The month of April is observed as Child Protection Month in The Bahamas. However, every single day, the Department of Social Services welcomes the support of every community for the care of children.
In a recent report by Minister of Social Services and Community Development, the Hon. Melanie S. Griffin, it was observed that child abuse is on the rise in The Bahamas with approximately 1,300 cases reported between the years of 2011 to 2012. Sadly, many more cases go unreported.
On Abaco, there is an urgent need for foster parents.
Charlamae Fernander, assistant director for the Dept. of Social Services, said because there is no facility for placement of children who are in need of the government’s care and protection, foster homes are a better alternative for Abaco residents because of the island’s make up.
One should know, though, that there is a difference between adoption and fostering. Fernander explained that adoption in its legal definition is when a child is placed in the home of a fit person as their own legal child or their heir. The adopter becomes the legal parent; the child’s name is changed to the adopter’s; the biological parents no longer have any connection to the child; and the child becomes the full responsibility of the adopter as though they gave birth to the child, and they gain the same standing as any natural children of the family.
Alternatively, fostering is when you are named the guardian of a child. Two types of fostering exist: informal and legal. In the legal situation, the court orders that someone be named the guardian of the child. Although the person wishing to be the guardian can apply directly to the court, Social Services must deem the person fit to be a guardian. The court invariably adjourns the matter and requests a social inquiry from Social Services along with a report with a recommendation. The final decision is made by the court, and can be handed down from the Magistrate’s Court or Supreme Court. The Magistrate’s Court has the power to grant care orders placing a child in the care of a guardian or foster parent.
Foster parenting is further broken down into temporary and permanent categories. A temporary foster parent is somebody who stands by to receive children and they can specify which age group, gender, how many children they can handle. They keep children on a temporary basis like over a weekend or up to a week or two weeks at a time while other arrangements are being made.
“That’s a person we will call in the middle of the night when the police call us and say ‘we have a child wandering or a child being abused, and we need someplace for the child to be,’ and we call up the approved temporary foster parent say can you take this child for us until tomorrow morning or for a week or so until we investigate this matter.”
Meanwhile, a permanent foster parent agrees to take the child until they are at least 18 years old. Social Services has had temporary foster parents, who have become permanent foster parents because they housed some children and decided that they are a good fit and they decide to keep them.
“Now that’s very good for the children maybe a little unfortunate for us in that we can no longer call on that person to house children temporarily,” she said.
To become a foster parent, there are specific requirements. Persons must be between the ages of 25 to 65 years, and can be single or a couple. They can be male or female, but a determination must be made on the most appropriate setting to place a child. Of utmost importance are persons who have a clean police record not relating to those with minor offenses like traffic-related incidences.
Applicants must be in good health and free from any communicable diseases. Persons with no children are also eligible once they have a desire to follow advice and guidelines to aid them in caring for a child. Fernander added that those who do have children do not automatically qualify as a good parent because there are some seriously unfit parents out there, which is why there is a need for Social Services.
Additionally, persons making an application to become foster parents are required to undergo a home study. This means that a social worker will carry out an investigation of the person’s home circumstances.
“You don’t have to have a palace on a hill; you just have to have room for that child in your home,” Fernander remarked. “We don’t want to know the child is sleeping on the floor for instance, or sleeping with someone they should not be sleeping with.
“You have to have room for that child, and you have to have the means to care for that child. If the child is of an age where they require constant supervision, you have to have a plan for that if you’re going to be a foster parent, so the child is not unsupervised when they need to be supervised. You have to like children and know how to look after children.”
The day-to-day requirements of the child are inclusive of school, medical attention, food, shelter, and clothing.
So what brings the Social Services Department to the point of needing foster parents? Fernander had a ready reply. Obvious situations that lead to the need for foster care are abuse and abandonment.
“Some parents just abandon their children, and go off to the United States in search of a better life, and leave the children behind.”
Then there are odd situations where parents were involved in illegal operations and arrested while in transit with their children. The children are housed temporarily until they can be returned to their country of origin. Sometimes there are parents who are deported, and their children end up being left behind. Then again, there are some parents with no support system who become ill and hospitalized, and have to rely on Social Services to step in to care for the children until the parents are able to assume responsibility for them.
“We really need to make an effort to recruit foster homes and have some foster homes approved by April 1,” Fernander said, “because it may take a while for us to establish a children’s home here on Abaco.”
She said some social scientists argue that some foster homes are better than institutions because at least you have a home setting, and the children are more likely to receive individual attention. In the short term, she recognized that it is all that can be done because Social Services struggles regularly in finding placement for these children.
“It’s a real challenge and would be a relief to us, and of course these children, if we have someplace we can readily go to if it becomes necessary or if short notice.”
Sadly, children are sent to homes in Nassau, Grand Bahama or Cat Island, and are separated from their communities never to return. Fernander was adamant that children should not be separated from their community unless their particular circumstance causes Social Services to determine that it is in their best interest. However, those cases are rare.
“By and large, it is better to keep them close to their communities; it’s less wrenching and distressing for the child,” Fernander empathized. “They have the opportunity to have interaction with their family members as long as they are not a danger to that child and do not disrupt the family home.”
And even though we live in a small community, foster homes are not easily recognizable because they function as regular family homes.
“The home won’t carry a sign that says foster home,” she pointed out. “The beauty of foster care is that you are placed in a family’s home, so you’re just going to live with so and so. Plus we discourage foster parents from discussing a child’s circumstances with anybody. We need to know that they are going to be discreet, protect the best interest of the child, and not publish the child’s personal affairs.”
As she closed, Fernander also suggested that people become volunteers for institutions like Every Child Counts, which can always benefit from their assistance.