WATAUGA — The need for foster parents is never ending, said Jessica Hunter, licensing and adoption social worker from Watauga County Department of Social Services.
Prior to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, there was a “steady flow” of foster parents in the area as she licensed between 30 and 40 people each year. When DSS reopened after the peak of the pandemic in 2020, Hunter said she is now licensing about five people a year despite a constant need for foster parents.
As of publication, there are 70 children in foster care in Watauga County — 28 children ages zero to five, 25 children ages six to 12 and 17 children ages 13 to 18, according to DSS. Thirteen of these children are with relatives, 20 are in group homes and the remaining 37 children have been placed with foster parents.
There are currently 26 family foster homes associated with the Watauga DSS.
Hunter said the main goal of fostering is to provide a safe and stable environment until a child can be reunited with their biological parents. She said many people state their hesitation to foster a child as the fear of “getting too attached,” but Hunter said this is often a good thing. She said it is hard for many foster parents to say goodbye to the children they care for, but that meant the child was in a loving environment.
Another concern Hunter hears is a fear of fostering a child with behavioral issues. Hunter said some children in foster care may have behavioral issues just like anyone else, but that DSS offers a variety of resources to help foster families prepare.
Each child in foster care has a social worker that comes to the home at least once a month and is often in communication one to two times a week. The social workers and others at DSS can provide referrals for other resources.
Hunter said that 77% of teenagers in the nation who enter foster care will not get placed with families and will end up at a group home. She said once an individual ages out of a group home, it can be difficult to find support to do things like open a bank account, find housing and secure a job, which furthers the cycle of poverty.
When there are not enough foster families for all of the children requiring placements, oftentimes these children go to group homes. Hunter said that group homes provide shelter and safety, but with many children under the care of staff, it is difficult to provide individual attention that help children build bonds.
Hunter said in her experience as a social worker, children who enter foster homes adjust more easily to adulthood than those who enter group homes.
Hunter said when there are no openings at group homes, it can feel like DSS is begging people to consider helping children in need. She said there have been instances this year where children have slept at the office after they were removed from their homes.
Destiny Mahala entered the foster care system at 9 years old. After the passing of her father and her mother’s incarceration, Mahala, who was then in fifth grade, was called into the office of her elementary school and told she would be removed from her home.
At such a young age, Mahala did not know what was going on when it was explained to her that her home life was “unstable and unsafe.” She was confused, when after three weeks of staying with her aunt, she was separated from her brothers and placed with distant relatives.
Those relatives, Cindy and Robert Price, changed her life.
Cindy had adult children when the couple decided to foster Mahala, who stayed with them for three years until her mother regained custody. From the ages of 12 to 14, Mahala stayed with her mother, but when their home life grew increasingly unstable, Mahala returned to live with the Prices.
Mahala still has a relationship with her mother and is grateful for the stability living with the Prices has given her. She said the Prices raised her to succeed by teaching her how to work and provide for herself while supporting her financially and keeping her safe.
Mahala said while she never stayed in a group home, one of her brothers did. She said he was provided much needed structure, but was not given the individual attention he needed to process the trauma he experienced.
Building a relationship with the Prices gave Mahala a sense of security. She said they were always there for her, even when she had behavioral issues.
Mahala said she had seen more than 15 therapists and struggled with cussing, jealousy and sensitivity while staying with the Prices. She said the combined support of social services and her foster family allowed her to process her experiences in a healthy way while accomplishing the goals she set for herself.
“It means a lot to me because I don’t think I would be exactly where I am today. I probably wouldn’t have a degree, I probably would have dropped out of high school. I wouldn’t have nowhere near as much support and love,” Mahala said. “I never thought I would have graduated high school. I thought I would have taken my life by that point. But I graduated high school, I got my associate degree, I bought my own car, I just signed the lease on my apartment. I never thought that I would do all that, but I did.”
Mahala said, now more than ever, she is grateful for the Prices ongoing support. She said as a soon-to-be student at UNC Wilmington, she is appreciative of having somewhere to call home on school breaks. She said the Prices “truly stuck by” her, which is what inspired her to study social work.
“I just want to be what I didn’t have. It makes me sad almost. It feels at times that I didn’t deserve to be somebody who was on the good side of it, but I was and now I can move forward with that and give back in any way possible,” Mahala said.
While she had great foster parents, she said social services, the Watauga County school system and many friends stepped forward to support her.
“My best friend, Silvia Trivette and her mom, Tonya, spent a lot of time with me from the time I was in sixth grade until now. They also had such a huge impact on me, raising me and loving me like I was their family, too,” Mahala said. “I had amazing foster parents, but I also had friends and other families who loved and supported me through some of the hardest things in my life. Everyone who stepped up made me who I am today and for that I could never be thankful enough.”
Social services offer resources like assigned social workers and therapists to children in foster care, but they also provide support to foster families.
Debra Gragg, who has fostered in the High Country for 22 years, said Watauga DSS is just as committed to caring for children as parents are.
“I feel like they are my family and that if I need anything, I can call them and they are there to help me. I have had situations where a child got out of control and I called them and they stayed on the call with me until we got the issue resolved,” Gragg said. “I feel like we’re one big family and I know sometimes their hands are tied as for what they can do, but they care for those kids as well as I care for those kids and they want what’s best for them and they’re trying to do everything they can to do the best for them.”
In her 22 years of fostering, Gragg has cared for children in many different situations. Gragg said she has fostered infants “straight from the hospital” to 17-year-olds. In her time fostering, she has adopted seven children, four of whom still live with her. She has seen many children reunited with their biological families.
Gragg has two biological children with her husband, who are both now adults, and says she believes they learned a lot about “the real world” through their experiences having foster siblings.
“I am fostering this little one right now that, when she came to my house, was having to have sleep medication because of so much anxiety,” Gragg said. “She came to my house around May. By the middle of June, she did not need any sleep medication because she’s in a more stable environment and feels more secure.”
Gragg said she recommends fostering and Watauga DSS to anyone interested or on the fence about the process. She said that if foster families lean on social workers and the services offered through DSS, fostering is more than worth it.
“It just breaks my heart that these kids are already dealing with much more than I have ever dealt with in my childhood and then to have nowhere to go to land safely from that for a while — I just wish there were more people that could do it, even if it was just for emergency situations,” Gragg said.
Hunter said as long as someone goes through the training and is committed to caring for a child, they will make a great foster parent.
There are no restrictions for fostering in Watauga County other than passing a background check, having a stable income and being at least 21 years old. Watauga DSS licenses single, married or cohabiting individuals who rent or own their home of any gender, sexuality and religion as long as they are willing to work with children’s biological parents and support teams while providing a loving home.
Watauga DSS currently has a need for any foster parents, but especially emergency and short term homes and those that can provide care for children over the age of five and sibling groups.
There are currently three children in Watauga County who have yet to be matched with adoptive families, nine to 17 years old.
An online information session about fostering in Watauga County will take place on Aug. 6 at 1 p.m. Anyone interested can email Jessica Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the link. Training will begin in September Though the date has not yet been selected, training will take place every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. at DSS for eight to 10 weeks.