By Mona Dougani
In 2016, Brooks Rainey Pearson and her husband decided that they wanted to become foster parents. They didn’t have any children of their own, but they wanted to provide a welcoming home for children whose home lives were unstable.
The couple took the classes required by Durham County and completed the training hours necessary to become foster parents.
On Aug. 10, 2017, the same day the couple received their license, they received a phone call from the social worker they’d worked with that a 5-year-old boy needed a home quickly.
Rainey Pearson said the moment she and her husband Dave Pearson picked up the boy from day care they connected. While they hoped his parents would eventually get their lives back on track and be able to take him home, they knew they’d be willing to provide him a forever home if that did not come to pass. Four years later, after the boy’s parents lost their parental rights in court, the couple began the adoption process.
“[Being a foster mom] is the hardest thing I have ever done,” said Rainey Pearson, an attorney. “I know we went into it so naive, about just the way the world works and how foster care is a failure of our society to help families before children are abused and neglected.”
When the couple brought the boy home in the summer of 2017, they learned that he had been in and out of five other households in just that same year.
What they discovered in their subsequent years of foster parenting is how little say they have in the life of the boy they care for and in the lives of the other children they have had in their home for temporary stays. They also felt like the rules could be capricious or could change, depending on who they were talking to.
But a law proposed in the General Assembly this session would give foster parents, such as Rainey Pearson, more of a voice in the court system and other areas.
HB 769, more commonly known as the Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights, aims to ensure that foster parents are treated with respect and have clearer guidelines. The bill received unanimous support in a House committee on May 11 and sailed through a vote on the House floor that same day. The bill is now parked in the roster of bills in the Senate’s rules committee and will be heard in the Senate Health Care Committee today.
“Throughout this whole journey, I’ve been a little bit surprised at how little of a voice foster parents really have in the whole system,” Tori Ludwig, a foster mother from Franklin County, said.
“That’s not completely inappropriate, in a sense, because we know that these children are not ours when they come to our house and come to live with us, but we do manage all of their life when they come under our roof.”
“I felt like I was doing everything wrong”
There were approximately 16,500 children in the North Carolina foster care system in all of 2020, according to data from NCFAST published on the Management Assistance for Child Welfare, Work First, and Food & Nutrition Services in North Carolina website maintained by the UNC School of Social Work.
Across North Carolina, there are 100 counties that the state Division of Social Services (part of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services) serves, making it difficult to maintain uniformity and consistency in how families are responded to and supported, explained Karen McLeod of Benchmarks, an umbrella advocacy group for organizations that provide care for children and families.
When COVID-19 surged in early 2020, foster parents found an already confusing system even more difficult to navigate.
“When the pandemic hit, I don’t know about you, but I got emails from everyone I’ve ever done business with like ‘here’s our COVID policy,’” Rainey Pearson said. “I have a child who’s in the custody of Durham DSS and we did not hear anything from them for months. As a result, families are asking their social worker, ‘Can we go to the beach?’ And they have two kids with two different social workers. One says they can go to the beach, and one says they can’t go to the beach. ‘Where do you go? What do you do?’”
Since Rainey Pearson and her husband sometimes have two children in their house at once, each with a different social worker, they, too, can get different answers because of the non-uniformity in the system.
“I always felt like I was doing everything wrong,” Rainey Pearson said.
Even as complex as the system can be, Rainey Pearson is determined to continue working with the system with hopes of making improvements.
Ludwig, who said she has only had a positive experience with her social worker, doesn’t know what she would have done if that were not the case.
“It’s kind of the luck of the draw,” Ludwig said. “If you get a really good team for this child, then the child’s going to be taken care of.
“Everyone in social work is so overworked and child welfare burnout is so high, turnover is so high, we’ve seen a lot of cases where social workers change because they move on. I can’t imagine how helpless I would feel if I was the consistent voice for this child, and I didn’t have a platform to be heard. I think it’s time for this [bill].”
“The least we can do”
Rep. David Willis (R-Marvin), the primary sponsor of Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights, has had connections with people in foster care. He said that he had promised he would be a champion for them, he told NC Health News in an interview.
“It’s all about these children,” Willis said in a committee meeting on May 11. “They didn’t ask to be put in the situation, but the least we can do is to be there to protect them, to support them, and to help them get on a good path and improve the situation that they’re currently in.
“We’re going to continue to support the foster care system. We’re going to continue to push legislation that makes it easier and more accessible and all around more attractive for these families to get involved to help these children.”
McLeod, who spearheaded the drafting of the Foster Parents’ Bill of Rights said the bill will grant families prior notice of meetings and information, improve their rights in court, as well as give them the right to take time off from providing care and not be penalized, helping to mitigate the challenges families face.
“There’s a lot of challenges in doing this work,” McLeod said. “Being supportive of that and really putting an emphasis on counties to recognize the importance of supporting that and our foster families [is an important aspect of the bill].”
A step in the right direction
Rainey Pearson agrees that the bill will help solidify support for foster parents.
“This for me, I think it’s gonna allow me to be a better foster mom,” Rainey Pearson said.
One particular aspect of the bill that Rainey Pearson is looking forward to is a shared parenting agreement that includes clear expectations and appropriate boundaries for all parties, including the birth family.
“It’s in the law that shared parenting has to happen, but I don’t always know what it’s supposed to look like,” Rainey Pearson said. “It would be really, really awesome if there were a shared parenting agreement that includes clear expectations for all parties because that would help me. I love the word boundaries in there because that would help me, help the birth family. Shared parenting can look a million different ways. I think just having that agreed upon by all parties could avoid a lot of problems going forward.”
For Ludwig, prior notice of meetings with the social worker and others involved in the care of the child, active participation in the decision-making process, reasonable notice of when the child will be removed from the foster home, and having input in court hearings are some of the most substantial points in the bill, she explained.
Both Rainey Pearson and Ludwig recognize that the bill is a step in the right direction, but the system still has some flaws.
“The change that’s needed is always evolving, and never going to be fixed by one single bill,” Ludwig said.
Anticipating passage through the Senate
Additionally, both women express empathy for the biological parents experiencing hardship.
“I was kind of prepared for the biological parents to have done terrible things,” Rainey Pearson said. “Yes, these kids have experienced some terrible things, and some are maybe more worthy of grace than others. But so often, the parents made bad decisions, because there were no good decisions in front of them.”
Ludwig had a similar reaction.
“I can’t overstate the amount of empathy that I feel for our foster daughter’s mother, who’s dealing with this addiction,” Ludwig said. “The discussion tends to attempt to pitch foster parents against biological parents, and that is really in no way, by intention. There’s a lot of beauty in co-parenting, when that’s possible. At the end of the day, we really have to put the kids first. That’s what drives, that’s what should drive this whole conversation, the whole system. It’s not about any of the adults in the room, and it’s completely about the futures of the kids in our home.”
Rep. Willis anticipates the bill will be passed through the Senate.
“We’ve got folks who are championing the foster care system on the Senate side,” Willis said. “We’re working together to make sure that we’ve got good reciprocity across both chambers so that we can work on their bills when it comes over, and they can help us with ours as it gets to the other side as well. We do expect it to pass both chambers.”
Clarification: The above caption has been changed to clarify that Rainey Pearson’s son copied the poem he had read in school.