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Military foster care program recognized

Published: 05:29PM May 17th, 2012

Local leaders were surprised recently with awards from Pierce County for instituting a program to help military foster children.

Madigan Healthcare System clinical outreach social worker Sandi Vest and Joint Base Lewis-McChord Commander Col. Thomas Brittain, were notified by county officials they were the recipients of the 2012 Starfish Award for establishing the program.

In 2009 Dr. Tamara Grigsby at Madigan noticed that a number of her pediatric patients were going into foster care, and since their new guardians were not in the military, she could no longer care for them until they were returned to their family many months later. That’s when she approached Vest, an educator at Madigan’s Child and Family Assistance Center about the possibility of having military foster parents. Vest began looking into the possibility.

Since the military does not handle foster care stateside, only overseas, Vest worked extensively with local Washington officials to learn about how military families can become foster parents and establish the program here at JBLM.

In most states, military members are discouraged from becoming foster parents; it can take up to a year to become licensed, but in Washington the application takes only three months. The state was more than happy to welcome military families into their program.

“It was really great to see that attitude from Washington,” Vest said.

Along with Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Vest worked with Brittain and a number of agencies on JBLM, including Equity Residential and Directorate of Human Resources, to establish the JBLM Foster Parent Recruitment Initiative.

The families in the program must go through the state licensing process and, once they are foster parents, are eligible for specific housing on post, with extra bedrooms, so that their home is ready to welcome a foster child.

“The foster care philosophy now is that children should stay with extended family or same culture — racial, ethnic or military,” Vest said. “If you can keep them stable, in same school, friends or military care, it makes the transition easier for them.”

The work done by Vest, Brittain and many more at JBLM was recognized last month by MultiCare Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital Children’s Advocacy Center of Pierce County. The Starfish Award is an annual accolade given to local community members and programs that help increase child safety throughout Pierce County. They chose the JBLM program for its unique collaboration with military and state officials to help military children.

“What they were doing was really innovative and unique in the nation to partner together with military medical community, garrison commander, behavioral health and the state agency responsible for foster placement to recruit more military foster families,” Mary Quinlan, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital director of Community Services, said.

Brittain and Vest were recognized by the CAC for work they consider part of taking care of the community.

“We think it’s critical that military children who are placed in foster care should be able to maintain their connections to their JBLM family — their schools, friends, and normal activities in particular,” Brittain said.

Last year there were 72 JBLM children who needed foster care. Currently there are only five families that are a part of the military foster care program, but Vest hopes to recruit more. There are also plans to begin support groups and respite care for the foster parents to help them discuss what they are going through, or take a short break when needed.

“Being a foster parent is a big decision,” Vest said.

She said that it is not a road to adoption and most children are returned to their families after they attend classes and receive other services deemed necessary by the state. Most children are taken out of their homes for neglect or physical abuse. With high rates of deployment, Vest said, these situations do arise.

“It happens and it’s not hard to see that it is a difficult time,” she said. “We want to get the biological family the help they need.”

Vest hopes the program will continue at JBLM for many years. Other installations in Washington and other states have contacted Vest about how to begin creating similar programs.

For JBLM, the program is truly about helping the families stationed here remain together and resilient.

“A strong cadre of JBLM community members who are willing to open their homes to a military foster child will help those children maintain these important connections and help make our community an even better place for our families to live, work and thrive,” Britain said.

For more information on the JBLM Foster Parent Recruitment Initiative contact Sandi Vest at 968-4775 or email Sandra.vest@us.army.mil. For more information on becoming a foster parent visit: http://www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/fosterparents/index.asp.