Photo courtesy: Alana Tyler
The Foster Care Resource Closet at First Presbyterian is stocked with items of various sizes to meet the needs of any foster child.

Hannah Engroos has been a licensed foster parent since 2015. In just four years, she’s had 28 different children placed in her home.

The number of children entering the foster care system in South Carolina continues to increase every year. In June 2018, the South Carolina Department of Social Services released a report that there were 3,017 children in the state currently living in a foster home. Of those children, 351 are in foster care in the greater Columbia area.

The department of social services defines foster care as the temporary care of children who cannot remain safely in their family home. When these children are displaced from their biological families, they are put into the home of a licensed foster parent.

These foster parents are reimbursed with a stipend each month for food, clothes, diapers, school supplies and other items the child may require. Oftentimes, these stipends only cover the minimum necessities that a child actually needs.

Andrea Cavanaugh, who received her foster license last year, said, “I feel like what they give you is kind of covering the bare minimum of what they need. It’s just like a commitment when you have your own children, you know you’re going to have more expenses associated with them.”

Engroos has also dealt with the lack of resources since her first placement. Although foster children are covered under Medicaid and eligible for WIC benefits that cover formula and basic food for infants and young children, it can take several weeks for these benefits to be processed when the child enters foster care.

The department of social services is actively recruiting people to become licensed foster parents in order to care for the growing number of children in the system. However, it is up to those individuals to purchase everything necessary for having the children in their home, from a crib to sleep in, to a car seat so they can leave the home.

Engroos had a desire to help remove some of the barriers that keep people from fostering and to create a helpful resource for the Columbia foster care community. She partnered with her local church to discuss options.

In August 2018, the Foster Care Resource Closet began its official operations. The closet is located on the campus of First Presbyterian Church and is staffed by church volunteers. It’s open once a week for foster parents to come shop through and take what they need. Engroos serves as the closet’s director, organizing donations, recruiting volunteers, and ensuring each foster family that comes in leaves with what they need.

In its first six months, the closet provided supplies to 41 children within 19 different foster families. Clothes, shoes, backpacks, diapers, toys, and various items are available at no cost for any child in the foster care system.

Not only does the closet exist for current foster families, and for those who are just beginning, but especially also those who take in emergency placements. Those individuals, Engroos included, can get a call any day or night asking them to take in a child, of any age, immediately. Oftentimes the child arrives traumatized, unable to sleep or function normally.

Engroos organizes volunteers to drop off bags of supplies to any family who isn’t able to come in and shop for themselves.

“When you get a child in who literally has nothing but the clothes on their back… I mean I’ve had kids come without shoes on and if you’re scrambling it’s difficult to haul everybody out to find shoes for that one child.” Engroos said. “It’s helpful if someone can say, I’ll drop a bag of stuff on your porch and you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Although the Foster Care Resource Closet is less than a year old, Engroos already has plans for expansion. The supplies for the closet are sustained by donations from church members and the local community. Both have been extremely generous. The closet gives out multiple bags of donations every week, but is already bursting at the seams in its current space.

Engroos hopes to see the closet grow in size, and wants to eventually host trainings and other programming events for foster parents.

The state requires foster parents to take 16 hours of classes each year to keep their license. Many classes offered don’t include childcare, an obstacle Engroos hopes to take away by having the ability to host the classes in the church facility with a childcare option.

The closet also offers an avenue for the church and community members contributing donations to learn about the desperate need for more foster parents.  Cavanaugh said she and her husband didn’t realize how eager the state is for more licensed caregivers until they met others at their church already involved in the system.

The new closet is the only one of its kind in downtown Columbia, but Grace Church in Greenville has had a closet for almost four years. As they’ve sought to meet more needs they’ve expanded from a small church closet, to a warehouse and now have an actual storefront location.

Leaders of the Grace Church ministry are passionate about not only equipping foster parents with tangible items they need but also ensuring they have emotional support as well. Beth Drake, the Foster and Adopt Advisor for Grace Church said, “I hope they are getting a car load, but they’re pulling away and feeling like they were given more than just some seasonal clothes.”

Cavanaugh also spoke to the need for emotional support. She and her husband are surrounded by a loving family and church community, but she said it is her fellow foster parents who really “get it” with state protocols and daily struggles.

The plan for the Foster Care Resource Closet is that it will be a place where fellow foster parents can feel connected and supported. They can receive the material resources they need, and be able to ask questions and seek solutions for common problems. At the end of the day, the people who serve as foster parents are doing it all for the children’s benefit. The hope is that the closet will serve those parents well in multiple ways as they work to love the children living in their homes.

Cavanaugh hopes that other foster parents will be able to benefit from the closet and that the community will become more aware of what the foster care system actually is. “You know foster care is sad. It’s sad that they never come into care for a good reason. And yet… there really are foster parents that want to change that for them and give them a stable loving home.”