Frank Alberson was abused by his parents until age 6. A failed adoption was followed by bouncing from foster care placement to placement until age 18. After taking a landscaping job at Anderson University in Indiana, Alberson dreamed of earning a college degree. With no family and no support, he accumulated enough grants and loans to attend Anderson University. Alberson met a friend in his dorm who took him home for the holidays, knowing he had no family with whom to celebrate. That friend’s family eventually adopted Alberson at the age of 18. Alberson is now the executive director of White Fields, a home for abused and neglected boys whose parental rights have been terminated. Located in Piedmont, the sprawling campus offers structure, stability, therapeutic care and family to boys who’ve experienced multiple failed foster care placements, as many as 30 in the two years before they come to White Fields. These children literally have no place else to go. With graduated levels of care on one campus, Alberson and his team help their boys heal, find a sense of belonging in an onsite foster home and prepare them for adulthood.
Takeisa Sims was placed in kinship foster care as a newborn. Addicted to drugs, her biological mom asked a cousin to care for Sims until she could get her life together. Though reunification was in the plans for Sims early on, her foster mom eventually became her legal guardian, her only foster placement and her permanent family. When Sims says the word “mom,” she’s referring to her foster mom: “She raised me; she’s my mom.” Even so, throughout childhood and now into adulthood, Sims continued to have a relationship with her biological mom and siblings, thanks, she says, to her foster mom’s support. Now pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Oklahoma so she can help other children in foster care, she firmly believes her biological mom deserves credit for the woman she is today, too: “I thank my mom for the selfless act of giving me up. I know she’s had problems and done things she regrets, but I also know she’s always loved us.”
Alberson and Sims represent the vastly different experiences of the more than 9,500 children in out-of-home care in the state of Oklahoma. Like Sims, some are in state custody as a result of parents facing difficult situations, battling substance abuse, living in poverty or not having the skills or resources to parent successfully. Like Alberson, others have suffered abuse. Some can be safely reunited with their biological parents after a time in foster care. Others will need a new forever home. Regardless of their final destination, children in state custody need respite in the form of a secure, loving foster family.
“I believe that if someone has an ability to help a child in need, they also have a responsibility to help them,” said foster mom Carrie Tanner. “We need more people to take responsibility and step up to help these kids.”
Fear of the unknown
Sunbeam Family Services, an Oklahoma City non-profit serving vulnerable children, seniors and families through services like foster care, recently conducted a focus group of current, former and potential foster parents. All agreed that the greatest fear associated with becoming a foster parent is that of the unknown. But those who had fostered children agreed that the benefits outweigh the challenges.
“You’re helping heal and reunite families,” said Erin Engelke, chief external relations officer for Sunbeam. “Foster parents are serving as a bridge and building toward something much greater.”
The words “foster care” often have negative connotations in our society: disturbing news stories, abused children, criminal parents. But current and former foster kids like Sims want the public to know that despite the myths and stereotypes about them, they are just children, who desperately need someone to love and invest in them.
“My mom didn’t know what she was doing at first,” said Sims, whose foster mom also fostered Sims’ biological brothers, along with several other non-relative children. “But she treated us like she’d have us forever, even though she didn’t know how long we’d stay. If you give a foster child that love, like any child, you can make a tremendous difference.”
Dispelling the myths of foster care
One barrier that keeps many from becoming foster parents is fear of the unknown. To give a realistic look at what to expect when becoming a foster family, here are some answers to common foster care questions.
Click through to the next page to see us answer common myths about foster care.
1. Foster kids are bad, damaged or have done something wrong to be placed in foster care.
Children are placed in foster care through no fault of their own. Approximately 70 percent of foster children in Oklahoma need care as a result of neglect, which typically results from biological parents who don’t have the resources or skills to parent. Neglect can stem from poverty, mental illness, substance abuse or the cyclical nature of the system, which shows parents who have been in foster care are more likely to have children in foster care.
Around 28 percent of children in foster care have experienced physical abuse, and 3 to 5 percent have been sexually abused. It is true that all foster children have all experienced some level of trauma, which can result from being taken from their homes or moved to multiple placements.
“That’s what much of being a foster parent is,” said Jennifer Brown, child welfare program supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, “learning to parent a child who’s been through trauma.”
While potential foster parents often worry they’ll have no say over the age, needs and background of children placed in their home, the opposite is usually true.
“We encourage our families to learn and communicate to us what age, needs and background of child that their family would best care for,” said Natalie Houtz, independent living coordinator & foster care specialist for Lilyfield Christian Adoption and Foster Care, a non-profit foster care and adoption placement agency in Oklahoma City.
