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Foster Care: Rebuilding families

"Just after dinner, Gina and Jeff Riffel's Oak Harbor home is full of the sights and sounds of childhood.In the center of the living room an infant gurgles and gushes in babyspeak from his brightly-colored roll-about. Another young child drives toy cars along a couch-cushion highway. There's a television on in an adjoining room - it sounds like video games or maybe cartoons are playing. There's a kid sister peeking shyly from a doorway and outside, a young teen practices his skateboarding. It looks and sounds for all the world like a typical, middle-class, American family. But for most of the Riffel's five children, this family and this home are just a temporary stop - a place where they can find comfort and stay safe while their biological parents and state officials work out a few problems. Problems that led the state to pull the kids out of their homes and place them in foster care.Gina Riffel, 31, a special education assistant, will tell you that there is nothing extra special about foster parents. But the facts speak for themselves. During the past six-and-a-half years, the Riffels have opened their home and hearts to 35 children, from seven days to 16 years of age. Some stayed for just a weekend, while others for months and even years. More than a few bore emotional and physical wounds, brought on by abuse or neglect. Some were prone to violent tantrums or suffered from failing grades while others were simply lost souls who had little stability or guidance in their lives.They're working through some pretty horrific things sometimes,'' said Gina. There's a reason they're in care; they have scars.Some scars are very obvious. In the past the Riffles have cared for a child with severe burns and currently are guardians for Geno, an 11-year-old boy who barely lived through physical abuse. They first became foster parents to Geno just a few months after he emerged from a two-month coma. He had brain injuries and could not walk or feed himself. Gina said many people didn't expect him to ever recover. Four years later, Geno is an active member of the family who joins in conversation and gets around the house with a little help from a special wheeled-walker.The Riffel's have also seen vast improvment in their oldest foster child, has managed to turn his report card from a list of Fs to straight As in just a matter of months. It's such success stories, that keep the Riffels active in the foster care program. I sometimes see a broken child who has had none of the benefits that I had, said Gina. You want to save them. You really do. You just try to do what you can in the time they're given to you. Gina and Jeff, 35, a counselor at North Whidbey Middle School, grew up in very stable families and are high school sweethearts. They say they offer their kids responsibilities, routines, and reasons. They also let the kids see a good marriage and an extended family with grandparents and aunts and uncles.And there's honesty.We believe in utmost honesty. It always comes back to haunt you if you're not, Gina said.That means being straight with the kids about what is expected and following through. And it means being clear about the ultimate goal of foster care - to return the kids to their families. Transitions, they say, are sometimes very hard.Another big change many kids find when they come to stay at the Riffels is that there are limits. We're pretty conservative about a lot of things, said Jeff. That includes blocking MTV from their TV, following movie ratings to the letter and restricting the use of action video games. In their place, the Riffels provide study time, family dinners and care.They understand that we deeply care for them, said Gina. Sometimes too much emotional attachment can be a problem, particularly when it's time to say goodbye - something foster parents have to do often.Jeff is very objective. I become more emotionally involved, said Gina, who describes herself as foster mom.Gina is very easy to attach to, Jeff said. Some kids are so needy that I have to protect her. Jeff said the emotional balancing act they are able to pull off is one of the reasons they have been able to stay positive about foster parenting.Foster parents are given a lot of responsibility but almost no power, Gina said. Because they are not legal guardians, they can't take a child out of state or authorize medical care without approval by the state or the birth parents. Other than Geno, they could not give the News-Times clearance to take their kids' photographs or use their names for this article.In most cases they have developed good relationships with the biological parents and they often keep track of kids after they move back.In the end, the Riffels say they remain foster parents for the same reason they started - they saw the need and thought they could help.Jeff and I have a lot of faith that this is what we should be doing with our lives, Gina said. This is important.Can you be a foster parent? Here's what it takes.* Must be 21 years or older. * Have adequate space for placement of a child or children in your home.* Pass a health/safety inspection and a fire/safety inspection.* Have adequate income to meet the needs of present family members without Foster Care payments. * Participate in required orientation, pre-service, and in-service training. * Pass a criminal history check and Child Protective Services check. * Have a current first aid/CPR certification.* Take an HIV-AIDS Awareness class * Renew foster parent license every three years, if the family wishes to continue to provide care. * Pass current TB tests for all family members 18 years and older.Foster parents are paid a base rate for each child they care for. There is additional compensation if the child has special needs. The payments cover room and board, a clothing allowance and personal products such as shampoo and toothbrushes. The money comes from state tax revenue. The state pays each child's insurance, medical and day care costs directly. Here are the current monthly rates which are set to increase slightly on July 1.Less than six years old: $344.42Six through 11 years old: $418.4412 and older: $490.15 "

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