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Prospective foster parent Jared Carey works as the production coordinator for the Community Performance Series at SUNY Potsdam. He's also the business manager for the Orchestra of Northern New York. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Prospective foster parent Jared Carey works as the production coordinator for the Community Performance Series at SUNY Potsdam. He's also the business manager for the Orchestra of Northern New York. Photo: Zach Hirsch

What it takes to be a North Country foster parent

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This week, we've been reporting stories on foster care in the North Country (find more stories here). A foster home is supposed to be a safe place for kids. And foster parents are the people who make that happen.

Not everyone is cut out to be a foster parent. Getting certified takes a lot of work. Foster parents have to get a background check, they have to take classes, and their house has to get inspected, to name just a few of the steps. In this last installment of our series, we go behind the scenes.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

The people who train foster parents have a lot to check off their list, but one of the biggest things is that they have to make sure everyone who signs up, knows what they're getting into.

"While your arms are open, and you want them to come running, they're in a totally different state than you are at that time," says Amanda LaPage, a home finder at the Children's Home of Jefferson County.

At the agency's St. Lawrence County office in Canton, there are about 30 foster parent hopefuls sitting around the room.

Jared Carey, left, and his classmates, close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to suddenly leave home. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Jared Carey, left, and his classmates, close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to suddenly leave home. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Tonight, these grown-ups are going on what the staff calls an "imaginary journey." They pretend to be a kid who has to leave home with a stranger. LaPage tells everyone to close their eyes and listen as she acts out the moment when a Child Protective Service worker comes to remove a child from his or her home.

"How do you think your new family will feel about you wanting to see your old family, Jared?" she asks. "Disappointed," says Jared Carey. He's a middle aged man with short hair and glasses. Jared has worked with troubled kids as a teaching assistant. He likes helping children. "I just feel for these kids," he says. "Because I think they're more stressed than I was as a teenager. I want to help."

People like Jared, who feel it's their calling to help kids in need, can't legally open their home until they go through a training. It's a big commitment: 3 hours, once a week, for 10 weeks. And the material is heavy. "I've wondered, 'Oh God, can I handle it?' And I wake up the next day, thinking, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do,'" Jared says.

I've wondered, 'Oh God, can I handle it?' And I wake up the next day, thinking, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do.
In Jared's foster class, Matt McAllister, one of the case planners, is leading an exercise. "When you think about kids that are coming into care, what do you think is true of a lot of these kids?" McAllister asks. People call out responses like "loss," "confused," and "problems."

Jared had a rough childhood himself. When Jared was a little kid, he says his mom wasn't always there for him. He says she did heavy drugs. "I'm not sure the timeline, but, she ultimately ended up in heroin. She wasn't completely neglectful, she didn't completely ignore my existence, but she wasn't nurturing and the best about getting up and getting me off to school, and that," he says.

When Jared was eight, his grandparents took him to live with them in Potsdam. He says they saved him from a bad life. When Jared's grandfather passed away, that's when his interest in foster care began to grow. He says he lives alone and works two jobs, and wanted something more out of life.

"More family," he says. "My family used to be large and close and all here, so now there's not as strong a family feel. So, I'm hoping that a foster child can come into my home and we can click and we can do the projects and we can do what my grandfather did for me. Which will make me feel valuable and pass on what my grandfather taught me."

That doesn't always go so smoothly. Often, kids are way too anxious to care about "clicking" with anybody in their new home. Throughout the trainings, there's a clear warning from the agency that it can be a thankless job, being a foster parent.

"It's not all flowers and roses," says Victoria Peck. She's the director of the St. Lawrence County Children's Home. It's a journey. There are a lot of challenges that go with working with birth parents, with working with children, and working with the organization."

This kind of talk makes Jared nervous. He's never been a parent before. "The biggest fear to me is not being able to reach the child to feel safe with me. That's the biggest, is making a connection. I worry – when they say that the kids don't connect, you know sometimes foster parents say, 'this isn't working out.' I don't want to do that, because that's just one more disruption for the kids," he says.

Jared is still game, even if he doesn't connect with his future foster child. Jared says he gets that it's not about him, because he's been there before. In the classroom, he role plays what could go wrong from the kid's point of view. After ten weeks go by, Jared is done with the classes. He thinks he's ready. "I guess about as ready as I'm going to be, for the unknown," he says. "But the house isn't quite ready yet, so that's my one thing."

The classroom part is over, but Jared can't be certified until he fixes up his house. It's a cluttered old place. The floor sags a little bit. He says he still has some work to do on that, and he needs to put in some new doors.

Jared also has to figure out his job situation. He works long hours as a manager at both a concert organization and an orchestra. He wants to be able to give his full attention to his future foster child.

He says he's so committed to this idea that he's willing to rearrange his life to make it happen. "It's going to be hard," he says. "I know that. If I have to get a different job, I'll get a different job."

There are fewer and fewer children moving into foster homes in New York State. But here in the North Country, those numbers aren't going down. The caseworkers who run the training say the need isn't going anywhere. They say the North Country could use a lot more people like Jared.

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