Two small children were taken from their Bellingham home by authorities last year because their mom was addicted to meth. They were placed in Amber and Justin Paulsen’s Orcas Island foster home, and became part of the island community for nine months.
When unfounded allegations of child abuse by the kids’ birth mother – who was mentally ill and had no contact with her children – spurred an investigation of the Paulsens, they decided to stop taking kids for a while.
“We could have lost everything,” said Amber, who is the director of Kaleidoscope Preschool and Childcare Center and has four children of her own. “We were incredibly traumatized.”
The kindergartener and second grader were sent to another foster home outside the county.
“They came to me individually and said, ‘We don’t want to go,’ ” said Debbie Liblik, who works as a para-educator at Orcas Elementary School.
The situation broke her heart, and she immediately began getting licensed for foster care, with the full support of her husband, Toomas.
Roughly one year, a lot of hard work and thousands of dollars in expenses later, Orcas Island will once again have an open foster home. The Libliks hope to be accepting kids from infants to age 18 by February. With their new five-bedroom rental, they’ll be able to care for five children at a time, plus their own seven-year-old son, TJ.
The children who come to stay will either be island kids, or destined for long-term care.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks we’re absolutely nuts,” laughed Debbie. “They say, ‘Well that’s a really nice thing to do.’
She explains her willingness to bridge the gap, saying, “I’ve just always been that parent – kids are more than welcome … I feel for these kids living in these situations that have no control.” Debbie raised six kids of her own singlehandedly before she and Toomas met, and has taken in “a few extras” along the way.
Debbie’s parents fostered for part of her growing up years. She said sometimes kids are kids dropped off with little more than the diaper they’re wearing, so she’s been busy collecting furniture, bedding, clothing, toys, sports equipment and more with the help of generous islanders who have donated furniture and gift certificates.
“We appreciate and want to thank the people who have stepped up to help us,” said Debbie. “To provide the best for these kids it takes more than just our little family. Our island once again has proven it steps up in bigs ways when big things are needed.”
Donations are still welcome. For more information or to help out, email the Libliks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Foster homes in the San Juans
There are eight foster homes on San Juan Island and two on Lopez. San Juan County averages just three calls to Child Protective Services per month, compared with 28 referrals for the Oak Harbor office, which serves a similarly-sized area. About one in every 50 referrals results in a foster care placement. There have been four “emergency referrals” requiring immediate action in the county this year, one of them on Orcas.
“We don’t have a lot of call for foster homes on the islands,” said Jan Stettler, newly appointed supervisor for Children’s Administration in San Juan County. “The islands are really unique in their response to children in need.”
There may be room for interpretation of the county’s low call rates.
Both Debbie and Amber said that friends and neighbors may refrain from reporting suspected cases of abuse, because they fear that calling CPS will mean a child is removed from his/her island support system to a distant foster home.
“There is a huge need for [foster homes] here on Orcas,” Amber told the Sounder.
Liblik said several teenagers on Orcas are effectively homeless, sleeping “from couch to couch.”
Amber herself began fostering when she saw Kaleidoscope kids being flown off island to foster homes – sometimes in the middle of the night. Even after she opened her home, she said at times Orcas kids have been sent to Lopez or San Juan because there just weren’t enough beds for them.
“The goal is always to keep the children in their communities, so that’s what they really strive for,” said Christina Urtasun, community liason at Fostering Together. “There is always a need for new homes.”
Some kids need long-term homes; but others may just need a safe, loving place to spend the night.
“There is such a need across the board for respite care providers,” said Urtasun. “Also emergency care: they need a family for short term, just until everything is sorted out, maybe for a few days. There are a lot of different options.”
When a child is in need of a foster home, potential foster parents can dialogue with the social worker assigned to the case to find a good fit.
“You can always say no, and you can ask any questions you want,” said Debbie.
At times the law also allows children removed from their homes to be placed with carefully vetted friends or neighbors, dubbed “fictive kin.”
State support to foster parents is designed to shoulder each child’s room board and clothing expenses. This support includes monthly payments for food and basics; health, dental and vision insurance for the children; extra groceries for kids five and under through the state WIC program; free school lunches; and counseling services from certain providers.
The biggest challenge is getting licensed, since the classes require spending three or four days off island on multiple instances. If at least four San Juan County families want to get licensed, the state will bring the training out to the islands for the course.
For more information on foster parenting, call Sherri Rego of the Bellingham Children’s Administration at 360-738-2310.