Saturday night. Heart Galleries display professional photos of children who are available for adoption.
“You cannot look at those pictures of children who are available for adoption without seeing them as a personality or seeing them as an individual,” she said in an interview. “It really does in many ways capture what that child is like.”
Driving to and from
The foster care shortage has been difficult for children in the system, but it has also stretched the resources of CYFD, making it harder to meet the needs of all of the children in state custody.
Children have visitation with their birth families, and they might also have therapy appointments or court hearings they need to attend in Valencia County, Chavers said. A CYFD employee must usually take them – it could mean driving from Belen to Las Cruces, to Belen, to Las Cruces, and back to Belen again. In addition, a permanency planning worker must visit the foster home once a month.
It’s difficult for children, who might have to miss school and be on the road for eight hours for a two-hour appointment, Chavers said, and it means that the CYFD worker must necessarily let other duties fall to the wayside.
Not only that, said CYFD Secretary Deines, but transferring children from one community to another decreases the resources available for children in the second community.
In addition, foster parents often serve as resources for troubled birth parents, Deines said, which is nearly impossible if, for example, the foster parents are in Taos and the birth parents are in Los Lunas.
It’s difficult to know exactly why Valencia County has seen such a huge jump in foster care cases, Chavers said, but the agency believes it has something to do with methamphetamine use and domestic violence.
Some Valencia County residents have expressed frustration with CYFD in the past. Residents at community forums in 2009 were up in arms about a string of high-profile child abuse cases, which they said at the time that CYFD did not do enough to prevent.
CYFD has done its best to funnel money and five employees – including three caseworkers and money to fund home evaluations on new foster parents – to Valencia County, said protective services director Jared Rounsville. He said he’s banking on the people of Valencia County to see the need and step up.
“We can only make headway when we come together,” he said.
Deines said foster parents don’t need to fit any particular mold, or need to be independently wealthy. The state offers to reimburse parents for the money they spend on children’ travel, food, clothing and shelter.
Becoming a foster parent isn’t easy, as Kirk Triplett can attest. A foster parent has to be absolutely committed, he said – but then, “parenting in general is hard.”
But the rewards amount to seeing a 10-year-old who acted hardened beyond her years when she first arrived begin to shed some of that tension. When she arrived, Triplett said, she knocked over a candlestick and it broke, so she ran immediately to her room.
Now, she jokes and laughs with her foster family’s biological children in the living room and seems nearly one of them.
“She’s incredibly resilient. A reward is seeing, just watching a 10-year-old be a 10-year-old,” Triplett said.
“How,” he asked, “can you put a price on that?”