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January 20, 2018

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Tom Gorman cautions would-be foster parents on the pain and frustration that can accompany the joy of this altruistic endeavor

I pay close attention to TV commercials that pitch wonderful new medicines because I love hearing those distasteful warnings at the end: Side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, scaly skin, hair loss, bloating, dizziness, sleep loss, sexual dysfunction and internal bleeding.

But at least you'll get to dance on an ocean cruise or sit in a bathtub on a hillside before the side effects kick in.

It's all about honesty in advertising. By the same token, as the Clark County Family Services Department recruits foster parents, candidates need to weigh the blessings and rewards of caring for a child against the costs of such selfless altruism.

The downside of being a foster parent is not normally advertised, but it needs to be acknowledged. Susan Klein-Rothschild, director of Family Services, agreed with me on that point when we sat down and chatted this week.

An extreme case in point on the risks of being a foster parent is the recent, unrelated deaths of two babies in the program, each for medical reasons. The foster parents reportedly had no idea how frail the baby's health was in each case, and now they are dealing with the trauma of deaths that were no fault of their own.

Were it not for those tragedies, Susan would be feeling pretty happy these days: The department's efforts to recruit more foster parents seem to have generated handsome payoffs.

The department has about 900 licensed foster homes and, over the past couple of weeks, it has received calls from more than 800 other people who are interested in participating in the program.

Many of them may have volunteer's remorse and back out of the process before it begins. Some may not qualify after background checks. Others will begin training and get cold feet. So despite the success of the current recruiting effort, and because our population is growing, there always will be a need for more foster parents. Susan promises me that prospective foster parents are advised of the challenges of the job as they go through training. I happen to think it should be discussed immediately, like disclosing the side effects of medicine.

I can tell you with authority that foster parenting is accompanied by land mines.

Jeanne and I were foster parents in San Diego years ago for a lovely 4-year-old girl, Anita. She shared a bedroom with our 5-year-old, Cassie.

Granted, we were immersed in an entirely different bureaucracy than Clark County's. But as I shared our experience with Susan, she agreed that we faced challenges and issues that trouble foster parents everywhere.

We dealt with most of the issues, such as getting her medical attention through Medicaid. I don't think Anita was any too pleased when we took her to the dentist for desperately needed dental care.

In short order Anita was fully integrated with our family, exchanging kisses, hugs, laughter and tears. We weren't told why Anita was in the foster program, and we didn't think it mattered.

One day, without notice or permission, Anita's mother showed up at our front door. A social worker had mistakenly given mom our address. We felt blindsided and unsure how to handle the situation, because visitations were supposed to occur at a nearby park.

Following her heart, Jeanne allowed mom to come inside, and she and Anita played for more than an hour in Cassie's bedroom after shooing Cassie away. Cassie was confused; Jeanne was angry but trying to be flexible. After an hour we told mom she had to leave. She asked if she could stay for dinner; Jeanne said no for a host of reasons. Mom left and Anita cried.

After having built a relationship with Anita, we now were the enemy for having sent her mother away. A 4-year-old couldn't begin to grasp the dynamics of what was happening.

Mom showed up time and time again. The social worker told us we could deal with her any way we wanted, but otherwise offered no advice or help. Mom would come, play and leave, and Anita would cry at the separation. It never got easier.

One day mom showed up with her boyfriend. Jeanne, stunned but erring on the side of hospitality, invited him inside. She suggested they sit together while mom and Anita played alone. It was nerve wracking. Who was this man?

The next day Jeanne called the social worker, who was stunned. You allowed him into your home? she asked angrily. Why shouldn't I, Jeanne wondered. And then we learned that Anita's brother had died under suspicious circumstances. The boyfriend was being investigated for child abuse.

Thanks for the warning, Jeanne said. But it was a little late. We lost confidence in the system. We were getting unauthorized and unannounced visits by both the mom and her possibly abusive boyfriend. So, in tears, we asked the county to pick up Anita. We felt we failed her but we could not handle the tension and possible risks.

Susan was sympathetic to me as I shared our story this week. Clark County gives its foster-parent candidates a list of duties, obligations and expectations. But the paperwork doesn't talk about the emotional toll - or reward - of being a foster parent.

It comes up during training, Susan said. "It is the hardest job in the world," Susan said. "Foster parents will experience the lowest of lows."

So like a medicine commercial, this is my disclosure on behalf of the county's foster care program.

"But being a foster parent is also the highest of highs," she said. And she was right about that, too.

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 259-2310 or at [email protected]