In a household with five children under the age of 7, a simple date night away for the parents can feel like a spa day, a few hours to recalibrate and breathe, to ignore the kids’ menu and enjoy conversation with other adults.
Amanda and John Mark Creamer understand how important this sliver of alone time can be — their Flathead Valley household is full of the sweet chaos that comes naturally with a 7-year-old, three 5-year-olds, and a toddler just over 2.
All five children are adopted — the Creamers’ children have backgrounds in Ethiopia, China, and South Carolina — with the youngest as the most recent. But his situation was a bit different for the family, because they fostered him from birth and worked with his birth family for two years with the goal of placing him back with them.
During the fostering process, the Creamers found support in Child Bridge, a local, faith-based nonprofit that seeks to find and support foster and adoptive families for Montana children.
Those important date nights? They were possible because Child Bridge kept track of the family and arranged for some respite. They also helped with other logistical issues, like picking up the other kids from school when the Creamers would have to bring the baby for visitation with his birth mother five times a week or preparing dinner for the family one night.
“The support we had was amazing,” Creamer said.
For the two-year fostering process, the Creamers cared for the baby and also grew to love his birth family. But when reunification wasn’t possible, adoption was an easy choice for the Creamers, as was the decision to keep open communication and visitation with the child’s birth family. (Amanda Creamer also ended up taking a job with the organization, now working as the community outreach coordinator.)
This is the ultimate goal at Child Bridge, to grow a system of support for foster families in Montana that works hand in hand with state Child and Family Services. Child Bridge isn’t an adoption or placement agency, but instead works with community groups and churches to bridge the gap in support and funding within the state’s foster system.
The group is based in Bigfork, but now has branches in Missoula and Billings as well. Jenna Taylor, Child Bridge’s mission advancement coordinator, said the organization has been involved with the fostering of 225 children in more than 20 communities, which led to 38 adoptions.
On Sept. 21, Child Bridge was recognized for its efforts by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption as an “Angel in Adoption.” It is the first organization to receive this honor; previous recipients were individuals.
Working with the overburdened Child and Family Services Division within the state Department of Public Health and Human Services is necessary, Taylor said, because there’s just too much work to do.
“They have so much work and we want to help them the best we can,” she said.
According to DPHHS, there were 3,229 children in foster care in Montana at the end of August. That’s nearly double the amount from 2011, when 1,746 kids were in the system, and hundreds more than last year, when there were 2,775 foster children in the state.
Child and Family Services has come under intense scrutiny in the last year, with the increase of kids in the system occurring as the division continued to struggle with filling jobs and keeping workers. In Kalispell, three full-time employees were doing the work of an office that was supposed to be staffed with 15.
Last September, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the Protect Montana Kids Initiative, creating a commission to examine the child protection system and recommend improvements. The 15-person board recommended reducing caseloads for workers, changing up the work culture, more oversight for the division and for the workers, and better worker retention, among other suggestions.
Staffing continues to be an issue, with 41 open positions statewide. The division administrator position is still open after Sarah Corbally stepped down in April, with an interim administrator at the helm until then.
The Kalispell office has seen improvement in its staff numbers, with just five positions open last week. That should drop to three in a couple weeks with new hires, according to DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt.
Much-needed changes may be on the way for the division, but in the meantime, organizations such as Child Bridge are there to help, Taylor said.
“It’s such a complex problem,” she said. “Why should only one organization be responsible for fixing it?”
While Child Bridge can’t help with the state’s logistical issues, it can help on a local level, making the fostering process smoother and feel more possible for families. The organization also supports the birth families in this process, Taylor said. For example, Child Bridge worked with Fresh Life Church to upgrade and refurnish the visitation room for birth parents at the local CFS office, bringing a sense of cleanliness and dignity to the space.
The organization hopes to increase its reach within the Flathead community in hopes of building a solid foundation of supported and supportive foster families, so the question no longer has to be, “Who has room to take this child?” and instead, “Who would be the best fit for this child and vice versa?”
Taylor said the vision is to see churches and communities mobilized to brace and support these families. Fostering and adoption isn’t for everyone, both Creamer and Taylor said, but there are other ways to help.
“Help can come in bringing a meal to family; help can come in donating $10 a month,” Taylor said. “Everybody doing what they can — that’s what makes it huge.”
Child Bridge helps coordinate these efforts, and hosts monthly resource groups for foster and adoptive families, as well as child welfare professionals, in Missoula, Billings, Kalispell, Libby, and Polson.
Amanda Creamer’s life is still hectic, but she finds solace knowing she has a solid support system in place, thanks largely to Child Bridge. Working with the organization also brought her family closer to her son’s birth family, a blessing she wasn’t expecting but is happy to receive.
“I love his birth mom. You could see how much she loved her baby,” Creamer said. “And when it came time to adopt, she knew that we loved him and would take care of him.”
For information on Child Bridge, including training and events, visit www.childbridgemontana.org or call 406-837-2247.