Welcoming a child into a home is not a novel concept in the typical Caribbean household. Most people have shared their home with extended family or have been welcomed in another’s at one time or another.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” as the old saying goes, but sometimes that village may not necessarily be as close to home as most may think.
For the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, however, getting people to volunteer to become foster parents to children in need has proven to be a challenge in recent years. Not because of an unwillingness to help, but rather the fear of becoming attached to a child who won’t become a permanent member of the family.
“I feel as though people get hung up on that temporary care,” said Anjuli Tewari-DeFague, team lead of the Foster Care Unit. “Something about not having that permanent care; once they hear ‘temporary’ they get turned off. Everybody wants to adopt.”
She said the authority has always encouraged foster parents to get attached. “Our argument is, even if it’s for a short time, you can make such a difference in a child’s life.”
She said living in Trinidad, it has always been a part of the community culture to help care for children. “We were all brought up doing it. We helped out in some form or fashion in our families. Whether it’s extended relatives, someone from church, or a family friend to come in for a short period and then say goodbye.”
September is Foster Care and Adoption month and the authority is encouraging the public who are willing and able to become a part of the national “village” to help care for displaced children.
Tewari-DeFague said there are currently 56 approved foster care providers in TT, including four foster parents in Tobago. However, there are 78 children in foster care. The authority is at capacity and most foster parents have multiple children in their care.
She said the international slogan for foster care is #GetAttached. “We want people to get attached. Children need secure attachments in order to prosper and flourish as a young person. So what if we have to say goodbye. We say goodbye all the time.”
She said although many people have a fear of bonding, even if it’s for a short period, the time spent with a foster child can change the trajectory of that child’s future.
Tewari-DeFague said the application process can take from four to six months and it begins with ensuring the applicant understand the commitment. She said although the authority conducts sensitisation workshops at least once a month, people still confuse foster care with adoption. Adoption is permanent, whereas foster care is temporary.
“Some complain it’s a lengthy process, but when you think about it, we are basically approving you to take a child into your home. We have legislations to adhere to which outline those checks and balances.”
The process includes a medical, police certificate of character, an in-depth interview with all members of the household, a home assessment, background checks, and psychological assessments.
Training is conducted to ensure the applicant understands basic childcare and protection. “Once there are no red flags, we put (the application) to the board for approval.”
Applicants have the option to choose what type of foster parent they want to be.
“We have emergency foster parents, where they step in during an emergency circumstance. Emergency lasts from one night to two weeks.”She said there is also short-term care. “That can range from six months to several years depending on the circumstances of the child.”
While the standard age requirement is 21, there is no age limit.
“We do have a lot of older fosters. Once you’re healthy and able you can foster.”
The authority has single applicants as well.
“Once you meet the criteria and we ensure the child is safe in your care, you can foster. Some of our best applicants are single.
“My focus is on the safety of the child in your home as well as whether you can love them unconditionally. It’s not about wealth or the size of your home, or if you are a happily married couple.”
Once the applicant is approved, the authority will still be there to guide them through the process. “We’re not leaving you on your own because we have to report to the court. We form a team around the child.”
She said although there is a stipend attached to the foster child, the authority ensures applicants are able to financially take care of themselves.
“That stipend cannot be used for rent, bills, or car payments. We make sure you have funds coming in to commit to your own needs comfortably.”
Tewaire-DeFague said it is a common misconception that the authority wants to keep families apart.
“We get a bad reputation of trying to split up families, but really that’s not what we’re doing. We do it for the safety of the children. We only remove children when we have to. In the background, we are working with parents to see how we can support them with additional training. The worst thing we would want is to remove a child and them place them back into a place of danger.”
Because most people apply for adoption, there is a long list of people waiting to be adoptive parents, but unfortunately not as many want to become foster parents, Tewaire-DeFague said.
“In order for a child to be adopted, consent needs to be given by the parents and not many people are willing to do that.
“There are 40 children’s homes in TT. There are 700 children in those homes. The numbers whose parents are willing to give them up for adoption is very small.”
She said many of those children have active parents who visit several times for the year. They are just unable to care for the children themselves.
“The court has to be very careful. They can’t dispense consent of a parent willy-nilly. It has to be that they are not interested, or there is no one else to care for the child. Parental rights are severed when a child is adopted and that’s not something the court takes lightly.”
People are also not aware that they can apply for both adoption and foster care simultaneously, she said. “While you wait to be approved to be an adoptive parent, you can foster in the interim, but we don’t want people to get mixed up. It’s not like they are going to get to adopt the child in their care as a foster child.
“I don’t think the nation fully understands the crisis we are in with regards to placement,” said Tewari-DeFague. “I would say, sometimes in one day alone, we have gotten requests for more than ten children to be placed.”
She said while most applicants ask for babies, it is the older children who benefit from a loving home the most.
“We really want people to consider older children. Everybody wants babies. When we get someone to take children between six and 17, we are overjoyed.”
She said teenagers, especially those who have displayed behavioural issues, are usually the ones to benefit the most from a loving home.
“Nobody wants a teenager and its so sad because they are the ones who need it most.” She said they also get many requests for children with special needs. “Nobody steps forward to take care of them.”
Tewari-DeFague encouraged anyone who is interested in becoming a foster parent to contact the Children’s Authority and have a chat with an agent about their options.