There are thousands of foster children in Cook County, but the number of available homes does not always match the need. This is currently the case for Hephzibah Children’s Association in Oak Park, which is facing a shortage of available foster homes – a heart-wrenching predicament.
“All kids deserve a home in which to live, in which to be supported, in which to grow,” said Merry Beth Sheets, Hephzibah’s executive director. “That’s why having a strong pool of foster parents is so critical for the children that we serve.”
Hephzibah presently has about 100 foster families in its system, which may seem like a sufficient number. However, Hephzibah places roughly 100 children into foster homes each month. There are approximately 3,468 children total in foster care in Cook County as of February 2022, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
“It’s a continuous need because more and more children are always coming into the system,” said Sheets.
The need for more foster parents is not an issue exclusive to Hephzibah, according to Nancy Silver, Hephzibah’s head of foster parent recruitment and support specialist.
That shared need led to the creation of the Chicagoland Foster Care Collective, a group of individual child welfare agencies that have banded together to recruit diverse, qualified foster parents. Hephzibah, Oak Park’s longest running children’s agency, is a member of the group.
To educate and perhaps inspire people to take in foster children, the collective is hosting a recruitment event Aug. 20 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Thatcher Woods Pavilion, 8030 Chicago Ave. in River Forest. The family-friendly event will have food and activities, as well as discussion panels featuring former youth in care. Hephzibah representatives will be at the event as well to answer questions.
“The stronger the pool of foster parents we have, the more kids we can serve and get into homes,” said Silver.
Hephzibah does not have any specific data as to how long its foster children are placed with one family. Some children’s stay with a foster family is as short as one night, while certain children could bounce around until finding the right fit. Others live with one family for years, perhaps eventually being adopted.
The majority of Cook County’s foster children come from Chicago, making capable residents in Oak Park and River Forest uniquely situated to open their homes through Hephzibah.
“Many of our children have endured abuse and neglect in their families of origin, and so they need a safe, loving place,” said Sheets. “We know there are many, many loving families out there, who are very experienced parents.”
One of Hephzibah’s seasoned foster mothers, Molly Hamilton, has taken in many foster children over the years but she recently became the adopted mother of her foster daughters –sisters ages 10 and 5. The younger has been in Hamilton’s care since birth.
Her reasoning for becoming a foster parent is simple. As a single woman with a teaching background, Hamilton did not want to wait until she was in a relationship or married to have children.
“I knew I had love to give and space in my life to take care of her children,” Hamilton said. “And I knew there was a need.”
In her six years fostering, Hamilton has housed as many as 20 children. She does not, however, wish to be glorified for doing so. Rather, she wishes more would get involved in helping children.
“Foster parents aren’t superheroes or saints; we’re just people who said yes,” she said. “I’ve found that people like to elevate us and thus free themselves from the responsibility of caring for the most vulnerable in our community.”
Kateland Gough and Bryan Pravel began fostering with Hephzibah last July, the same month they got married. They’ve had their preschool-aged foster son for a little over a year now and the newlyweds are smitten.
“Of course, there are challenges when you’re raising a kid, but he’s just amazing,” said Gough. “We love him to pieces.”
Those challenges have been mitigated through the support of the couple’s family, friends and neighbors. Gough and Pravel realize that not every foster parent has that same privilege.
Hephzibah offers support for foster families, including providing childcare during family emergencies or other situations that would temporarily prevent a foster parent from being able to care for their child. The agency’s monthly parents’ night out events have been “fantastic” for Gough and Pravel.
“Being newly married and new parents, I didn’t realize how much we would need to have that designated time,” Pravel said.
Gough and Pravel do not have any biological children of their own, and Pravel started looking into adoption before becoming interested fostering. With her “big heart for taking care of kids,” Gough was equally interested.
As much as they love their foster son, however, Gough and Pravel are not fostering with the goal of adopting. Their plan is to foster him until he is able to go back to his biological parents, which aligns with Hephzibah’s mission to reunify the children with their biological parents.
Before biological parents can have their children returned, they must go through training. Parental visitation with the child is also required to demonstrate if it is safe for the child to return home.
Since they began fostering, Gough and Pravel said their understanding and empathy has grown for the biological parents of foster children. As much as the children need compassion, so do their parents.
“The parents are also victims of systemic issues within society that have led to the situation, in many cases over multiple generations, and do not have the resources to get out of the cycle and to break the cycle,” said Pravel.
When she started fostering, Hamilton’s views on foster children’s biological parents also changed. She ditched all the preconceived notions she had about parents whose children ended up in the system.
“They’re not people who don’t love their children,” she said. “They’re people, for whatever reason, were doing the best that they could do and were not able to give adequate care.”
The experience of taking in a foster child or children can be overwhelming and difficult, but so is raising any child, Hamilton said. That should not stop people from considering fostering.
“In the same way that first time parents are never fully ready for a baby, you will never feel fully ready to foster,” she said.
If someone is interested in fostering, Hamilton recommends taking one step at a time – talking to a foster parent, going to an information session and taking Hephzibah’s training courses.
“Don’t wait for some magical, non-existent future when you have all your ducks in a row,” she said. “If I had waited for a husband, I might have missed out on what’s been the best decision of my life.”