They want to provide a place for children

When police in Bellingham, Wash., had trouble finding foster care late at night, they hit on a surprising solution

Imagine you are 5 years old, sound asleep at home. Suddenly you hear someone banging loudly on the door. Mom and Dad are arrested, and a police officer leads you and your sister, still in pajamas, out to his car.

At the police station, radios blare, there are lots of strangers, and the officer you came with is busy making phone calls, trying to find something called foster care. Then you remember that Blue Bear is home all alone. Who will take care of him? Who will take care of you?

For children who live in Bellingham, Wash., 100 miles north of Seattle, the answer to that last question is simple - and surprising: The police will.

Next month, the Bellingham Police Department will become the first in the nation to have its own in-house team of licensed foster-care parents. Children who might normally spend several hours waiting at the station will instead be driven directly to a home where a warm bed and hot meal are waiting.

The program is intended to "reduce the trauma" for children caught in the web of their parents' legal troubles, says Sgt. Timothy Lintz, head of the family crimes unit.

He has seen such trauma many times in his 29 years as a police officer. Indeed, the idea for the program arose after an incident last November, when Sergeant Lintz, then doing patrol duty, was desperately trying to find emergency foster care for three children, ages 6, 8, and 9.

As Lintz made call after call, trying to make arrangements with state workers, the siblings waited in the children's interview room. They had already waited in another police station earlier that night, before being transported an hour and a half to the Bellingham Police Department.

At 1:30 a.m., after four hours of dialing, Lintz rang his wife. Her suggestion: Bring them home.

And he did.

Lintz's decision could have raised eyebrows. But instead, the chief of police asked him a surprising question the next morning: What could their department do to help kids in a similar situation?

Both men knew that emergency placements would continue to be a challenge. Washington, like many states, has a shortage of foster-care families. About 6,200 homes are available, yet roughly 10,000 children pass through the system each year. So even when late-night accommodations can be found, they may be in another county, possibly as far away as 75 or 100 miles, says Lintz.

He and his boss kept brainstorming, and several weeks later the police chief met with representatives from the Department of Social and Health Services. Could Lintz's late-night solution serve as a model, someone asked.

As George Godzik, the area administrator for Child Protective Services, says, the proposal "struck us as a wonderful idea." But there were crucial issues that had to be addressed. At the top of the list: potential conflict of interest.

Back in the mid-1990s, explains Mr. Godzik, 43 people in the town of Wenatchee, Wash., were arrested for child abuse, based on the testimony of a detective's two foster children. Twenty-eight went to prison.

One of the children later recanted her statement, however, saying the investigator had coerced her into making the charges. Eighteen of those jailed were freed or had their sentences overturned.

That situation had a chilling effect on social-service workers, and it is a good example why, says Godzik, "We can't have a total hands-off approach."

Further discussions between the Bellingham police and the state led to the current plan, which will allow participants to provide short-term foster care for children ages 11 and under, for 15 days or less.

Child Protective Services must be notified immediately when a temporary placement has been made, and a social worker will be assigned to the case the next day.

Officers who investigate child abuse cannot be foster parents. That includes Lintz, who will oversee the program.

An abundance of volunteers

There hasn't been a shortage of volunteers. If anything, too many members of the 100- person staff have expressed interest. "Our department is real community-oriented," says Lintz, who has chosen five people to participate.

Those five must complete the state licensing process before the program begins. That means completing CPR, first aid, and HIV courses; taking 18 hours of preservice training;and passing a home inspection. Additional training will be required in the coming year. All of these classes must be taken on the employees' own time.

"We all have a deep appreciation for the children," says Lintz of his colleagues. "Why are we here if we aren't going to help the most vulnerable of all, and that's the kids."

Bill Medlen, a patrol officer who's the father of three, agrees with that assessment. "A lot of officers in the department are very capable people and have big hearts."

Officer Medlen became interested in the program because he had seen that the usual channels of foster care can't respond promptly.

His wife, Michele, an emergency-room nurse, shared his enthusiasm. She, too, must be certified by the state, as must every adult in the five police department foster homes.

The focus is on the children

Both look forward to helping children in crisis, but they know that may not always be easy. "The biggest challenge is not knowing the kids ... and trying to make them feel safe and secure," says Officer Medlen.

Suzie Ortiz, the only nonofficer in the program, shares Medlen's sentiments. Ms. Ortiz has been a crime analyst with the department for 2-1/2 years. "You go through the reports the officers take, and it's hard to read about kids who are in really bad situations. Your heart goes out to them when they're being taken out of their homes. It's always scary."

Ortiz, who is single and does not have children, says the foster-care training was a "pretty scary process," especially when certain social factors were discussed, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and the resulting behaviors that foster-care parents might encounter.

"Most of the work that I do deals with patterns, with trends," she says. "This kind of opened my eyes. Kids don't just grow up and be bad; factors influence their behavior."

But as sobering as the training has been, Ortiz, like all of her colleagues, is enthusiastic about providing kids in need with a temporary foster home.

To make it easier on the volunteers, the department has already enlisted the help of local charities. These groups will provide clothes, cribs, car seats, toys, and other basics that the new foster parents will need.

Possible pilot program for the nation

Interest in the new program is also growing outside Bellingham, population 67,000.

Darlene Flowers is the executive director of the Foster Parent Association of Washington. Ms. Flowers says she was "just thrilled" when she heard about the plan, which is intended to be a pilot for the state.

Flowers, who licensed foster parents for eight years, often looked for ways to recruit police officers. Why? Because "they're on the frontlines," she says, "and as a rule are very concerned about what's going to happen to this child."

Two other Washington State police departments have expressed interest in setting up similar programs. But Flowers hopes that the Bellingham plan spreads farther than the state borders.

She would like it to go nationwide.

"It's natural, when times are good, to look for governments and foundations to start programs, but they no longer have the money they had five or 10 years ago." The only way to make up the difference, she says, is for average citizens to get involved.

Sanford Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, also hopes the program does well. His organization is made up of more than 1,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors across the US.

Mr. Newman says the Bellingham plan is "a valuable thing to be doing, and it's a big contribution for police officers to make," provided that safeguards are in place.

But he also notes that the plan "only scratches the surface." The larger issue, he says, is that too many people don't know how to be good parents. Unless they are taught to be sober and nonabusive, and to stay out of prison, the foster-care crisis will continue unabated.

Lintz can't do much to change society, but he is determined to help one frightened child at a time.

"Being removed from home has got to be traumatic when you don't really understand why it's happening," he says. "The key is treating kids with as much respect as we possibly can."

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