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Foster families fight to stay intact

The call this spring devastated Terry McRae.

A caseworker told the Gastonia foster mother she would have to give up one of her foster children because of a new state rule limiting the number of children per home.

How can I choose, she worried.

Terry and husband Jonathan McRae have five foster children, including two they've adopted. All have conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy.

The state policy takes effect Tuesday. Since the phone call, Terry McRae has contacted lawmakers and foster parents. The state will let her family stay together for now, but other families still face a possible separation.

The McRae family's struggle highlights a difficult debate among child advocates about how many children in one home is too many.

Foster care officials want to ensure children placed in homes are properly cared for. Too many children in one home could keep them from getting attention and care.

Parents and advocates agree, but also say the right home can work wonders for a child.

“We don't have a lot of riches. We don't travel the world,” Terry McRae said. “But these kids go to bed at night, and they know they're loved.”

Too many children?

Foster parents provide temporary housing for children taken into custody by the state court system. The parents are paid a stipend for each child's care.

More than 10,000 N.C. children are in foster care. About 3,500 homes are licensed “therapeutic” and those foster parents care for children with serious emotional or behavioral disorders. Those parents undergo extra training to get certified and receive a higher stipend.

In North Carolina under the new rules, most foster families are restricted to five children total, down from seven children.

Homes with children with severe disorders are capped at four kids. And no home can have more than two special needs foster children.

The new rule limiting homes to two special needs children was made as officials updated child care policies, said Bob Hensley of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

It also matches federal Medicaid policy. The state said families with more children than the federal limit risked losing Medicaid money.

State officials said they don't know how many children have been removed from their homes and sent to other families or group homes because of the new rules.

Last fall, after the changes were announced, officials at Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, a Charlotte-based placement agency, learned 29 of 148 families would not meet the new rules, including the McRaes.

Since then, most of the families have figured out a way to comply with the new rules, a Lutheran spokesman said.

Fourteen of the 300 foster children placed by North Carolina MENTOR statewide were in homes that had more than two special needs children, said state Director Charles Davis. Some children have been moved to new homes.

Kelly Scherer, chief operating officer with Alexander Youth Network, said his agency tried to give families a lot of advance notice about the changes. He said one family did move a child.

Some families chose to give up the “therapeutic” designation and accept less of a stipend so they could keep more children in the home. Officials hope the children in these homes who need special care will continue to receive it despite less money from the state.

“I would be surprised if the children lost services being (now) provided to them …,” said the state's Hensley.

Terry McRae initially decided against giving up her therapeutic license.

The McRaes could do without the extra money, she said. But she was most afraid her children would lose the mental health treatment.

Nine-year-old Brandon, for example, could barely recognize many words when reading a year ago. Now, after proper treatment, he reads passages aloud from “Harry Potter.”

A busy house

The McRaes became foster parents seven years ago as a way to build a family. Cancer in her early 30s left Terry unable to bear children.

Today, the McRaes say they give the children as normal a life as possible.

Toys litter the front lawn. The freezer is stocked with yogurt pops. A list of family rules is posted in the hallway. Look closer and you'll see the calendar full of scheduled visits with doctors and therapists. Or the plastic toolbox under the kitchen counter packed with bottles for the children's many prescriptions.

The intense care means Terry, 47, stays home most days, shuttling the kids to various appointments. Jonathan, 37, works for a contractor for a railroad company, but is home at night to care for the kids, including when Terry works as a professional clown. A “mommy's helper,” who the family has hired, also works in the home sometimes during the week.

The children are playful, loud and polite. Josh and Jessica are the McRae's adopted foster children. They are in the process of adopting the other three children.

Josh, 9, is quick to start up a conversation, and loves to play on the computer and sing.

Seven-year-old Jessica bursts into rooms with energy, and often shows off her grin.

Brandon, 9, is more athletic, and sometimes a bit mischievous.

Zackary, 3, easily warms up to others and will play just as hard as the older kids.

