Olivia DelGiudice, program administrator for Kaleidoscope, points to the foster care agency’s motto depicted in a painting done by a foster child. --Greater Southwest News-Herald Photo by Dermot Connolly

Olivia DelGiudice, program administrator for Kaleidoscope, points to the foster care agency’s motto depicted in a painting done by a foster child. --Greater Southwest News-Herald Photo by Dermot Connolly

Searching for foster moms, dads

Groups plan big outreach event at Ryan Woods

By Dermot Connolly

Seven Chicago-area social service agencies are working together to address the chronic need for foster parents that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Known as the Chicagoland Foster Care Collaborative, the group is hosting the free Foster Care Information Picnic in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18 at the Dan Ryan Woods picnic grove 3, just east of 83rd and Western.

The picnic is open to anyone considering fostering or adopting children, as well as those who would just like to learn about fostering. A presentation at 11 a.m. will provide information on what is involved in the licensing process. A panel of experienced foster parents and agency representatives will be on hand to answer questions.

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Olivia DelGiudice, program administrator for Kaleidoscope, points to the foster care agency’s motto depicted in a painting done by a foster child. –Greater Southwest News-Herald Photo by Dermot Connolly

Outdoor activities planned for kids and families include a hotdog lunch and refreshments, kite-making, face-painting, archery and free raffles. A DJ will provide music.

Admission is free but space is limited, so reservations are recommended. The Forest Preserves of Cook County is accepting them online through eventbrite.com at tinyurl.com/Foster2021.

“It’s designed to be a one-stop shop. We want people to walk away with a lot of good information and have fun,” said Olivia DelGiudice, program administrator for Kaleidoscope, the child-welfare agency that spearheaded the joint project.

The other members of the coalition are Lawrence Hall, Hephzibah, Kids Above All, Little City Lutheran Social Services and UCAN. The private non-profits all contract with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to provide placement and services for children who have experienced abuse or neglect. They will have individual information booths at the event, so prospective foster parents can get to know more about them to see which might be the right fit. As Kaleidoscope officials explained, all foster parents have to meet certain state requirements and training, such as being at least 21 years old and having 40 hours of DCFS training. But agencies can add requirements, depending on their focus.

The coalition had worked together in the past on various projects, and Kaleidoscope officials reached out to the others again after receiving a $100,000 grant from Impact Chicago in 2019 to attract and retain foster parents.

The first year, the agency nearly met its goal of recruiting 20 new foster parents, but because of the pandemic, numbers fell.

“It has been a crisis prior to the pandemic. There was a huge shortage (of foster parents) already and the pandemic made it worse. There is a backlog of kids sitting in residential centers and hospitals, (waiting for home placement),” said Kathy Grzelak, executive director of Kaleidoscope, citing the difficulty of “recruiting by Zoom. Since its foundation in 1973, Kaleidoscope has focused on serving children with specialized needs due to traumatic experiences. Because of that specialty, and the fact that many clients are teenagers, her agency asks that foster parents be at least 25 years old.

“Just like as a state and as a country, we have taken a step backward,’’ she continued. According to the most recent statistics she provided from DCFS, there are currently 21,371 youths in care with the state agency. She said there were 200,000 calls to the DCFS hotline for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That number was actually down from 250,000 the previous year, which she said may be due to children doing remote learning during the pandemic so teachers may not have noticed problems they otherwise would.

The usual 6-month timeframe for licensing foster parents became longer during the pandemic, in part because home visits and medical exams had to be postponed. In addition to being unable to recruit new foster parents, some decided not to accept any children because of the health concerns.

Kaleidoscope alone serves about 800 youths per year, and the concern is that the numbers will increase with children back in school.

“The majority of our foster parents are on the South and Southwest Sides,” noted Del Giudice. The DCFS statistics are broken down by ZIP code, and indeed one of the largest numbers of children in foster care—246–is found in 60620, encompassing the Auburn Gresham and Brainerd neighborhoods just east of Dan Ryan Woods.

Another area with a relatively large number of foster children, 124, is 60629, which includes West Lawn and Chicago Lawn. This compares to the 32 registered in Oak Lawn, and 41 in Orland Park.

“There are a lot of negative stereotypes about foster parents we want to dispel (such as the stare stipends they receive). Nobody is getting rich being a foster parent. But they shouldn’t get poor either,” said DelGiudice. She explained, for instance, that foster children “in care” will have health insurance provided by the state so foster parents do not have to bear that added expense.

Grzelak said agencies such as hers help foster parents navigate the system. Kaleidoscope also has a mentoring program in which experienced foster parents advise newcomers.

“It is hard for any parent to navigate the system. It is a part-time job. We also need families who want to think about helping the family the child was removed from. We owe it to them,” said Grzelak.

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