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Wisconsin Faces a Shortage of Foster Families

Bonnie Petrie
Foster parents Jessica and Marc Benzakein at the Coalition for Children, Youth, and Families in Milwaukee.

The number of children in Wisconsin needing foster care has surged over the last two years.

Today, there are about 6,000 Wisconsin kids in foster care, and the state removes between 350 and 400 additional children from their homes every month.

This increase has led to a shortage of foster homes, so the Coalition for Children, Youth, and Families is trying to recruit more than a thousand new foster families.            

Why is the number of children in need of foster care increasing so quickly?

"One reason that is standing out right now is that we’re seeing a rise in the number of people struggling with substance abuse," executive director Oriana Carey says. "And naturally, if law enforcement and health care are impacted by substance abuse and the rise in those, so would the child welfare system because what we would expect is folks who are having a hard time taking care of themselves are having a very difficult time taking care of their children or any of their other affairs."

Jessica Benzakein of Milwaukee is the foster mother to four children, in addition to her two biological children. She fosters because she was a foster child.

Benzakein tells a story of going into emergency care with her younger brother when she was five. She says the experience changed her life forever.

We went to sleep that first night, there was a train whistle. It woke me up. It was really close. I was like, I’m hungry you’re hungry, let’s go into the kitchen, find something to eat. And when we went out there, on two plates, (there were) two pieces of chocolate cake, two glasses of milk. Now I, the older, wiser, five-year-old, knew it was a trap, so we just sat there and stared at it for as long as we could before I was like, “Eat it now” and my brother’s already like, “It’s too late!” He was stuffing his face. We ate that cake, drank the milk went back to bed, and just waited for her to come. We knew we were in trouble. We took the cake. We waited…nothing. The next morning we got up. The kitchen was clean. She never said a word about the cake.

Benzakein later realized the woman never said anything because the cake was for them. The milk was for them. This may not sound like a life-altering event, but Benzakein says it was the first time she ever realized people could do nice things for you without strings attached. She says in her entire life, kindness had always had strings, and she says, "sometimes those strings were really awful."

The Benzakeins are caring for their six children in their eleven bedroom, four bathroom central city home. They want to adopt the four foster children they're caring for now and they want to foster more.  

The Coalition for Children, Youth, and Families are looking for all kinds of families to foster, but it has a particular need for those who will care for sibling groups, teens and babies. The Benzakeins like to foster older children and sibling groups. Jessica says she's does it because she knows what it's like to feel unwanted. She says no child should ever feel that way. 

"There’s so much to deal with, just being a kid," she says. "And, yes, they may have baggage, but it’s mostly not their own, and they’re forced to carry it around, and to think that they’re unwanted? That there’s no place for them in this world? That they have no future? That they’re not going to be something? No. I refuse to let that be a reality."

Benzakein says anyone who can love can foster.

Carey says fostering can be a challenging, but there is ongoing training, support and access to all kinds of therapy and services. For those who can't foster full-time, Carey says Wisconsin also needs people who will provide temporary, emergency care, and people willing to care for children while foster parents take brief respites. 

If you're interested in fostering, you can get more information at the website Foster Parents Rock.