Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
At present, 67 children are in Macon County Department of Social Services (DSS) custody, shared Stacey Messer, a social worker with 21 years experience. Yet, there are 22 licensed foster families – with another seven currently participating in the licensing process.
“We have a desperate need for foster families in Macon County,” said Sandi Lohan, who has fostered for eight years. “The need for foster families will only continue to grow as our area struggles with ever-growing drug and mental health concerns.”
Lohan and others in the community committed to providing temporary security, shelter, food, and nurturing to displaced children due to abuse, neglect, or dependency describe the task as difficult, traumatic, hard, and overwhelming – but also the “most rewarding.” Families in the trenches are careful not to romanticize foster parenting, pointing out that it requires more than just love.
“Many children come with trauma from their life experiences,” said Heather Sinden, who has fostered, along with her husband, Kevin, for two years. “That often leads to behavior issues. Some are worse than others.”
But Sinden is quick to point out: “There are so many highs to being a foster parent.”
Lohan explained, “There is no amount of training that can truly prepare you to foster a child. It’s not until you begin to walk this journey that you truly understand the impact it has on yourself and your family. It’s not just caring for a child in your home. You are caring for that child and everything and everyone that child brings with them.”
So far, Lohan has fostered roughly 20 children, from newborn to 16 years old. “I have experienced overwhelming joy at seeing a child grow, and develop, and learn to accept and receive affection and comfort.”
She has also felt powerless, exhausted, and besieged.
However, Messer said pluses typically outweigh minuses.
“Benefits for foster parents are numerous. Most importantly, foster parents make a real and positive difference in the lives of children and their families. The relationships you build with a foster child and/or their families can last a lifetime. Also, foster parents make a real difference to their community and this can have a ripple effect. Others may see what you are doing and be inspired to foster or help in other ways. Foster parents will have the opportunity to learn a lot and will have the support and friendships of other foster parents. Finally, if a foster parent is interested in adoption, fostering can sometimes provide a quicker route to adoption than other means.”
Even though John and Julie Adams’s first foster parenting experience was what they describe as “trial by fire,” they plan to continue taking placements. The couple was barely licensed when they received a call to foster a troubled teen. Julie’s first response was to say “no” because their own four birth children ranged in age from 3 to 8 and they wanted to foster children younger than their oldest. But they prayed about the situation and decided to offer their home. The teenager tested their resolve in many ways. “But it didn’t turn us off to fostering,” said John. “I think we were able to show her what healthy relationships can look like and we loved her.”
Added Julie, “It was an eye-opening, learning experience, but God called us to do it. We are called to be His hands and feet, and at the end of the day, it’s about showing love, forgiveness, and grace, and for foster children to see that example is huge. And we want to take more placements and encourage other foster parents. The sad thing is that there are so few foster families in this area.”
The Sindens know from experience just how great the need is in this area.
“It’s shocking at how many children are in foster care currently just in Macon County. We are licensed for four children in our home and we are currently at capacity. And all the foster families I know also have more than one or two foster children in their home and still occasionally receive calls to take another placement. We need all the foster families we can get in Macon County.”
Messer said the process of becoming foster parents requires 30 hours of training, which involves foster care specifics, CPR, first aid, etc., as well as background checks for criminal records and child abuse registries, personal references, health assessments, and home safety assessments. Foster parents must also have a bedroom with a bed, although a foster child can share a bedroom. Plus, there are a few other home-related stipulations such as furniture for keeping personal belongings and bathroom privacy – obvious needs. Licensing typically takes about six months.
“The greatest misconception about foster care is that foster parents are doing it for the money,” said Messer. “Foster parents do receive a monthly board rate to provide for the care of their foster child, but this money is for the care of the child and there is little-to-no extra. Fostering is a labor of love.”
Lohan can attest to the labor of love. Two brothers, ages 3 and 6, were placed into her home in 2015. She was able to adopt those boys on Sept. 7.
“I just want to shout it from the roof tops,” she said, adding, “I have faced incredible challenges as a foster parent, but for me I’m incredibly passionate about it and feel it’s a calling on my life. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever loved to do. I cannot, not foster.”
Messer said that before families consider fostering, they need to ask themselves important questions, such as:
– Do you have the time to take the child to appointments, visits with parents, meetings, and other activities?
– Are you able to work in partnership with others for the benefit of the child (with social workers, service providers, and birth families)?
– Do you have the support of your friends and/or family?
“Foster care works best when everyone is working in partnership, with the child’s best interest as the primary goal,” she said.
Even though fostering is temporary, there are opportunities to foster to adopt – in some cases. And, for families not ready to fully embrace foster parenting, there is a need for respite care, which means providing up to 72 hours of care if the child is in need before placement or if the foster families needs assistance because they are going out of town, for example.
“There have been so many success stories,” said Messer. “Sometimes a child is successfully returned to his/her family and sometimes a child is adopted by his/her foster family. Both are successes. The most rewarding experiences are when a child finds a permanent home, but maintains the positive connections that they have made along the way. For example, when a child returns to his/her family, but maintains positive relationships with the foster family. Or when an older child is adopted. Recently, a 14-year-old was adopted!”
Sinden shared that even though there are discouragements, such as the time it sometimes takes for a child’s situation to be resolved and knowing as a foster parent that her job does not entail championing for the child but just caring for him or her, the pros overshadow the cons.
“I would say to families considering fostering: Do it! … you won’t regret it. If you don’t do it, you will always have the what ifs. Fostering makes you look at life and the world in a whole different way. It changes the fiber of who you are. It’s something I will never regret doing.”
Messer said churches and businesses are “important partners” in the foster care equation in Macon County. Discover Church, for example, provides foster children Christmas gifts and school backpacks with supplies, as well as host foster parent meetings and provided child care when foster parents were in training. She said Watauga Church has also offered its facility as a place to hold monthly foster care support group meetings.
“There are many ways to help, and we are always open to ideas we haven’t thought of yet,” she said.
One help for foster families and children is to have supplies ready for when a foster family receives a new placement. Rachel Marshall was adopted at birth and has always felt that foster care and adoption “are very near and dear to my heart.” Even though she has not yet fostered, she did start a supply service at Discover Church. She has not only coordinated back-to-school supply drives and Christmas present projects, but keeps clothing, pajamas, formula, diapers, pillows, toiletries, and other items at the ready. At one point, she was able to provide some children with a hand-knotted fleece blanket for them to keep.
“I get called at all hours when a child or children have to be picked up and placed in a new home,” said Marshall. “I love helping in the capacity that I do.”
Lohan touts foster care involvement – in whatever way possible – as a way to give back to the community.
“If you have even the slightest desire to help children and families in your community, please consider becoming a foster parent. It’s not for the faint of heart and requires you to put aside any preconceived notions you have about the people who live and work around you. Not everyone is called to adopt or foster, but everyone can help in some form or fashion.”