Angels Foster Family Network, a non-profit foster care placement agency in Edmond, helps match parents to the best foster child for them by requiring potential foster parents to take a personality test. The results help Angels determine if parents have the personality, mental stability and patience to handle the challenges that come with fostering a child. Much thought and care is given to those children who have suffered abuse at the hands of their biological families.
“Children who have been severely abused are evaluated before placement and put into a home that accepts their needs and therapy plans,” said Jennifer Abney, executive director of Angels. “Those children who suffered from sexual abuse are thoughtfully placed in a home with older children, or no children. They receive specific therapy to help them recover.”
On the next page: how will my biological kids be impacted by foster care?
2. Foster kids will be a bad influence on my biological or adopted kids, or harm my family in some way.
This myth also stems from the misconception that the majority of foster children have been abused, and will in turn abuse others. While foster children are likely to act out and need specific care and therapy to work through what they have endured, it’s unlikely they will cause harm to a family. The majority of issues foster parents encounter with foster children are not unlike the challenges any parent faces.
“Foster care brings an immense amount of change to any family; however, its impact often has as many positive effects as potential negative effects on a family’s biological children,” said Houtz. “Foster care allows biological children to see firsthand that all families are different and that can be a good thing, even though it is often difficult to navigate.”
Encouraging biological and adopted children to participate in foster care training, and teaching them how to communicate any concerning behaviors by foster children is vital for potential foster parents. After placement, parents should communicate regularly with biological and adopted children about how they feel, behaviors they’ve witnessed and concerns they have. Ongoing training and counseling for the entire family is also key to long-term success. At White Fields, the staff has the benefit of evaluating and working with their boys over an extended period of time. It’s a given that biological and adopted children will be exposed to situations they may not have otherwise. Engelke, whose family fostered children when she and her sister were young, said being part of a foster family enriched her own life growing up. She learned to focus less on herself and more on the needs of others.
On the next page: will I have support?
3. I’m not equipped to be a foster parent, and I’ll have no support.
For foster placement agencies like Angels, Sunbeam and Lilyfield, support doesn’t end when the training is complete and a child has been placed with a family. Agencies serve as liaisons between OKDHS and their foster families, and they each offer ongoing training and learning opportunities, individual and family counseling and support groups for parents, children in the home and foster children. Lilyfield even provides meals during the first few days following a new placement. Angels parents have 24/7 access to their social workers, who make regular visits to their foster families and attend all parent visitations and court dates. Foster mother Carrie Tanner credits Angels as the reason she’s still fostering.
“There were times when we were ready to give up because it can be so stressful and heartbreaking,” Tanner said, “but they have given us so much support and we have never been alone to do this ourselves.”
Evidence of the tight-knit bond among the Oklahoma foster care community, Angels offers two unique programs to any child in foster care and their foster parents. Angels’ HALO therapy program helps foster children, and their foster parents and siblings, understand and deal with reactive attachment disorder. Therapists work with the foster children on attachment and bonding activities, while parents separately receive training to help their foster children learn to trust them. Angels’ new daycare facility will open this fall in response to many foster families’ challenge to secure daycare on extremely short notice for children placed in their homes.
Organizations like OK Foster Wishes exist solely to provide support to foster children and foster families, with gifts for Christmas and graduation and parties to any child in Oklahoma foster care. Citizens Caring for Children hosts an annual back-to-school drive for children in foster care, with clothing and backpacks full of school supplies. Church of the Harvest in Oklahoma City hosts an annual camp for foster children and the church also hosts Foster Parents’ Nights Out, where foster, adopted and biological children can be dropped off for the evening. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Oklahoma County provides trained court appointed volunteers to help advocate for the best interests of individual foster children in the court system.
Support even extends to social media. Lana Freeman, recruiter/trainer for St. Francis Community Services, a non-profit foster and adoption placement agency, created and manages the Foster Care and Adoptive Association of Oklahoma Facebook page, where current and potential foster families can ask questions, celebrate successes and discuss challenges.
On the next page: what about adoption?
4. Foster care will lead to adoption.
“The purpose of foster care is first and foremost the restoration of the biological family,” said Houtz. “A foster family’s role is to provide a safe and nurturing home to a child while connecting to the biological family in ways that are safe, healthy and help the biological family improve their ability to care for their children.”
As of June 2015, 47 percent of foster children in Oklahoma County have a plan to be reunited with their biological parents. Foster moms Whitney Hollingsworth and Joyce Estes both have adopted children they have fostered, and they have also experienced great joy in mentoring biological parents who can eventually be reunited with their children.
