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Calling all empty nesters, children need you

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I read an article about nurses and doctors coming out of retirement in droves under an emergency measure allowing them to administer the Covid vaccine. This makes me so proud – I want to fist pump a la Arsenio every time I drive by the local hospital. Thanks to the medics rushing in and out, and to armies of experienced practitioners returning to the frontlines, the United States is on track to meet the goal of 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days. 

With all hands on deck, we are one giant step closer to ending the pandemic. It reminds me of what Fred “Mister” Rogers said to soothe scared children in times of crisis: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  

Helpers aren’t always doctors and nurses. In the case of America’s foster care crisis, the helpers are moms and dads. And we need more of them. I ask Gov. Doug Ducey and the White House to make a parallel emergency measure for parents: let’s recruit the families urgently needed to house the rising numbers of abused kids in the nation’s foster care system. Ease a few rules and let experienced moms and dads open their homes to suffering children.

Even in the best of times, the child protection system fails to provide enough homes for abandoned and abused kids. These are not the best of times. Emergency rooms from Texas to New York have reported rises in severe child battery during the pandemic. Twenty-thousand kids are sleeping in temporary shelters and group facilities, while 125,000 kids sit on the adoption waiting list. 

From community churches to national charities like Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, dedicated recruiters train Americans to stand in the gap for kids as temporary moms and dads. But the shortage of foster families has reached epic levels. The turnover in foster care is 50% a year. 

What if we adjusted our approach? What if we waived in experienced parents and allowed “retired” foster parents back on the frontlines? By simplifying requirements, children would have the homes they need. 

Darcy Olsen

Darcy Olsen

Ten years ago, I dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” required to become a foster parent. Regulators poured over my paycheck stubs, insurance cards, and letters attesting to my character. I religiously attended months of foster parent school and mastered the acronyms: CASA, FCRB, TPR. As required, I diagrammed a huge, color-coded floor plan of every exit in my home and posted it prominently by my back door. I scheduled a physical, locked up the essential oils, and put no-slip mats into every bathtub. Check. Check. Check! Firing on all cylinders, I received my license in a record ten months. Ten months! 

In that same amount of time, I could have become a certified paramedic, electrician, and flight attendant. Heck, I could have conceived and given birth. You have to wonder, is the certification process a bit longer than it needs to be? By requiring a year of paperwork, home inspections, doctor’s visits, classes and interviews, are kids missing out on some great families? 

By comparison, the system doesn’t make relatives jump through hoops to care for children in need. Most states have a slimmed-down process to expedite safe placements with relatives. Requirements focus on the truly needful: ensuring a safe home with criminal background checks and assuring the families will meet basic health and safety needs like providing food, shelter, clothing, and a warm, safe place to sleep. 

After fostering 10 kids and adopting four, I hung up my skates. That was about a year ago. Despite having trained, certified, and fostered to open my home to a child in a shelter, I’d have to go through certification all over again. I’d be lucky to be licensed in under a year. 

Multitudes of former foster families would, if invited, stand in the gap immediately for these kids. And many would adopt again if needed (half of foster parents have). It’s who we are as parents. Notice I didn’t say, it’s who we are as foster parents. Surgeons bind wounds. Nurses minister to the sick. Parents care for children. It’s who we are. 

Which brings me to my point – America is full of seasoned parents, younger, older, white, Black, urban, rural. We are living in every community where abused and abandoned kids need homes. We are here. We are ready. Let us help.

Darcy Olsen is the founder of Gen Justice, an award-winning charity working to mend the broken child protection system through reform and a pro bono Children’s Law Clinic. 

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