BIDDEFORD – Jamie Mawhinney said she and her husband Brian were sitting on the couch watching television when they saw a commercial about foster parenting. The couple was pregnant with their first child at the time.
“We saw it and thought, ‘That is something we want to do someday,’” said Mawhinney. “It’s a great thing to do for a child. We remained interested and ultimately pursued becoming licensed to be foster parents in Maine.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families reported that at the end of 2012, 1,500 of the 397,122 children in foster care nationwide are in care in Maine.
The Mawhinneys, who have been married for 14 years, became licensed seven years ago. They live in Biddeford and have two biological children ages 13 and 10. They have fostered four children, two of whom they have since adopted. The couple has also provided short-term respite care for a number of children since becoming licensed. At present they are foster parents of two children, ages 16 and 10.
Prospective foster parents go through a rigorous licensing process through Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services. The department first conducts a home study, inspects the premises, as does a fire marshal. The prospective parent(s) is also interviewed at length. Applicants then go through at least 18 hours of classroom training to help prepare them to care for the children, for both physical and emotional needs. Licenses are renewed every two years, and parents must continue to meet the requirements of the program to retain their status.
Mawhinney said there are a number of organizations in the state that can provide support and resources for foster families. One of those, Adoptive & Foster Families Inc., holds an annual training conference that she has found helpful, as it allows parents to get in some of the required training hours for license renewal, as well as networking opportunities with other foster families.
“We’ve found that other foster parents have been the best form of support because they truly understand the dynamics,” said Mawhinney.
When children come into the foster care system in Maine, the state works to find a suitable match and a home that has the potential for permanence.
“The priority is reunification with the birth parent or parents,” said Mawhinney, “but if they can’t be reunited with them they can at least have a stable environment.”
At times children are unable to be reunited and can, in limited instances, become adoptable. This was the case with the two children the Mawhinneys adopted.
“We fostered both children for more than a year, at separate times. Each came to us as infants, which doesn’t happen often,” said Mawhinney. “In our case the parental rights to the children were terminated [by the state]. We came into foster parenting with the plan to adopt if that’s where it led.”
Considering that the role of parent is often challenging, fostering children can be even more so. Bringing a displaced child into a new environment takes patience and has an impact on the lives of all involved. What does it take, in Mawhinney’s experience to be a foster parent?
“A willingness to let my life be disrupted,” said Mawhinney. “Each child and each case is different. Sometimes the challenges can be simple, things you may have taken for granted in the past, like introducing a foster child to the public. What sensitivity does the child have to how they are identified?”
Mawhinney said the effect foster children has on biological children in a family needs to be considered along with what a child might have experienced before coming into the foster care system.
“What the child has been through is important to understand,” she said. “Will exposure [with reference to the child’s background] pose a risk to my children? It’s hard but you have to think about it. There is also interaction with the birth family. It can be a lot to deal with.”
And Mawhinney cautions individuals who might be considering becoming a foster care parent for a perceived financial benefit to think again.
“There is a daily stipend involved based on the level of care a child requires and you can put in for mileage but it’s not a good reason to do this,” she said.
The daily stipend for foster care in Maine, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ranges from a basic rate of less than $20 a day to around $60 depending on the needs of the child. Nearly half of those providing care in Maine receive the basic rate.
As with care for any child, there are medical appointments, school, and a host of other activities to coordinate. With a foster child that also includes visitation with birth parent(s). The Mawhinneys both work full time; Jamie is a mortgage manager with York County Federal Credit Union, and Brian is a chef. Together they own a restaurant in Biddeford. The couple’s plate is pretty full, but despite the work and some difficult moments, they continue.
They have had to make adjustments to their parenting style in order to acclimate to each child’s needs. Mawhinney said it’s all about equality and not favoring one over another, including her biological children. Fostering takes a lot of work but it has been worth it for the couple, who, Mawhinney said, have become more in sync with one another through the experience.
“Some of it has been hard,” said Mawhinney, “but then we remember that we provided at the time what a child needed when they needed it. The good outweighs the bad. Being a foster parent is very, very rewarding.”
A CLOSER LOOK
For more information on becoming a foster parent in Maine, see www.maine.gov/dhhs/ocfs/cw/fosterparenting.shtml or call 624-7900. There are also a number of resource and support organizations in the state including Adoptive & Foster Families of Maine Inc. For more information see www.affm.net or call 800-833-9786.