The teenage girl, who had usually been the youngest in her previous foster homes, is settling into her role as big sister. An A-B student, she said French and history were her favorite classes.

She moved into the McRae home last summer. The family had met the teenager a couple of years earlier when they took her in after she had become too disruptive for her foster parents.

Terry McRae knew the state rules were changing when the teen moved in. But she pushed for her to stay with the family. “I already knew I could help (her),” she said.

As the months went on, the teen gradually became part of the family fabric, coaching the younger children with their homework or helping prepare meals.The teen has been in 14 foster homes since she was 4, and had trouble getting close to people. But she is comfortable with the McRaes and said early on she wanted to stay with the family.

Her guardian ad litem, an independent child advocate, said the McRae home is the best placement the teen has ever had, and she's not sure what would happen if she were ever removed from the home.

“Terry's very knowledgeable about the children that she has,” said the guardian at-litem, who did not wish to be identified to protect the teen's identity. “Whatever (the teen) needs, or any of her children needs, she will pursue it.”

State and county officials do not comment about individual cases. Records show they have received no complaints about the McRae home.

Good news

As the deadline for the new rules approached, Terry McRae braced for a fight.

She understands – even praises – the new rules. She worries about people who move foster children in and out of their homes.

“There are foster parents who don't do it for the right reasons,” she said. “They do it for the money, and there have to be stop-gap measures to keep that from happening.” Still, she worried the new rules would tear her family apart.

One of the McRaes' caseworkers said earlier this month that if they didn't give up their therapeutic license, the teen would definitely have to leave. Terry finally agreed to give up the license because it meant she could keep all of the children together.

Then, good news.

Last Monday, a state DSS officer said the McRaes could keep the therapeutic license until September. No child would have to move. By then, the McRaes hope to finalize adoptions for Brandon, Zack and the teen.

So for now, the McRae home is still going to full and bustling.

And on Sundays, they'll keep their tradition of breakfast and family meeting at the IHOP.

They'll wait patiently in the lobby until a waitress finds them a table large enough to seat them all.

A table for seven.

The call this spring devastated Terry McRae.

A caseworker told the Gastonia foster mother she would have to give up one of her foster children because of a new state rule limiting the number of children per home.

How can I choose, she worried.

Terry and husband Jonathan McRae have five foster children, including two they've adopted. All have conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy.

The state policy takes effect Tuesday. Since the phone call, Terry McRae has contacted lawmakers and foster parents. The state will let her family stay together for now, but other families still face a possible separation.

The McRae family's struggle highlights a difficult debate among child advocates about how many children in one home is too many.

Foster care officials want to ensure children placed in homes are properly cared for. Too many children in one home could keep them from getting attention and care.

Parents and advocates agree, but also say the right home can work wonders for a child.

“We don't have a lot of riches. We don't travel the world,” Terry McRae said. “But these kids go to bed at night, and they know they're loved.”

Too many children?

Foster parents provide temporary housing for children taken into custody by the state court system. The parents are paid a stipend for each child's care.

More than 10,000 N.C. children are in foster care. About 3,500 homes are licensed “therapeutic” and those foster parents care for children with serious emotional or behavioral disorders. Those parents undergo extra training to get certified and receive a higher stipend.

In North Carolina under the new rules, most foster families are restricted to five children total, down from seven children.

Homes with children with severe disorders are capped at four kids. And no home can have more than two special needs foster children.

The new rule limiting homes to two special needs children was made as officials updated child care policies, said Bob Hensley of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

It also matches federal Medicaid policy. The state said families with more children than the federal limit risked losing Medicaid money.

State officials said they don't know how many children have been removed from their homes and sent to other families or group homes because of the new rules.

Last fall, after the changes were announced, officials at Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, a Charlotte-based placement agency, learned 29 of 148 families would not meet the new rules, including the McRaes.

Since then, most of the families have figured out a way to comply with the new rules, a Lutheran spokesman said.

Fourteen of the 300 foster children placed by North Carolina MENTOR statewide were in homes that had more than two special needs children, said state Director Charles Davis. Some children have been moved to new homes.

