Foster Care Lead at The Children's Authority of T&T, Anjuli Tewari-de Fague.

There are about 79 children in foster care in this country. Over 170 have been placed in the last six years by the Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, the country’s premier agency responsible for the care and protection of children, especially those who are at risk or have been victims of abuse and maltreatment.

At times children are only in foster care for a brief period before being reunited with their families. But sometimes children “age out,” reaching their 18th birthday while still in the system. So the number of children requiring the Authority’s help at any given point in time often changes.

Also ever uncertain, is the space at children’s homes where children who come through the Authority are placed if no next of kin come forward or there are no available foster care providers with whom the Authority can place them.

This month, the Children’s Authority is embarking on several initiatives to increase public awareness of foster care. Through traditional media and several virtual sessions to NGOs, faith-based organisations and other groups, the Authority hopes to encourage members of the public to join its pool of 52 foster care providers in Trinidad and four in Tobago. The Authority is also asking the public to help defend and support child rights.

On Wednesday at 5 pm, it will host a Facebook Live chat with facilitators from the Authority and a former foster care provider.

Becoming a foster care provider is a serious responsibility

Though a temporary arrangement, becoming a foster care provider is a serious responsibility. You become the primary caregiver to a child or multiple children who may range in age from newborn to 17 years. Such children are not able to live with their birth families for various reasons.

It takes kind, patient and giving people to come forward and sign up for the role, but looking after the children of others is in our fabric says Foster Care Team Lead at the Children’s Authority of T&T, Anjuli Tewari-de Fague.

“The beauty of our Caribbean culture is that people have been doing informal care arrangements for centuries. Each of our families has done it in some form or fashion, so it comes naturally to us. We’ve always had that big heart of helping out or giving back to others in need especially children. So we want to encourage persons to do it in a formalised way,” Tewari-de Fague said in a Sunday Guardian interview.

Traditionally, when there was no one else in the community to care for a child, the next best place was a children’s home. Although such homes were doing their best, Tewari-de Fague said it was the aim of the Authority that children who came to them could be given one-on-one care in a family environment.

“We really would like people to step forward and consider whether foster care is for them. We have about 40 children’s homes in Trinidad and Tobago right now and just over 700 children in those homes, so many of those homes are overwhelmed. We really want to explore other options.

“Why not become a foster care provider and change a life?” she urged.

Children ages six to 17 and those with physical disabilities, developmental needs, educational needs and behavioural challenges were especially in need of foster care providers, she informed.

Attracting foster care providers has been an arduous process, but one which has become increasingly rewarding as more and more people become sensitised about the possibility of opening their homes and hearts to children in need of loving care, she shared. She had heavy praise for their group of care providers throughout T&T.

“We’re very proud of them. They are excellent humans. We’ve done all our relevant checks and these are individuals with big hearts and compassion and they’ve assisted us so much over the years.”

‘Solid policies on foster care has been developed’

Tracing the beginnings of foster care in T&T to a 1995 pilot project under the National Family Services (NFS) Division, Tewari-de Fague said solid policies on foster care developed with the inception of the Children’s Authority in 2015. Active foster care cases were sent to the Authority at that time.

“A lot of people have this misconception that we break up families and we remove children unnecessarily, but really and truly the Children’s Authority would not remove a child from a family environment unless we found that that child was at risk or in danger.”

She said after removing such a child alternative arrangements with family members would first be explored. Only if no suitable family member is found would the child be placed in foster care.

Reasons why a child would be removed from his family home include abandonment for eg, at the hospital, severe neglect including medical issues of the child going unattended, the child not being sent to school, abuse, and mental illness or incarceration of the parent.

Foster care can take the form of Emergency Foster Care–one night to no longer than two weeks; Medium-Term Foster Care–usually no longer than six months; or Long-Term Foster Care–beyond six months, for children for whom familial reunification or kinship care is impossible or very difficult to achieve.

There is also Specialist Foster Care for children with unique psychological, social, physical, behavioural and emotional needs that require trained professionals or specialist foster parents, and Respite (short period of rest from something difficult) Foster Care which is temporary or short-term home care where foster parents themselves take a break due to illness of a parent, family crisis or chronic illness of a child.

Providing a safe, stable and nurturing home environment

With regard to being registered as a foster parent, there are no restrictions on gender or marital status. People must, however, be 21 years or above. But there are guidelines and assessments as foster care is a critical responsibility. The Authority is mostly concerned with the love, care and safety foster providers can give, Tewari-de Fague said.

Pointing out that one of their foster care providers was over 70 years old, she said some of their best carers are older people. She said they have also had a single father come forward to provide care, as well as several single females, some of whom have more than one foster child in their care. It all depends on the applicant’s ability to provide proper care and supervision to the child, she said.

The prospective carer’s support network was also important. In deciding to accept someone to be a foster parent, the Authority also speaks with family members, friends, church members and the like, who would also be willing and able to assist the foster care provider.

The Authority is also available to provide support if any issues for eg, behavioural or medical, arise. Tewari-de Fague said foster care providers remain anonymous and assured that the strictest protocols were followed to preserve the identities of the carers, as well as the location of the children, even in such a small country as T&T.

She said utmost discretion was used when officers of the Authority made visits to foster homes and schools of children in foster care to ensure the well-being of the child. At such times, children in foster care are able to voice issues or concerns with respect to their treatment by or feelings about their foster carers.

Although under the local foster care system, children may be temporarily removed from the custody of certain parents, these parents retain parental rights and are given an opportunity to have a say in the welfare of the child if deemed appropriate. In adoption, all parental rights are given up permanently and legally.

As Tewari-de Fague explained, the aim of foster care is to provide a safe, stable and nurturing home environment for children until they could be reunited with their family if possible and found to be in the best interest of the child. As a result, supervised access visits with parents are encouraged and conducted at a location and time determined by the Authority. If reintegration with parents is not possible, other suitable long-term living arrangements, including adoption, may be considered by the Authority.

Do you want to learn about becoming a foster care provider?

Anyone interested in learning about becoming a foster care provider can contact the Children’s Authority at 627-0748, website: www.ttchildren.org

Foster Care: ext.40988 Facebook: Children’s Authority of Trinidad & Tobago, Instagram: Children’s Authority of T&T, Hotline: 996 or 800-2014

Next Week, we look at adoption.