More Maine families opening homes to foster children

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The Department of Health and Human Services said hundreds of people are taking steps to become foster parents after putting out a plea from the department’s commissioner.

Eric and David Stearns said their lives have changed since they opened their doors and their heart to 15-year-old Ethan.

“Ethan is full of life. It’s a lot more vibrant. It’s busy,” Eric Stearns said.

Ethan is a foster child who spent nearly a decade of his life in state custody living in a residential program in Cornville.

“Ethan was a much different child. Very scripted, considered not verbal, high behavioral, high need. We had talked about adoption, and we said we would rather help a child that needs it,” Eric Stearns said.

Nationwide, up to 35 percent of kids in state care are placed in group or institutional settings.

Maine has reduced that rate to five percent.

“If you look at the state of Maine over the past decade we have made incredible strides in the right direction,” said Director of Child and Family Services Jim Martin.

Maine is a leader when it comes to utilizing kinship families.

In 2000, nine percent of children in state custody where in the care of a relative. As of this year, that number had increased to 35 percent.

A 2012 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability found that Maine ranks in the bottom 10 states when it comes to re-unifying families, and 25th for it’s foster care system as a whole.

“We certainly want to reduce the amount of time that children spend in the states care. Children need to be in families,” said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

Mayhew said she hopes to achieve the goal of reducing the time children spend instate care with increasing immediate support and assistance for children and families.

“We want to make sure that we are doing everything possible to improve their outcomes. At the end of the day how do we define success on behalf of these children?” Mayhew said.

Foster children with special needs add another layer to the process, which can seem daunting.

Eric and David Stearns are therapeutic foster parents. They have had extra training with Spurwink Services to learn how to manage Ethan’s autism.

“When families are feeling at the point where they really need something they have people they can call. We have 24/7 on call for families,” Spurwink resource coordinator Rana O’Connor said.

After six months, Ethan is thriving with his foster family.

The Stearns’ dedication to providing Ethan with a routine, exposing him to the outdoors and introducing him to pets is paying off.

“We feel like a real family. It really does work day in and day out,” David Stearns said.

The Stearns hope their success can be beneficial for other potential foster parents.

“I think anybody can do it with any level of commitment. To want to provide a safe environment for any child, I think that’s the No. 1 priority, and they support you with anything that they can,” David Stearns said.

Mayhew said she plants to roll out changes over the next year that she hopes will provide similar support and assistance for all foster families, not just those with special needs.

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