Nick Perkins, Upslope Media

When it comes to the Department of Family Services, it’s the stories that matter. Wyoming is host to a number of stories where families become involved with DFS. Some of these stories do not have happy endings, but many of them do. For the men and women who work and volunteer with the DFS, it is these stories — these happy endings — that keep them coming back day after day.

An important part of those stories, of those happy endings, is the idea of foster parenting.

In Wyoming, according to The Sheridan Press, 6,466 children and adolescents experienced 14,734 out-of-home placements from 2015 to 2019. Nationally, there are more than 437,000 youths in foster care.

The reasons for fostering are vast and varied. Maybe a parent or guardian has died, or maybe they are dealing with addiction issues. Maybe there are legal proceedings happening. Any number of reasons could lead to a child ending up in foster care, but one thing is certain: the need for foster parents in Wyoming is extremely high.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services — DFS, as it’s typically called — is calling on Wyomingites to consider becoming foster parents. It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s true. Especially in Wyoming, foster parents are necessary to ensure the growth, health and safety of our young people.

“We have a lot of kiddos that come in for abuse and neglect situations,” said Katelyn Nation, the foster care coordinator for the Department of Family Services in Wyoming, “or they’re on juvenile probation or something else entirely, every month. And so we’re always in need, and we don’t have enough homes to take them all. So they go to — especially teenagers — crisis centers or things like that.”

And that’s not a healthy way to live. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Physiological Needs are the base. These are things like breathing, food, water, rest, safety. Everything else, every other need, builds upon those basic needs. But in Wyoming, so many young people do not have even their most basic physiological needs met.

Which is why the Department of Family Services needs you. It’s why these young people need you.

“Statistics have shown, over time, that children do better if they’re with their own family,” said Devorra Lynn, a foster care coordinator with DFS. “Even if that family is different than yours or mine, the issue is safety. And sometimes children need to come into care so that we can help find or provide services for those families to be able to learn to live or recreate an environment that is safe, so that their children can be reunified with them.”

The DFS website features a DFS worker who told the story of a young mother who was struggling hard with addiction. The mother — let’s call her Jill — had been using meth intravenously for the past three years or more. Jill’s oldest child was taken in by her grandparents, but the younger child had to be taken into protective custody.

This is never somebody’s first choice — not even DFS’s. But when there are no other options, the Department of Family Services exists to be a safe space for children who have nowhere else to go until, eventually…hopefully…they are reunited with their parents or legal guardians.

Sometimes, that process takes longer than others. That’s why the stability of a good foster home is so important. It offers children a safe haven so they can focus on other things like school, their mental health, and so forth. Duration ranges from situation to situation, story to story. But it is a commitment; one that should not be taken lightly.

“Short term for us and short term for other people may not be the same thing,” said Kristie Jacobsen, another foster care coordinator. “It could be just a 48-hour or overnight stay. But short term for us is something like six months or nine months. It is a time commitment and, a lot of times, it’s longer than people might think. But they can sign up for different things like overnight respite care or things like that. If you’re not sure if you want to be a foster parent, there are other kinds of volunteer things you can do, such as offering emergency placement homes and things like that. But when you come into care, it’s 15–22 months before we look at alternative permanency within the court system. So I would say the average time is about one year of having a kiddo in your home.”

One year. One year of support. One year of encouragement. One year of serving as that base in the hierarchy of needs. And it’s not just offering support to the child, either. Oftentimes, foster parents serve as guides and mentors for the actual parents.

“When I do training with foster parents, I tell them that part of the population we work with that might be ‘scary’ or hard to work with is like, five to six percent,” Jacobsen shared. “Those might be the people who once they go to prison, or once they have a DFS case, they just check out. Those people aren’t usually the ones we’re working with. The people we work with are our neighbors; they’re people that might just need a little extra help and support. From my experience, the parents and kids that come into our system don’t necessarily have a strong family support system. And there are a lot of things that are pressing on them and influencing them. A lot of times it’s their outside environment. And they just need a little extra help and support to get through that period of time.”

That’s what the Department of Family Services does. It’s what foster parents do. They take in young people, to be sure. But they aren’t there to judge or condemn the parents — they’re there to help them, too.

“The relationship that we would like parents and foster parents to have is for the foster parents to maybe serve as that mentor,” Nation said. “A lot of parents just need somebody to show them how to be a good parent themselves, because oftentimes they don’t have that example. A lot of the families we work with have generational involvement with DFS. So with more hands-on foster parents, we can show these other parents how to schedule doctor appointments or get the kids started in kindergarten and just provide overall appropriate care for their children, to make sure they’re not being put in harm’s way. Those are the types of foster parents that we really like to work with.”

It’s a big commitment, a big ask. The Department of Family Services knows this. They know the time, the energy and the cost — both literal and emotional/mental — that go into being a foster parent. A foster parent is a very special type of person. It’s a selfless thing, to take a stranger into one’s home. It requires patience and empathy and kindness and understanding. It’s investing in people’s lives — not just the children’s, but in their parents’ as well. It’s offering a hand to people who may not have anybody else. It’s providing a foundation upon which people can build the rest of their lives.

It’s a gift, really. A gift of time, of support, of love.

“If you’re looking for a way to give back and make a huge impact on any kid’s life, and a whole family’s life, you can through foster care,” Nation said. “Anything, from that mentorship to making sure a kid has a safe place to sleep at night, or giving them opportunities that they wouldn’t normally have — it’s all worth it. Becoming a foster parent will support any family, and it’s worth it.”

To find out more about the foster parent process, or to learn more about the Department of Family Services, visit the DFS website.

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