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Fostering love in unconventional ways

Last month had a special meaning for Sheri McEntire, an Issaquah resident who utilizes Encompass' services for her foster daughter, 3-year-old Kamaile.

That's because May is National Foster Care month and it represents a special reminder that there are thousands of children in the foster care system.

There is a great need out there and Kamaile was just one of many looking for a home, McEntire said.

In 2003, McEntire and her husband Art, with five biological children (all boys) already, began to think about adopting a child. At the time, the Washington natives were living in Hawaii (they moved to the Eastside in August of last year).

A social worker friend of McEntire's told her about the foster care programs locally and that shifted McEntire's focus from adoption toward foster care.

Soon after, she heard about a little girl about a year old who was in a short-term emergency shelter. She had been taken by the state authorities from her biological mother, who was addicted to crystal methamphetamine.

When McEntire heard Kamaile's story, she knew she had to take her in.

After going through the evaluation process to become foster parents, Kamaile joined the McEntire family for an undetermined amount of time.

"She was very wild, she had no social skills and no personal skills," McEntire said about Kamaile when she first joined the family. "She only had survival skills."

In the beginning, she was unaffectionate, never made a noise and ate whenever, whatever she could find.

And the McEntire family fell in love with her right away.

It was hard because, technically, she wasn't their child and there was always that reminder that she could be placed in another home at any time, McEntire added.

"You try not to get too emotionally attached, but it's hard," she said.

When her husband's job brought the family back to Washington last summer, the family thought of no other option but to bring Kamaile with them.

Because Kamaile's biological parents lost their legal right to be parents, moving to Washington with Kamaile only needed approval from her social worker and legal approval, which they received, McEntire said.

Upon arrival, McEntire was introduced to Encompass and immediately began working with the Valley's social services organization for children and parents to give Kamaile speech therapy because of her underdeveloped language skills. They also helped the family in addressing Washington state foster care laws.

Now about two years since Kamaile was brought into the McEntire home, she has become affectionate, personable, plays with her siblings and calls McEntire "Mom."

"She grabs my cheeks and says 'Love you, mom. Love you.' That makes it worthwhile," McEntire said.

The family also recently found out they were eligible to adopt Kamaile.

"I am very happy with what has unfolded in her," McEntire said. "The best part has been having this little girl."

However, Kamaile's experience of finding foster parents who end up able to adopt is not typical.

In Kamaile's case, her biological parent's rights were removed by the state of Hawaii and there was no relative approved by the state available to care for her.

As of 2003, 63 percent of foster care children are eventually reunited with their legal parents and 33 percent who are placed in foster care end up with relatives, according to Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based nonprofit foundation focused on children's welfare. In Washington, the average length of stay for children is 23 months and the average age of a foster-care child is about 8. Nationally, about 50 percent have been in foster care for a year or more.

Casey Family Programs noted that there were about 9,200 children in Washington state's foster care system as of 2003. In 2002, there was a total of about 6,300 "non-relative" licensed foster homes in Washington. Nationally, there were more than 500,000 children in foster care as of 2004.

Children are typically placed temporarily in foster care due to parental abuse or neglect, as determined by the state.

Foster parents have to be evaluated and licensed; they are assigned a case worker from the state and are obliged by law to follow state guidelines in care and interaction with the child. They are paid a monthly stipend for care of a foster child.

Encompass Family Support Manager Kerry Beymer said that each state has different regulations and that those who become foster parents do so for many different reasons.

"There is no uniform way that they do it," Beymer said.

Encompass does not offer support programs specifically around foster care issues, but Beymer said Encompass can provide direction and information for those interested in foster care and/or who already are involved with foster care.

"It's not for everybody," McEntire said. "You cannot sign up to be a foster parent and get this charming little child. You're going to have a social and emotional process, but once you do it, you can see the change you made in their lives and it is fulfilling."

For more information, call Encompass at (425) 888-2777 or visit www.encompassnw.org or www.casey.org.

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