In Oklahoma, if a sibling group of three kids is taken into foster care, there is about a one-in-three chance they will be split up. A few years ago, one of the state’s child welfare providers decided to do something about it.
The leadership of Circle of Care, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit that provides foster care and residential services in the state, theorized that the problem was more capacity than willingness. It secured $5 million to build several homes across the state designed for foster parents who are willing to take in bigger groups of brothers and sisters.
Since the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008, federal law requires that unless it is deemed unsafe, child welfare agencies make “reasonable efforts” to keep siblings together in foster care. If the siblings are removed from their home and not jointly placed, the state must make a “reasonable effort” for frequent visitation.
But even with new national emphasis, brothers and sisters are often kept apart. Sibling groups were not kept intact in 54 percent of cases, according to a study by the federal government.
In Oklahoma, the number of youth in foster care has been trending down of late, with a greater share of children being placed with relatives. But the number of sibling sets in care is growing “pretty consistently,” according to Circle of Care CEO Keith Howard.
Based on recent data provided by the state’s Department of Human Services, Circle of Care determined that sibling groups of three have a 65 percent chance of staying together in foster care. The odds go down to 45 percent for sets of four; it goes down to less than one percent for groups of six or more.
“The pattern was to see siblings separated when they were placed in homes,” Howard said. “It’s often a space issue.”
Circle of Care was founded with the help of the United Methodist Church, and focused mostly on group and residential care until about 10 years ago. It now oversees foster homes and other community-based services, and operates a campus-style site where several foster families live and tend to youth in care.
But this venture was a bit different – build homes scattered across the state that would be attractive to foster families who wanted a solitary home.
“We were looking at, can we go out and recruit foster families to live voluntarily in these houses on the condition they keep siblings together?” Howard said.
The capital raise began in Methodist churches around the state, getting the message out about the plan and gauging community interest. The plan shaped up around building eight different homes in six areas: one in Alva, Enid, Elk City and Tulsa, and two each in Woodward and Shawnee.
Once Circle of Care had closed in on some options, Howard said the campaign involved a lot of presentations to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, and other churches. After building community support, the organization was able to draw some contributions from state and regional foundations. The Avedis Foundation, for example, picked up half of the $450,000 cost for the two homes in Shawnee.
“Most of the funders really loved that this was spread out across the state,” Howard said, as opposed to campus-style projects.
All in, the capital raise met its target of $5 million. Of that, $3.4 million went to construction and landscape; the other $1.6 million established an endowment for ongoing care for the properties.
“That’s a big piece of this plan,” Howard said. “We don’t want to build these and in 10 years then have the houses fall apart.”
The first completed home is in operation in Alva, with three more homes scheduled to open by the end of May. All eight homes will be operational by the end of 2020 and there are foster parents already lined up for six of the homes, according to Howard.
There is no option to buy the homes, but they are completely free to live in for foster parents. That also goes for parents who decide to move toward an adoption.
“We’re really committed to using them for serving sibling groups in foster care,” Howard said. “We’re an advocate for adoption, so we’ll absolutely work with them to create a transition plan.”
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