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WKYT Investigates | The need for foster parents in Kentucky

Many of Kentucky’s Appalachian counties have higher foster care rates. And the state needs more foster parents than ever, experts say.
Published: Feb. 4, 2021 at 4:00 PM EST
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Editor’s Note: Throughout the year WKYT, the Gray D.C. Bureau, InvestigateTV and other Gray Television stations will examine health disparities in the Appalachian region as part of ‘Bridging the Great Health Divide: Mississippi Delta and Appalachia,’ an initiative exploring why disparities exist in those regions and focusing on long-term and sustainable solutions.

PIKE COUNTY, Ky. (WKYT) - Flip through a family photo album and you’ll see that little things often make the biggest memories.

“When they saw the ocean, they were crying,” Mary Smith, of Pike County, said of one time in particular. “We were all crying.”

Vacations, shopping trips, birthday parties - those are the special times Mary Smith remembers most with her foster children over the years.

“Other than just teaching our children what life is about, we also want to teach that they know the fun part of life,” she said.

That is part of the safety, stability and support Smith has given a number of kids in the seven years she has been a foster parent.

“For me myself, it’s helping children become adults and have prosperous lives,” Smith said.

And experts say the state needs more people like her.

As of the beginning of January, across Kentucky 9,193 children were in what is called out-of-home care (OOHC) with active placements, state records show.

The 2020 Kentucky KIDS COUNT county data book provides the statewide rate for children in foster care is 51.1 per 1,000 kids ages 0-17.

“I can’t imagine having that happen,” said Vanessa Lester, director of Mountain Comprehensive Care Center’s Therapeutic Foster Care program. “It’s a very traumatic situation just being removed from your biological family, being removed from everything you’ve ever known - not to mention the reason why they’d be removed.”

MCCC’s foster care program being “therapeutic” means that an important part of their work is providing mental health services to kids who have been through a lot. In many cases that means abuse or neglect, Lester said.

“It’s a sad reality that foster care is needed, because in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be needed and all the kids would be safe and comfortable with their families,” she said.

Eight of the top 10 Kentucky counties with the highest foster care rates 2017-2019 are in Appalachia, according to KIDS COUNT:

  1. Wolfe 137.0 (per 1,000 kids age 0-17)
  2. Rowan 127.5
  3. Perry 110.1
  4. Boyd 105.5
  5. McCreary 100.4
  6. Grayson 94.9
  7. Butler 93.5
  8. Carter 89.5
  9. Montgomery 89.5
  10. Clay 88.6

Close to two-thirds of Appalachian counties in Kentucky - 34 of 54 - have foster care rates higher than the statewide rate, according to KIDS COUNT statistics.

Experts say the problem spans the commonwealth, and it is not going away even though the number of kids placed in foster care has actually gone down, Lester says, over the past eight months.

“That doesn’t mean that the need is not there,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that there are very few kids who still need foster care.”

Lester said that she knows more have been placed with other family members instead, which is good for them. But she fears that more kids out there are still in bad situations that just were not recognized during the pandemic.

“Some of our children have a lot of past stories,” Mary Smith said. “You know everyone in life has a story. And they’re not always good. Sometimes they’re bad.”

It is another reason why people like Mary Smith are so important - because for many kids in foster care, foster parents can be their guardian angels, helping kids overcome their difficult pasts and adding some smiles to their scrapbooks, so that by the time they leave they have more than just happy memories, but a foundation for a healthier future.

“I love my kids,” Smith said. “And I want them to see the good and the positive things in life that they can take and learn from.”

Resources

Learn more about Mountain Comprehensive Care Center’s Therapeutic Foster Care program here. They have offices in Hazard and Prestonsburg.

A new office they are opening soon in Lexington will allow them to help more kids - but that also means they will need more foster parents, too.

MCCC also has an independent living program in which youth who have turned 18 and decided to recommit to the foster care system can live independently in a fully-furnished apartment to increase their skills and get ready to go out on their own when they turn 21.

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