Even though Linda Smith has only one grown child and her friend and neighbor Janis Stiewing does not have children, both women are happy to serve as volunteers on the Foster Care Review Board, determining what living situations are ideal for children throughout Maricopa County.
The Sun City residents serve on two of the 49 boards in the county, each hearing about 10 cases each month.
“It’s so rewarding,” Smith said. “One of the most important things is that feeling that we do make a difference in the life of a child.”
FCRB members advise the juvenile courts about the best options for placing foster children in a permanent home. While the goal is to return a child to his or her parents, board recommendations include continued foster care, adoption, independent living for older children or guardianships.
November is National Adoption Month, Smith said, and Saturday marks National Adoption Day throughout the country during which thousands of children will be adopted, including about 200 in Maricopa County.
Smith has been working with foster care boards since 1996 in Omaha, Neb. Before she and her husband moved to Sun City in 2001, Smith looked into whether Arizona had a foster care board she could be a part of.
Smith, who heads her board, also serves on the State Foster Care Review Board, working to set board policies. She’s on the outreach committee, too, recruiting new volunteers, like Stiewing, who has been on her board for a year now.
“It is a commitment,” Stiewing said.
Although the board reviews cases just once a month, each of the five members have to review packets detailing each case, and are expected to actively participate in the hearings, during which the board questions family members, case workers and sometimes the children themselves to determine the best option.
There are 100 different boards that meet throughout the state, with the majority in Maricopa and Pima counties. Maricopa has more than 5,000 children in foster care, but in comparison, La Paz County has seven.
The boards make determinations in six key areas: the safety, necessity and appropriateness of the placement; case plan compliance by the biological parents; progress toward mitigating the need for foster care; a likely target date by which the permanency goal can be achieved; gaps in services that should be provided; and reasonable efforts by Child Protective Services.
“I think as a public we have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure the safety of future generations,” Stiewing said. “These kids are our future.”
The goal, Smith and Stiewing said, is to provide a safe and stable environment for children.
Sometimes, the boards see children adopted by foster parents, who may be the only mother and father the children know, sometimes parents rehabilitate themselves and can take care of their children. With a lot of adoptions, children are taken in by their grandparents, whom Stiewing called “unsung heroes.”
Cases involving multiple children are difficult, since a lot of families cannot take them all.
Last month, Stiewing said her board reviewed a case involving nine children. In those cases, the board makes sure that there will be family visits.
“You don’t want to cut the family tie,” Smith said.
Some of the cases are sad and difficult to hear, from cases where a baby is born addicted to drugs, or where there is no chance of a child returning to a parent because they are responsible for the death of another child.
But both women love hearing from the families after a decision is made, because they are so appreciative.
“The focus should be on taking the negative and turning it positive,” Stiewing said.
“It’s worth it.”
No specific background or qualifications are required to become a volunteer with the Foster Care Review Board since the boards are a citizen review process. After filling out an application, each volunteer is required to submit to a fingerprint background check, attend an all-day orientation training shortly after appointment and attend annual ongoing training to enhance their skills. Volunteers do not attend court hearings concerning the cases of children they review.
Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Charles Gray at 602-452-3615 or 866-320-1959.