Over the last seven years, Christina Urtasun and her family have taken 17 children into their rural Oak Harbor home.
While the incalculable challenges and rewards of taking care of foster children have remained a constant over the period, Urtasun said the state-run system itself has improved greatly and continues to get better.
That’s due, at least in part, to the efforts of people like her. Urtasun currently acts as a liaison between the state and other foster parents. She was recognized by Gov. Christine Gregoire earlier this year for helping bring about cultural changes in local offices of the Department of Social and Health Services, as well as for advocating and educating on behalf of foster parents and children.
“In the past, the mentality was that they didn’t want to hear from foster parents,” she said.
But nowadays, there are many new programs to help foster parents. They also have greater rights — including the right to be heard in court — and are generally treated with greater respect.
“Whidbey is a great place to be a foster parent,” Urtasun said. “Our local office is now way ahead of the state. They are really embracing the change.”
But even with the ongoing changes — many mandated by the Braam Settlement Plan — there remains a critical need for more foster parents, both full-time and short-term. As of July 31, there were were only 40 licensed foster homes on Whidbey Island and they were all either full or not active. At that time, 83 children were involved in Island County dependency hearings.
Since there are not enough homes in the county, a large number of foster children end up being placed outside of their community, sometimes as far away as Yakima.
Patti Carroll, coordinator of a foster support program called the Island County / Stanwood Community Network, said the result is that children who are already going through the trauma of leaving their homes have to endure the additional trauma of placement far from the schools and community they know so well.
In a related problem, Island County children are enduring multiple placements at greater rates than kids in other counties.
“People just don’t realize the desperate need we have here,” Urtasun agreed. “If each church on the island had one foster parent and the church supported them, we would be good to go.”
The Island County / Stanwood Community Network is one of many networks in the state set up by the Family Policy Council, which was charged by the Legislature with improving outcomes for children and families. In Island County, Carroll said the Network has taken on foster care issues with the goal of reducing multiple placements for children by improving the quality and quantity of support for foster families.
The Network partners with other groups — and people like Urtasun — and acts as a conduit for investing state funds into local efforts.
But ultimately, Carroll said one of the most important things she’s trying to do is simply raise awareness in the community about the need for foster parents, especially people from different ethnic backgrounds. While there’s dire need for full-time foster parents, for those who can’t make that kind of a commitment, there’s also a big demand for people who can provide emergency care or respite care for other foster parents.
“Respite care is huge,” said Carroll. “Foster parents are supposed to get a weekend off a month, but that never happens.”
While Urtasun doesn’t work outside the home, she said having a job shouldn’t discourage prospective foster parents. After all, she and her husband have four boys of their own, which is probably a lot like having a full-time job — and then some.
Urtasun doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of foster parenting, but she has no doubt that the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.
“When you see the change you made in a child’s life, you know that it’s one of the most important things a person can do,” she said.
Most recently, she cared for a 2-year-old girl who had been neglected and had some pretty extreme behavioral issues. The girl had temper tantrums and would throw her plate at the dinner table. But in just five months in the stable, loving environment, the toddler made great strides.
“She still has a long way to go, but she was much better,” Urtasun said. “She had fewer temper tantrums and she could sit at the table.”
Probably more difficult is letting go of a child. But again, Urtasun said she reminds herself that the pain she feels is worth it to help a kid in need. And sometimes the relationship doesn’t have to end if the biological parent is willing to remain in contact. For some people, foster parenting is also a way toward adoption.
In fact, Urtasun never planned to adopt until she took in an adorable little girl named Anna. The process wasn’t easy or perfect, but Anna is now a permanent part of her family.
“She was meant to be with us,” Urtasun said.