Linda and Frank Almsteadt

Linda and Frank Almsteadt are volunteering as community representatives with the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. They will be working with local families. Here, Linda holds their chihuahua, Bell. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / September 18, 2011)

In Dundalk, the need for foster homes far outstrips the abilities of neighborhood families who can open their doors to children in crisis.

Baltimore County's Department of Social Services has launched an effort to recruit foster parents in its eastern neighborhoods and has coupled it with a program to train community volunteers to assist families long before they have to relinquish their children.

"Across the state and the country, there are initiatives to engage the community in protecting its children," said Judith Schagrin, DSS assistant director for children's services.

Our Community Our Responsibility, which the department got off the ground this week, aims to build a pool of volunteer advocates. They will work to get to know the parents and their challenges, then advocate for them at Family Team Decision Making — their meetings with therapists, social workers and lawyers, which will precede any effort to remove children from home. In Dundalk alone, there are about 20 such gatherings a month.

The meetings intend to help make joint, informed decisions that ensure the children's safety and the families' well-being, said Kelly DaCunha, Family Team Decision Making facilitator with the DSS.

"You would immediately offer a sense of community and a unique understanding of Dundalk," she told a group of potential representatives, who met at a Dundalk church Wednesday.

Kathy Henry, who is raising her great-nephew, volunteered, saying her personal experiences could help allay the concerns of other parents.

"I have been through every process and challenge," she said. "I think I know about all the services available and what these parents need to do. I might ease their fears."

Trained representatives add another perspective to Family Team Decision Making meetings.

"These representatives would be nonjudgmental and natural allies for families," said Sheila Philip, provider relations director for Maryland Choices, a nonprofit that offers family support services. "By listening to these families, the representatives will learn their special challenges, needs and strengths and help link them to available services."

The number of children needing foster care continues to grow in Eastern Baltimore County. In 2010, 520 children entered the county's foster system, nearly half from east-side neighborhoods including Dundalk, Essex, Parkville, Middle River and Rosedale. Leaving familiar schools and neighborhoods can add to the disruption in a child's life. But only eight of the 215 homes approved for foster care last year were located in Dundalk, the area that added 77 children to the system, the largest number of any community in the county.

DSS' foster parent recruitment program in Dundalk involves a series of neighborhood meetings, with the next one at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Dundalk Youth Services Center, 2660 Yorkway.

Linda and Frank Almsteadt have volunteered as neighborhood representatives and are considering foster parenting. The retirees said they want to use their time to help keep families together.

"I feel an urgency because too many families are being broken apart," Linda Almsteadt said. "The community should bind together and help each other tap into resources. If we can do this in the early stages, maybe we can keep these families together."

"I know we can make a difference," her husband said.

Representatives would continue to advocate for the children, working for stabilization in their foster placements and ultimately for reuniting the family.

"There are a lot of caring people with good hearts in Dundalk," said Henry, a seven-year resident. "If kids need us, the neighborhood will pull together and help. That has always been the spirit of people who live here."

The next information meeting for those interested in becoming a community representative is at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at St. Rita Parish House, 2907 Dunleer Road. The Almsteadts said they are spreading the word, certain their longtime community will rise to the need.

"As soon as people hear about this program, they will pack the place," Frank Almsteadt said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com