Every Christmas, Helen McArdle looks forward to the holiday traditions she will share with her two sons: drinking hot chocolate, opening stockings, taking family photos.
For McArdle, Christmas is the perfect holiday to be a family.
Last Christmas, surrounded by her two biological sons, Jermar, 7, and Jervar, 9, McArdle began to think more seriously about this idea of family.
“I was seeing that there were so many kids who were in the (foster care) system and didn’t have families,” she said. “So I thought to myself, if this is right, it will go smoothly.”
One year later, McArdle, of Lancaster, is an approved foster parent for a teenager.
From the start, McArdle’s two biological sons were excited about the prospect of an older sibling.
“They told me that they wanted a teenage brother,” McArdle said.
Soon McArdle found Bethany Christian Services in Lancaster, a nonprofit adoption agency, and began her training, which moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic soon after she signed up in March.
“And as soon as my family worker said, ‘I want to talk to you about something: I have a 15-year-old boy,’ I just felt like the Lord put that in place,” McArdle said.
But finding homes for 12,000 kids in the Pennsylvania foster care system has been a challenge for Bethany Christian Services, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
A shift online
While a child is often removed from a home when there is harm or inadequate care, and placed with a foster family, case manager Kate Kirkpatrick said there is potential for children to be kept in unsafe environments longer than they should have during the lockdown.
Depending on the case, foster children can be reunified with their biological parents in time, though the timeline for reunification differs for each child. For others, parental rights are terminated and the child becomes available for adoption.
And after more children were adopted from the foster care system during 2019, both nationally and statewide, Bethany had strong recruitment plans for the coming year, including lots of outreach, attending local festivals, churches, events and community activities.
“Before 2020, we did almost everything in person,” said Kirkpatrick, foster care case manager for Bethany Christian Services. “And I think in some ways, maybe that was prohibiting some families from joining us, geographically, logistically. We’ve adapted by offering remote foster parent recruitment and licensing.”
The shift online is still bringing hope.
“We have seen an increase in families with interest,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think that’s because families are home.”
While Kirkpatrick has witnessed an increase in initial interest in fostering, she is unsure whether or not those families will follow through in time.
A ‘model’ foster mom
Kirkpatrick has worked with Helen McArdle throughout the entire foster care process.
“She is the model of the ideal,” Kirkpatrick said. “Helen has a good understanding of the fact that foster care and foster care adoption isn’t about you, and she was transparent about her own challenges and abilities.”
That includes being a single parent. A person doesn’t need a partner to become a foster parent: they just need to provide a stable and loving home. A tax-free stipend is provided monthly to parents who have been approved to foster after completing training, home safety inspections, CPR certification and additional background checks.
“I’m a single mom, and I’m doing it,” McArdle said.
After working as a case manager for 22 years, Kirkpatrick says the challenge is convincing families that they have what it takes to become foster parents.
“We do have a constant need for more families to understand that they may very well have the qualities needed, like flexibility and acceptance and unconditional love,” she said.
Since joining the McArdle home in July, the 15-year-old has been settling in and continuing school online.
The teen enjoys listening to music, which McArdle says opens the door to compromising: “Teenagers can be moody, and they like a different style of music,” she said. “I’ll ask, ‘Can you listen to that in your room so I don’t have to hear it?’ ”
Between school, McArdle finds the teen in his room chatting with friends.
“The greatest thing is the love that’s shared,” she said. “When you go in to see how homework is going and joke around with his friends on the phone.”
For both the teen and McArdle, this is home.
“I knew from the beginning that it would be with the goal of permanency,” McArdle said.
The teen entered the foster care system last year after his biological mother died. There’s a unique set of challenges for teenagers in foster care: 22,000 kids age out of the foster care system each year across the country, according to Kirkpatrick. While many foster parents are interested in caring for a baby or young child, there’s a unique need for homes for older children, too.
“We’ve really kind of pushed lately more and more families to kind of think about that, you know, what, what would it be like to have an older child in my home,” she said.
A slowed process
While the interest in the foster care system grows through online resources, Kirkpatrick says it will be impossible to know the total numbers for children who enter foster care or are adopted during the pandemic until it is all over.
For now, Kirkpatrick sees the opportunity for building relationships, as foster families are spending more time in the home during the pandemic.
“I think that this (pandemic) is probably something that we’re going to end up saying was a benefit,” she said.
Still the reunification process for biological parents working to get their children back has slowed.
Biological parents typically have 12-15 months to make meaningful progress toward reunification, but the pandemic has created additional challenges as parent-child visitation has been delayed by COVID-19 or moved online.
As the biological parents struggle to complete required services under COVID-19 restrictions, it also can be difficult for them to demonstrate a safe and stable environment for their child without job security or safe housing.
As McArdle reflects on the process one year later, she sees personal growth in the experience.
“I think that being a foster parent has made me a better parent to my own kids,” McArdle said. “It really gives you that little bit of motivation to just be the best parent that you can be to your own kid and to other children.”
McArdle already has been in contact with Kirkpatrick, requesting that another foster child be placed with her in the near future.
“I was very hesitant in the beginning to let my family or friends know that I was fostering or doing a concern adoption, because I thought that I would get a ton of negativity,” she said. “But I found that the community and family is very supportive.”
That’s what Kirkpatrick and others at Bethany Christian Services hope more people in the community will start to believe.
“It’s me and you caring for children,” Kirkpatrick said.