May is National Foster Care Month, which celebrates agencies like those in Baltimore serving foster children year-round. Maryland’s Department of Human Services (DHS) works in conjunction with local nonprofit organizations to facilitate foster care in Baltimore City. The department aims to place children into permanent living arrangements within 15 months of them entering the foster care system.
Maryland practices a “family-to-family” foster system wherein a child’s birth family and foster family work together in order to provide the best care possible. “Using the family to family premise, foster children are placed in homes that are in their own community, thereby keeping the children connected to their home school, friends and resources within their neighborhood,” according to the DHS website.
Other agencies also get involved in the process to assist families in need. One such group is Pressley Ridge, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization with an office in Baltimore City as well as locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. The DHS refers cases to the agency, which then provides specialized care for a variety of circumstances.
“We typically see those kids who have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives,” said Ron Gruca, Pressley Ridge’s senior director of development. Under their specialized ‘treatment foster care’ system, “our foster parents are the therapists. They are the ones who are specifically trained” to handle unique challenges.
The organization served 29 youth in the 2018 fiscal year using this ‘treatment foster care’ system. The children were an average of 16 years old. Tesha Tinsley, the agency’s program director for Baltimore City, outlined some of the challenges that children in urban areas like Baltimore face.
“I’ve come across a lot of teens in the program who have some history or suspected history, in sex trafficking,” she said, adding that other factors like crime, poverty, and neglect can lead to children being taken into the foster care system. “We are charged with finding appropriate placements for the youngsters in the community.”
Gruca outlines the goals for foster children of the DHS and its affiliated agencies. “Number one, if possible, is to reunite them with their biological family,” he says. If that isn’t possible, “we’re looking for some type of permanency, whether that is adoption or some other kind of kinship relationship.”
Tinsley recalls a recent case wherein three sisters were displaced from their home as a result of domestic violence. “We had a case where the mother’s boyfriend, who was the children’s father, murdered their mother in front of them,” she said. The girls eventually found a permanent living situation with their grandmother, who has since legally adopted them.
The Maryland DHS estimates that roughly 1,100 families and 1,175 children were served in 2018 by statewide initiatives promoting adoption support, counseling costs, and informational events.
Pressley Ridge also offers “parent-child” foster care in Baltimore, wherein young new mothers are put into foster homes along with their children— 30 of these cases were processed in 2018. The agency also has a “pathways” program which helps older teenagers and young adults transition out of the foster system and into job training or education programs.
Tinsley emphasizes that these programs are made possible in Baltimore by the constant dedication of childcare experts and social workers.
“The social work occupation is one that is really overlooked in a lot of aspects,” she said. “When a child has to be hospitalized, it’s most likely the social worker who is going to the hospital with the child. When a child is being displaced, we’re the people moving the furniture. We help pack those children up and carry them to the next place… it’s 24/7.”
Government and nonprofit agencies could not do the work they do without the essential support of foster parents and families in Baltimore City.
“There is a big need for foster parents in Baltimore City— people who actually care about what happens to youth,” Tinsley said. “We really need people who are dedicated to changing these young people’s lives, and they need somebody who is going to stay there for the long haul.
“These families are ‘a beacon of hope’ for children in need.”
Gruca added that while being a foster parent is a difficult task, agencies like Pressley Ridge exist to help and support them as they take in children in need.
“It’s not easy. They should know that it’s not easy,” he said of prospective foster parents.
“Becoming a treatment foster parent is a calling. It can be challenging at times. But… we’re there with you every step of the way. If you can open up your heart and your home, we can make it work.”