The smile on Tara Mulvahill's face had a special quality. She's a new mom.
"Life is good," she told Boise Weekly.
Mulvahill has been an Idaho foster parent for seven years, and more than 40 children have walked through her door and into her arms. Now, at 52 years of age, she calls one of those children her own.
"I'm a first-time parent," she said. "I just adopted a little guy who I've care for the past two-and-a-half years. He'll turn 3 this coming week."
Mulvahill is a rare breed. While there are 1,300 homes licensed for foster care in Idaho, that's not nearly enough. It turns out that many of those homes--nearly half--are exclusively licensed to care for a relative, quite often a grandchild. That means that somewhere around 700 foster care families were available to nearly 1,200 non-relative foster children this year.
"We don't have enough foster families," said Tara Wright.
She should know. An attorney who has represented children in family court, Wright worked for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare for five years, and now works as a contractor for IDHW, specifically recruiting new foster families. In the course of a 90-minute conversation with BW, she continually looped back to her mantra: Idaho needs more foster families.
"Let me give you a real example of three children I can think of right now," said Wright. "It's important that the three siblings remain in their same schools, see the same crossing guards, see the same classmates; but we don't have families that can take all three. Then one sibling ends up three counties away and the other two are two counties away from their original home. We just don't have enough options to make the best placement."
At the Boise office of Family Advocates, the parent nonprofit of the Treasure Valley's guardian ad-litem program, which represents foster children in the family court system, CEO Richard Johnson has the same shortage dilemma.
"A guardian ad-litem, in most situations, is one of the longest-lasting relationships that a foster kid has," said Johnson. "Case workers change, foster placements change, schools change. But the guardian follows that child until the case is closed. Sometimes it's six months; sometimes it's six years."
Simply put--and there is very little that is simple in foster care--a guardian ad-litem is the eyes and ears of the court. Armed with a stack of court orders issued by a family court judge, the guardian has complete access to IDHW files, medical records, school records and regularly monitors the child in the home setting, foster care setting and supervised parental visitations. Eventually, the guardian reports only to the judge in helping decide the best placement for the child.
"We have an army of about 530 guardian ad-litems," said Johnson, whose region covers both Ada and Canyon counties.
Johnson said Idaho foster children can't be stereotyped.
"It's safe to say that within six blocks of anyone's home, there is a child that is experiencing some form of neglect or abuse," he added. "It's as likely to happen in Eagle or Hidden Springs as it is to happen in Garden City. I would challenge anybody to identify who a foster kid is based on where they live."
It's equally challenging for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to keep caseworkers, but not as difficult as it used to be.
"It's much better now. Today, Idaho doesn't struggle the way other states struggle. We're experiencing about a 15 percent to 17 percent turnover. Some states are seeing a 30 percent turnover," said Miren Unsworth, Child Welfare Program manager for IDHW. "That said, we do see turnover. The nature of the work is very hard. The average caseworker is handling 13 to 17 different cases, but that doesn't tell you the number of children in each case. In one case, you may have one mother, three fathers and seven kids."
IDHW officials said they're also trying something new--they call it One Church One Child--where they partner with communities of faith to help recruit foster and adoptive parents. Patterned after a Chicago program, the Idaho version is still in its infancy. The mission looks to mobilize congregations to identify and provide for the needs of foster children and their birth families.
"But it's not exclusively faith-based," said Sabrina Brown, IDHW program specialist assigned to One Church One Child. "We're very flexible with the program. It's not so much about a church as it is about a community that's coming together to help. There are a number of nonprofits who are part of the program that aren't faith-based."
Perhaps the most important number is 67. That's the percentage of children who, after being placed into protective custody, end up reunified with a parent or primary caregiver.
"The high 60s, that's very good," Unsworth told BW. "Most of our kids go home."
Nobody is saying that it's easy: The average length of time in foster care for those children is 255 days--that's why foster care is so critical. And, Wright added, the relationship with the foster parent and the birth parent can be healthy and last long after the child has returned home.
"When I'm done talking to you today, I'm heading up to pick up my former foster daughter. She's back home now, but we took care of her six years ago when she was 6 years old," said Wright. "I have a great relationship with the birth mom. Foster families and biological families working together is a wonderful thing. That girl is 13 now. She's doing great."
Before Wright headed for the door, she put in one last pitch: "Did I mention that we really need foster parents?"
Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent can find out more by dialing the Idaho 2-1-1 CareLine.