Leah Smith, a NECCO Foster Care Recruiter, attended the Jan. 28 Upshur County Commission meeting to express how much the foster care system needs foster care parents.

NECCO representative: Foster parents — even short-term ones — are desperately needed

BUCKHANNON – There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States and over 7,000 in West Virginia alone.

Leah Smith, a NECCO Foster Care Recruiter, attended the Jan. 28 Upshur County Commission meeting to express how much the foster care system needs foster care parents.

“When I first became a foster parent in 2017, there were around four to 5,000 children in foster care in West Virginia, and now we’re approaching eight. We held steady at about 1,500 to 2,000 over the last 20 years, and then all of a sudden with this drug crisis, we are increasing by 1,000 every single year,” Smith said. “That includes children that are aging out of foster care, that are being adopted, that are going into guardianships, so we are losing some, and we’re replacing those and then we’re replacing even more.”

Smith said she works with people in the foster care system every day and is a foster parent herself.

“I feel the need [for more foster care parents] every single day when I’m at home with my two little foster children, one of whom I adopt next Thursday, and I’m so excited I could just jump right now because it’s been a three-year journey, so I’m so ready to have my little guy have my last name,” Smith said. “I am also the child of a deceased drug addict, so I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a home that is surrounded by these kinds of things.”

NECCO started in 1996 as a foster care agency and now they offer mental health services, live-in facilities and offer services for children that hit 18 to 21 and have to leave the foster care system. According to its website, NECCO is a multi-state child welfare organization.

“We do adoptions, and we’ve had around 2,000 adoptions in the last five years. Reunification is really the number one goal for us when it comes to foster care because we are building families by reunifying them, giving them the services they need to hopefully learn how to parent and to learn how to live their lives successfully and stop the cycle, because I think everyone in this room knows we repeat the things that were taught,” Smith said.

Their biggest need is foster parents able and willing to take in children ages 10 to 18.

“I know a lot of people think older children have a lot of issues, behaviors and traumas, but I was on a panel last week about teens, and a lot of times, they have had more time to come to terms with their trauma, and to figure out how to manage their lives, and how to be grateful for the simple things, that my children definitely take for granted,” she said.

She said having people willing to house foster children, even temporarily, would be a big help.

“There are things that everyone in this room and the majority of people in the state of West Virginia and in Upshur County, have available – they have a spare bed, they have a spare pillow, they have a spare blanket,” Smith said. “These are things that even if it’s a temporary placement and people will just get licensed and say, ‘I’m not ready to do full foster care, but if you need some somewhere for a child to sleep, give me a call,’ we even need that, and that would be amazing for some people to go ahead and step up and do that for us.”

Smith said her role at NECCO is to help people get certified to become foster parents and answer any questions they have.

“When a new foster parent comes in, they meet with me, I get to help them set up, get their paperwork ready, and all of our classes are online right now, so you can literally become a foster parent from home,” Smith said. “It goes through nine weeks, and we have people that guide you every step of the way, and I use my personal cell phone; so does the rest of my team, so once you do open your home and you are ready, if something happens, there’s going to be at least five people that you can text in the middle of the night or call and ask, and that’s not something that’s very typical with many agencies.”

Smith encouraged everyone at the meeting to reach out and see if anyone they know wants to become a foster parent. If anyone is interested in becoming a foster parent, they may contact Smith directly; her email is leah.smith@necco.org.

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