Cerrone Cohen, M.D.: Don't Forget About These Children

Monday, June 10, 2019

Cerrone Cohen, M.D.
Cerrone Cohen, M.D.

The growing number of children in foster homes is a national, state-wide and local problem. At nearly 11,000 kids, the foster care population in North Carolina alone is greater than the total number of residents in Camden, Jones, Graham, Hyde, or Tyrrell counties. This is just a fraction of the 442,000 children and young adults in the foster care system nationwide.

Locally, there are about 300 children in foster care in Durham but only about 100 licensed foster homes in the entire county. Often overlooked, children in foster care sit in classrooms alongside our own children while simultaneously sitting in the uncertainty of not having a permanent home. While there are always serious circumstances that precede a child being placed into foster care, don’t assume you know their stories.

Not all children in foster care have been physically abused or neglected and many of their biological parents are actively involved in their lives even while they are in foster care. Not all children in foster care need to be adopted and a number of kids eventually return home to their parents. Also don’t assume you can’t help. As we roll into the summer months, you may have been unaware that May was National Foster Care Awareness Month. In honor of the 11,000 children currently in foster care in N.C., here are three concrete ways that you can help.

Support a Foster Family

You can support children in foster care by partnering with a foster family around you. Bring them a meal. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask for ways that you can support the family and the child. When you go to a Durham Bulls game or the pool or a movie or a trampoline park, offer to take their child with you. When you go to a barber shop, ask if their child needs a haircut, too. Offer to babysit so the family can have a date night. See if the child needs a ride to summer camp or to church.

Children in foster care typically have only brief visits with family and sometimes have no visitation at all. In addition to missing parents, they often miss out on time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors and cousins, all of the people that an average child depends on for attention, guidance, and affection. This is where you can step in. Notice kids in foster care. You don’t have to be a foster parent to show them you care. It takes a village.

Become a Child Advocate

Children entering foster care because of abuse or neglect in North Carolina are assigned a Guardian ad Litem. A Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is a court-appointed advocate for the child that works alongside an attorney to make sure the child’s best interests are being represented. This role includes collaborating with others who are working with the child, visiting the child, writing child-focused recommendations to the court, monitoring details of the case, and empowering the child’s voice. These advocates are all trained volunteers. Many children move from home to home and may have multiple foster parents. However, the GAL typically works with the child until the case is resolved and sometimes may be one of the few constants during an uncertain time in the child’s life  I have gotten to know several GALs and their role in providing a stabilizing role in a foster child’s life is invaluable. Learn more about how to volunteer as a GAL.

Consider Becoming a Foster Parent

When my wife and I became foster parents in 2016, we felt a calling to provide homes for children who don’t have them. After completing 30 hours of training, we had our first child placed in our home just weeks later. Fostering has not been an easy experience. It’s messy. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s heartbreaking. Just like any other child, every child in foster care comes with their own challenges and their own opportunities for growth. And just like raising any other child, there are times we feel like we don’t have any idea what we’re doing. But thankfully, you don’t have to be a perfect parent, just a willing one. If you want to learn more, you can start by attending an information meeting held by the county or one of the private agencies in the area that provide foster care services. Begin exploring becoming a foster parent, including training and requirements.

What Else Can I Do?

As much as we need more foster parents, it's a temporary solution to a much bigger problem. As with many things, at times it seems that more resources are poured into running a system than are focused on preventing the need for children to enter the system in the first place. Prevention is important. You can support vulnerable families by supporting local and national initiatives that promote education, housing initiatives, job training, and affordable housing options that further level the playground for kids and family at risk. 

Cerrone Cohen is associate program director of the Duke Family Medicine Residency Program. Email cerrone.cohen@duke.edu with questions.
Editor’s note: A member of the Duke Family Medicine Residency Program faculty guest blogs every month. Blogs represent the opinion of the author, not the Duke Family Medicine Residency Program, the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, or Duke University.