This story is equipped with a feature called SoundCite. Click on highlighted words with a “play” symbol to hear more from our conversation with Kristin Finan.
Kristin Finan is co-founder, president, and CEO of Carrying Hope, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that creates and distributes “Hope Packs,” backpacks filled with helpful items for children who are entering the foster care system. She spoke with Resolve Magazine about how the pandemic has impacted the organization’s mission and foster care families like her own.
[The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
Resolve Magazine [RM]: Please tell us about the primary needs that Carrying Hope was created to address, and why you co-founded the organization.
Kristin Finan [KF]: As a foster mom myself, I was watching these kids show up at our doorstep with absolutely nothing. It seems like placements always happen at midnight or 2:00 a.m., and so someone has to rush out to Wal-Mart because if you take emergency foster placements, which is what we do, you really can’t predict the age or gender of a child that’s going to come.
We founded Carrying Hope because we wanted these kids, on what is very likely the worst day of their lives, to know from the minute they enter a new home that there is hope and someone who loves them, who is looking out for what they need in that moment. We try to include everything a child will need for the first 48 hours in a Hope Pack.
We’re also trying to normalize their experience. Yes, we include new jammies, clothes, underwear, socks — those are essentials. But there are other things, like a flashlight and a nightlight, because this is a new place and they don’t know where they are.
There are also toys in each Hope Pack, so if there are other siblings in the house, that becomes an ice-breaker, a way for them to say, ‘Hey, do you want to do these Legos with me?’ One thing we hear from foster parents all the time is that the Hope Pack immediately gave the kids a way to bond and gave them something to do while the adults were doing all the scary paperwork things at the table.
We know that we are just the first step, and so we actually include a magnet that says, ‘You got this from Carrying Hope. We’re here for your first days in care, but you’re going to need other stuff. Here’s where to go.’ A lot of foster parents, if they don’t know who to ask for help, they get so overwhelmed that they may not continue [being foster parents]. So we want to be there for the child, be there for the foster parents, but also let them know that this isn’t all that’s out there.
[RM]: How has the pandemic affected Carrying Hope and its mission, and what trends are you seeing in the foster care system this year?
[KF]: We’ve been shocked at the amount of need. Literally every day, we are seeing inquiries from other agencies, CPS, or directly from foster families.
We weren’t sure how this was going to impact us at first because a lot of the mandatory reporters for child abuse are schools and hospitals, places that in March were either shutting down or discouraging visitation, and so we thought we might see things slow down, but actually it has spiked in a crazy way. In the past month, we’ve distributed 600 Hope Packs, which was, by far, a record. I feel confident that we’re going to distribute 4,000 Hope Packs this year, whereas last year we distributed 2,700.
It seems to be a couple of different things that are causing the spike. First of all, a lot of families who were living right on that edge — this has pushed them over because they’ve lost jobs, their children are falling into neglectful situations, and they just can’t tread water anymore.
In a pandemic, if you don’t have a safety net, you’re just going to fall straight through. Under normal circumstances, these parents were able to keep all the plates balancing, but now everything is just crashing down.
Another thing is that other agencies that usually support foster families or CPS, they have seen a reduction in donations because we’re in a pandemic. Now they’re coming to us saying, ‘Can you fortify what we’ve got? Can you give Hope Packs? Because this is the only thing we’re able to provide to this family.’
And then we’re also seeing a lot of kinship placements, like a grandma who’s agreeing to take in six kids because she doesn’t want them going fully into the foster care system. But she absolutely cannot afford what it takes to take care of them, so they’re asking for us to at least give them that starter as they try to get services to them.
[RM]: How has Carrying Hope adapted to help address the rising need caused by the pandemic’s economic effects?
[KF]: When we have the means, and if it doesn’t take away greatly from the money that we need to put into Hope Packs directly, then we’ll try to fulfill any requests we get right now because there’s a greater need in this unprecedented time, and if we’re in the fortunate position to help, we’re going to do that.
We partnered with Austin Diaper Bank, which was doing Friday distributions, and we made baby Hope Packs with onesies, pacifiers, formula, wipes, one or two other items, and a stuffed animal. It was amazing just seeing the need.
As a result of that, people have told their friends, and we’ve been getting a lot of inquiries every day from individuals who are saying, ‘I can’t afford formula right now,’ or ‘I need to get WIC (a state supplemental nutrition program for mothers and young children) now because I’ve lost my job, but the wait is too long and my baby doesn’t have food. Can y’all help?’ And so we’re doing a lot of deliveries like that.
Of course, it’s not all foster children, but we’re trying to make sure that anybody asking us for help can receive it — because there are so many who are on that line right now, that if they don’t get the help right away, it may be a situation where their kids are in foster care. So, we feel like as much as we can help, we will.
[RM]: What impacts are you seeing on foster children and foster families?
[KF]: Kids who have gone through trauma can have a very difficult time with change and with transitions, and now the whole world has been turned upside down, so kids who had trouble with that before are having extreme trouble during the pandemic.
Another challenge is finding providers who accept Medicaid. Foster children receive Medicaid from the state. Once they’re adopted, they remain on a separate Medicaid plan. It’s always been a struggle to find enough providers who accept Medicaid because a lot of them choose not to. And when you reach out to providers now, the few that were available before are fully booked, either from preexisting clients who need them more than ever or for new clients.
The other part I’m very concerned about is that a lot of kids who are in the system have special needs. They need special education services. They have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) at their school, and even if a school has the best intentions, the translation to that in a virtual world is not the same. Many children in foster care have frequently attended multiple schools, some as many as four to five schools within a school year, so they’re already coming in with disadvantages.
I think we may see an increase in kids who have to repeat grades because they’ve missed so much school. I think our teachers are amazing and absolutely have our kids’ interests in mind. I just don’t think it’s possible, unfortunately, to have a clear, good plan right now. And as much as I understand that, I’m really sad about it for the kids. Because the kids are the ones who are going to pay the price for it.
[RM]: How has the community supported Carrying Hope’s mission this year, and what are your goals for the future?
[KF]: We couldn’t do in-person events this year, so we decided instead to sponsor kiddos at local shelters — these are kids who have been quarantined since March 13th. So we sponsored 106 kids in the Austin area and about 30 in the Houston area. We gave donors the kids’ names, ages, and wish lists. It was so heartwarming. We got to watch some of the girls open their Hope Packs, and they were literally jumping up and down, because they are in a situation where they can’t even hardly go outside, let alone do anything they might have been able to do as recently as February.
We were really happy with where we were last year because distributing 2,700 packs allowed us to saturate Region 7, which includes Travis County and the surrounding counties. Ultimately, we would like to have every child entering care in Texas receive Hope Packs. So, if we can keep up with the demand, we absolutely will. That’s our goal, and I think that we’re well-positioned to do it.
We just feel really grateful. Because it is a hard time for everyone, it’s a hard time for nonprofits, and getting to do this work and knowing that we are at least playing a small part has been really gratifying.