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A few weeks back, Geoff Birnbaum stepped out of the very analog world of Missoula Youth Homes and into the digital realm.

Which is to say, he went looking for potential foster parents on the social networking site Facebook.

"I figured that Facebook is a place where people make connections, and part of becoming a foster parent is in making a connection, either with someone connected with Youth Homes or maybe just someone who's connected to being a foster parent," said Birnbaum, the group's longtime executive director. "I felt like maybe there was a way to make a connection there."

And he was right.

"It looks like we may have found one person," Birnbaum said. "It looks very promising."

One potential foster parent is a godsend, but one's not enough. One's never enough when it comes to good people willing to take care of children in need.

"We have a constant need for foster parents," said Youth Homes' Bill Neaves. "But there are so many misconceptions about being a foster parent. That trips a lot of people up."

The stereotype comes across in divergent ways. One is what Birnbaum and his colleagues jokingly call the " 'Law & Order' syndrome," based on the TV series where the worst always seems to happen.

"This is where the foster parent has no idea where the kid is, where the kid has done horrible things and where basically nobody knows what's happening," Birnbaum said.

The flip side of that is the belief that a foster parent is somehow a "sainted person" that no one else can live up to.

Neither holds true, of course.

For one thing, there's a decided lack of saints among us.

"Foster parents are just like you and me, because that's who they are, you and me," said Birnbaum, who has actually been a foster parent along with his wife Nancy.

Right now, Missoula Youth Homes needs about 10 foster parents or couples. Those 10 children, who come to Youth Homes from a wide variety of situations, range in age from 4 to 17.

Children are referred to Youth Homes most often through the state, from Youth Court and child protective services to mental health case managers.

Many of those children are eventually returned to their families, but some spend extended time away and some never go back.

That means there are opportunities for families who are looking to help kids over both the short and very long term, including the possibility of adoption.

"We are shopping for the right window for the right person," said Neaves.

The process to become licensed as a foster parent through Youth Homes takes about six months, a period that includes both background checks and training.

"We really have the time to help a family prepare," said Birnbaum. "That's a luxury the state doesn't always have."

And if a child is placed in your family, the child comes with a social worker who will help both the child and family along the way.

"We'll have an aide for about 10 hours a week," said Barb Cowan of Partnership for Children, a Youth Homes satellite program.

Birnbaum said some potential foster parents worry about the financial commitment, but he said a tax-free stipend leaves families "pretty much whole."

"Medical care is covered and you should do fine financially in terms of the child's needs," Birnbaum said.

That said, a potential foster parent with little or no resources would be stressed.

"The most important thing is for a family or person to have a support system, just like other parents have," Birnbaum said. "A neighbor who can help out, a relative. Just like any parent, you're going to need that help."

The biggest thing, Birnbaum, Cowan and Neaves said, is that foster parents aren't expected to be superhuman.

"It's a job where you learn every day and no one expects you to be perfect - except perhaps yourself," Birnbaum said.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

Moms and dads

If you're interested in learning about being a foster parent through Missoula Youth Homes, call 721-2704.

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