Kelly Scherer, chief operating officer with Alexander Youth Network, said his agency tried to give families a lot of advance notice about the changes. He said one family did move a child.

Some families chose to give up the “therapeutic” designation and accept less of a stipend so they could keep more children in the home. Officials hope the children in these homes who need special care will continue to receive it despite less money from the state.

“I would be surprised if the children lost services being (now) provided to them …,” said the state's Hensley.

Terry McRae initially decided against giving up her therapeutic license.

The McRaes could do without the extra money, she said. But she was most afraid her children would lose the mental health treatment.

Nine-year-old Brandon, for example, could barely recognize many words when reading a year ago. Now, after proper treatment, he reads passages aloud from “Harry Potter.”

A busy house

The McRaes became foster parents seven years ago as a way to build a family. Cancer in her early 30s left Terry unable to bear children.

Today, the McRaes say they give the children as normal a life as possible.

Toys litter the front lawn. The freezer is stocked with yogurt pops. A list of family rules is posted in the hallway. Look closer and you'll see the calendar full of scheduled visits with doctors and therapists. Or the plastic toolbox under the kitchen counter packed with bottles for the children's many prescriptions.

The intense care means Terry, 47, stays home most days, shuttling the kids to various appointments. Jonathan, 37, works for a contractor for a railroad company, but is home at night to care for the kids, including when Terry works as a professional clown. A “mommy's helper,” who the family has hired, also works in the home sometimes during the week.

The children are playful, loud and polite. Josh and Jessica are the McRae's adopted foster children. They are in the process of adopting the other three children.

Josh, 9, is quick to start up a conversation, and loves to play on the computer and sing.

Seven-year-old Jessica bursts into rooms with energy, and often shows off her grin.

Brandon, 9, is more athletic, and sometimes a bit mischievous.

Zackary, 3, easily warms up to others and will play just as hard as the older kids.

The teenage girl, who had usually been the youngest in her previous foster homes, is settling into her role as big sister. An A-B student, she said French and history were her favorite classes.

She moved into the McRae home last summer. The family had met the teenager a couple of years earlier when they took her in after she had become too disruptive for her foster parents.

Terry McRae knew the state rules were changing when the teen moved in. But she pushed for her to stay with the family. “I already knew I could help (her),” she said.

As the months went on, the teen gradually became part of the family fabric, coaching the younger children with their homework or helping prepare meals.The teen has been in 14 foster homes since she was 4, and had trouble getting close to people. But she is comfortable with the McRaes and said early on she wanted to stay with the family.

Her guardian ad litem, an independent child advocate, said the McRae home is the best placement the teen has ever had, and she's not sure what would happen if she were ever removed from the home.

“Terry's very knowledgeable about the children that she has,” said the guardian at-litem, who did not wish to be identified to protect the teen's identity. “Whatever (the teen) needs, or any of her children needs, she will pursue it.”

State and county officials do not comment about individual cases. Records show they have received no complaints about the McRae home.

Good news

As the deadline for the new rules approached, Terry McRae braced for a fight.

She understands – even praises – the new rules. She worries about people who move foster children in and out of their homes.

“There are foster parents who don't do it for the right reasons,” she said. “They do it for the money, and there have to be stop-gap measures to keep that from happening.” Still, she worried the new rules would tear her family apart.

One of the McRaes' caseworkers said earlier this month that if they didn't give up their therapeutic license, the teen would definitely have to leave. Terry finally agreed to give up the license because it meant she could keep all of the children together.

Then, good news.

Last Monday, a state DSS officer said the McRaes could keep the therapeutic license until September. No child would have to move. By then, the McRaes hope to finalize adoptions for Brandon, Zack and the teen.

So for now, the McRae home is still going to full and bustling.

And on Sundays, they'll keep their tradition of breakfast and family meeting at the IHOP.

They'll wait patiently in the lobby until a waitress finds them a table large enough to seat them all.

A table for seven.

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