It’s not unusual for Harmony Holman to excuse herself from her job as a human resources coordinator, as often as once a week. That’s because Holman is a single foster parent to five children, all under the age of 5, and has to manage all sorts of illnesses, doctor and therapy appointments, and visits with their biological parents.
But when Holman, 38, hears them laughing in her West Shawnee, KS, home, she knows it’s worth it. Although five kids might seem like a lot, she wishes she could take in even more. And she may be able to do so, if the proposed foster care village of Joy Meadows is built in nearby Basehor, KS.
As states move away from placing children whose parents can’t care for them in group homes, dedicated communities are cropping up across the country to provide foster families with free or subsidized permanent housing in a supportive environment. These foster care villages aim to ease both the financial and the psychological burdens on foster parents, who are desperately needed.
There were more than 437,500 children in foster care in 2016, a number that has steadily been rising, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2016. But with only about 196,446 foster families, there aren’t enough homes to go around—and 30% to 60% of those households drop out of foster parenting each year, according to the National Council for Adoption.
Not enough families to fill the need
Foster communities provide parents with “people in very close proximity who understand what they’re going through,” says Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, an advocacy and support group based in Pflugerville, TX.
There are now more than a dozen of this kind of community, mostly in the Midwest. The housing ranges from apartment complexes to communities of single-family homes large enough for multiple children. Many foster families continually take in new children as others are reunited with their families or adopted.
On average, foster families receive financial support of $24 per kid per day, or about $8,760 a year. However, it actually costs about $38.36 a day, or $14,000 annually, to raise a child, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So the housing and support of foster communities fills a desperate need.
“It would make life so much easier when it’s available,” says Holman of the proposed community in her area. She’s fostered more than a dozen children over the last five years.
In addition to housing, the communities also offer essential services, like on-site therapy for children, social activities, and daycare centers.
Currently, many of these places are built entirely through private donations, although some do receive grants. But it’s an investment that could wind up saving state and local governments money.
Youth in the Mockingbird Society in Seattle avoided criminal justice, public assistance, and health care costs averaging $3,589 per child, by comparison with the costs they would have incurred if they hadn’t lived in the foster care community, according to a Washington State Institute for Public Policy report.
These savings are due partly to the fact that children are more likely to graduate from high school if they live in these communities, according to Rebecca Goodvin, a senior research associate at the institute.
How foster care villages can help children heal
The goal of foster care is to ease the often extremely unsettling process for children who are taken from their biological families, either temporarily or permanently. And foster care villages can help with that.
The four foster families at Coyote Hill in Harrisburg, MO, receive additional parental training and salaries in addition to their rent-free single-family houses and utilities. This helps them focus on the children, who are often hurt and angry, and their needs, says Merri Heberlein, 32. She’s a full-time parent of 10 children, two of her own and eight foster children, with her husband at Coyote Hill.
“Our goal is healing,” she says. “When kids are screaming at me, ‘You’re not my real mom,’ the answer is, ‘You’re right, I’m not. But I still love you and I still care about you and I want to be there for you.’”
And that, after all, is what foster care is meant to achieve.
“We have to figure out a system where families who step up to foster are supported with whatever they best need,” says the National Foster Parent Association’s Clements.