Fostering stability - Shortage of foster homes in Bremerton sends kids in need to Central Kitsap

Henry Castanares helps his son Cody, 10, with his homework Nov. 1 in their East Bremerton home.  - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Henry Castanares helps his son Cody, 10, with his homework Nov. 1 in their East Bremerton home.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

Having an empty nest is not something Henry and Diane Castanares are familiar with. They’ve had about 350 children in their 17 years of being foster parents.

“We don’t turn any child down,” said Diane Castanares, 59. “We take them all.”

Through the past three years, the total number of children in foster care has decreased in Washington state but at the same time, foster advocates say the demand for foster homes in Kitsap County, especially Bremerton, remains high.

And homes like the Castanares’ are the utility players of the foster care system.

The East Bremerton family’s home is licensed to provide care for babies through 17-year-olds. Once children turn 18, they transition out of the foster care system unless they have a severe disability that could allow them to be cared for through age 21. The couple can have a total of five foster children at one time, the state limit. Five years ago they switched from providing basic foster care to “receiving care,” a program where children stay with them for up to 30 days. Calls come at any time of day and in some emergency cases, they have been called at midnight and a child has arrived at 3 a.m. Currently they have four foster children ranging in age from an infant to a 9-year-old.

“They go though a lot of trauma,” said Henry Castanares, 75. “We try to help them deal with it a littler easier.”

The couple provides structure for the children through routines by having set homework, meal and bed times — something that many of the children are not used to having.

“It takes them awhile to get used to,” Diane Castanares said. “But once they’re used to it, they know they are safe and that nothing’s going to happen to them.”

For the fiscal year ending in June 2007, there were 10,411 Washington children in foster care. That number has dropped to 9,114, or by 12 percent, by the end of the fiscal year ending last summer, said Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

But despite the overall drop in the number of children in foster homes, state workers and county foster care advocates say there remains a high need for more foster homes in Kitsap County.

As of September, there were 256 licensed foster homes in Kitsap County and 415 children placed in foster care, according to the department.

“There was a need out there, and we did have this big home,” Diane Castanares said of why she and her husband started providing foster care. “These kids need a home and to know they are loved.”

The children’s routines can get shaken up even more when they are placed in foster care away from their home cities — even if the move is not significantly far. Bremerton children in need of foster care end up in Central Kitsap or South Kitsap where foster homes are available, said Virginia Ford-Faulkner, resource unit supervisor of children’s administration with the department. Even though an effort is made to keep kids in their same schools, it ends up being a longer commute and the move makes it difficult to see family and friends.

One reason for the shortage in Bremerton is foster families generally to be more affluent. Bremerton’s poverty levels exceed nearby communities, Ford-Faulkner said, thereby resulting in fewer available foster homes.

One of the requirements to be a foster parent is to have a job that provides a steady income, said Phyllis Bishop, president of Kitsap Foster Care Association, a nonprofit that provides a support system and resources for foster parents in the county. They have monthly activities for foster families including skating and bowling outings.

Children who are placed in foster care are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect and need a temporary place to stay while family issues are resolved, said Robert Hunner, executive director of Northwest Resource Associates, a nonprofit that provides information for those interested in becoming foster parents in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. They receive 300 to 400 inquiries a month from people wanting to learn more about foster parenting, said Hunner.

Besides receiving care, there is specialized foster care that focuses on specific needs. Kitsap Mental Health operates two specialized programs, specialized family care and multidimensional treatment foster care, said Janet Sire-Anderson, director of child and family services.

The specialized family care program is geared toward children ages 3 to 17 that have behavioral and emotional problems including ADHD or depression. About 40 percent of the children are returned to their families whereas the multidimensional program serves 12 to 17-year-olds with behavioral problems and has about 80 to 90 percent return to their families.

The higher return rate in the multidimensional program is attributed to the kids receiving one-on-one attention because they are the only child the foster parents care for, compared to the other program that places two or three children together, said Sire-Anderson. Due to cutbacks last year, the multidimensional program has gone from 10 to five spots and those five spots are generally full year round.

Because of that cutback and the poor economy causing hardships on families, more specialized foster care programs are needed in the county, said Sire-Anderson.

“There is always a demand for foster homes,” said Hunner. “It’s a very difficult job. There’s a constant turnover.”

The process to become a foster parent can take up to 90 days, said Oletha Carter-James, a licenser with the state. The process includes an orientation, 30-hour training program, CPR and first aid training, background check and a walk-through of the home.

To help with costs, the state provides financial assistance to foster care providers. Foster parents generally receive between $423 and $575 a month based on the age of the child, according to the department. For children who are disabled or need special medical attention, the amount could exceed $1,000. Foster parents are given as much information as possible on the child beforehand and are able to decline care if they do not feel comfortable with the situation. Henry and Diane Castanares have never turned any foster child away, unless their house was full to capacity.

“We can never have enough foster parents,” said Carter-James, adding that the department favors adoption to family members to keep them out of the foster care system.

Aside from being familiar with foster parenting, the Castanares are no strangers to adoption. Now at age 10, Cody was 2 years old when the couple adopted him after providing six months of foster care for him. He had been bouncing from home to home and had no where else to go, said Henry Castanares.

Though many foster children do move around from home to home, they are not cut off from their biological families while in foster care. The Castanares said one of the biggest rewards is seeing their foster children eventually go back to their biological families, and also when past foster children stop by and visit.

But there are also the simple, immediate gratifications like the sound of laughter coming from the next room.

“You hear that?” asked Diane Castanares. “That right there is a joy.”

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