By Annabelle Le Jeune, Partners in Development Foundation
When a high school math teacher noticed that her frequently absent student showed up to their community church every week she wondered, “what’s going on?”
Tenth-grader Patricia Duh had just lost her mother and had been in and out of foster homes for most of her teenage years. Upon learning this, the high school teacher and her husband filed for a child-specific fostering license and opened the door to what would be Patricia’s final placement – a place she still calls home.
“Young people are just looking for a place where they can belong,” Duh said. “We’ve gone through so many hardships where people have failed us in the past.”
Duh went on to become a resource caregiver (foster parent) to two foster youth while caring for her own biological child. She also earned herself a seat among the 4% of foster youth who obtain a bachelor’s degree, turning her life experiences into positive outcomes as the Pono Process Lead for Epic ʻOhana.
While Duh’s case is unique, her experiences are shared and speak for many children in the foster care system. On any given day in Hawaiʻi, there are approximately 1,500 children in foster care. Over half of those foster children are Native Hawaiian.
“We’re trying to find resource caregivers that will accept children for who they are and support them in being successful in the future, and that could mean reunification with their parents, or in school, making friends, or just being themselves and being okay with being themselves,” said Monica Kaʻauwai, Kauaʻi Community Liaison at Project Pilina, a foster care services program of nonprofit Partners in Development Foundation.
Project Pilina is a statewide program that recruits and guides resource caregiver applicants through the first steps of the general licensing process. Kaʻauwai and her teammates seek to build relationships within island communities by raising awareness about foster care. For anyone ready to start the application process, a community liaison will serve and assist in the general licensing process.
While being a resource caregiver can be challenging, Kaʻauwai notes that “it’s also rewarding when you get to spend time with a child who has basically had everything taken away from them – and you get to support them in just being a typical kid.”
For those who are unsure about taking the first steps in becoming resource caregivers, there are many other ways to support children in the Hawaiʻi foster care system.
Every month Project Pilina hosts virtual statewide information sessions with local community liaisons that are open to anyone interested in learning more about foster care, volunteer opportunities, and other ways to get involved. Participants may also have an opportunity to hear directly from former foster youth or current resource caregivers.
Other community events, like Kaʻauwai’s free family movie night in Anahola at the end of May, will celebrate National Foster Care Awareness Month. Events include participatory activities that embrace ʻohana in all shapes and sizes, help keiki feel good about themselves, and build pride in one’s ʻohana – whether biological or hānai (fostered or adopted).
When Duh looks back at what supported her most through her times of need, she recalls an incident when, as a teen, she chucked everything out of her room, crying in a rage, and locked herself in the closet. Her mom, as Duh still calls her to this day, sat outside of the closet and just waited for her daughter to get through her emotions and calm down.
“My foster mom knew – something is happening right now, and I don’t know how to help her, but I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to pry, but I’m also not going to leave in this moment. That memory stays with me forever till today. The fact that someone showed up, like really showed up,” recalled Duh.
Every time her foster parents stood by her side, even when they did not know exactly what was happening or how to help, their patience and presence was all the love Patricia Duh needed to persevere.
Go to www.pidf.org for more information about becoming a resource caregiver and for details about the next statewide information sessions on May 2 at 6 p.m. and on June 14 at 9 a.m. Partners in Development Foundation empowers families to navigate social challenges and to grow self-resiliency, vibrancy, and healthy, secure communities in Hawaiʻi.