The Estes’ family’s first placement, two girls under age 2, required Estes to communicate directly with their biological parents since the girls couldn’t. After talking on the phone a few times and meeting them in court, Estes realized how much they loved their children.
“They worked so hard,” said Estes. “The court said ‘jump,’ and they jumped. I was very touched that they wanted to do anything they could, that it was not acceptable to them for their kids to be gone. And they were touched that I was caring for their girls and for them. We developed a good partnership.”
Now successfully reunited with their parents for three years, the girls have a new sister. Estes talks to the mom nearly every day, babysits all three girls occasionally and calls them “extended family.”
When reunification isn’t possible, adoption by a loving family is the next best option. While Hollingsworth and her husband fostered a baby with medical needs, they stayed in close contact with the biological mom, who was struggling with sobriety. When the mom decided she couldn’t parent the child, she asked Hollingsworth if she’d consider adopting her. The adoption was recently finalized, but Hollingsworth is committed to helping her keep a relationship with her biological mom, now incarcerated. She writes letters, sends photos and plans to visit soon.
On the next page: do biological parents deserve to get their kids back?
5. Biological parents have failed their children, and they don’t deserve to get their kids back.
“Most birth parents who have their children taken away are stuck in a situation where they just need help,” said Tanner. “A birth parent has to choose to work a plan to get their children back. That work is hard, but parenting isn’t meant to be easy.”
Brown works with families who’ve been referred to and investigated by OKDHS, both those who’ve had children removed and those who’ve been deemed safe to keep their children in the home. Brown reiterates that many of these families have no access to parenting resources, and their work with OKDHS is sometimes the first they’ve had help understanding how to parent safely and successfully.
“We use an evidence-based model to help them improve their parenting skills, help them understand how to discipline their children, even really basic things like keeping their house clean,” said Brown.
Estes, who initially fostered to adopt, has become an advocate for reunification, and now realizes that foster parents help more than just the child—they help the whole family.
“All kinds of things happen to people to get them where they are, it’s not just one thing,” said Estes. “They’re not out to mess up their kids’ lives, but sometimes things get out of control. We’ve all been in hard places. You can be their best chance from breaking the cycle and getting out of bad decisions.”
Though Hollingsworth admits frustration with biological parents, she also said her heart breaks for them, recalling one mom she’s mentored.
“If she had what she needed to take care of her children, she would have done it,” she said. “But suffering through domestic violence, living in shelters and hotels … she didn’t want any of that to happen to her. At the end of the day, she loves her children and wants the best for them.”
On the next page: how can I handle the heartbreak of reunification with the biological family?
6. It will break my heart to give a foster child back.
“This is most certainly always true,” said Abney. “It is the role of all foster parents to love a foster child unconditionally and not to foster to fill a personal need. However, these children belong to someone else. Until the court makes a decision to terminate parental rights, these children need to feel like you are supporting them in every way, which means helping them get back home.”
Hollingsworth, like many foster parents who develop positive relationships with biological parents, still sees several of her former foster children. One recently went on vacation with her husband. Another stayed with her family for several weeks while his parents went through a separation and needed time and space to figure things out.
Estes explains to friends and family that worrying about the heartbreak associated with parting with foster children means you will be able to love them enough to give them a great home, however long that may last.
“Although it is incredibly painful to love a child, then have them leave your home, that child’s need for a loving, nurturing home is far greater than any grief or loss we might experience,” said Houtz. “As a foster family builds a relationship with a biological family, often the foster family can become a support and mentor to that biological family, allowing them to maintain connection with a child after they return to their biological family.”
Be the One
“I could never do what you do.” “My lifestyle wouldn’t accommodate foster children.” “I’m afraid.” “Someone else will take care of those kids.”
These are words foster parents hear regularly. Foster parents are often placed on pedestals as martyrs, fighting the good fight while the rest of us applaud them from afar. It’s true that foster parenting isn’t for everyone, but there are countless opportunities to directly play a supportive role in the life of a foster child or foster family.
White Fields is seeking foster families to live on their campus, but they’re also seeking community members to serve as mentors and tutors to their boys. Angels Foster Family Network needs volunteers to rock and play with and tutor foster children in their new daycare. Lilyfield Christian Adoption and Foster Care needs volunteers to provide child care for monthly support groups, mentor teens in foster care, host a foster child for the holidays, and mentor and support women who have aged out of foster care and are attending college. Sunbeam Family Services needs volunteers to provide child care while foster parents receive training. All the agencies are seeking families and individuals to provide respite, or short-term, care for foster children.
“As a foster parent, you go through so many emotions … anger, loss, frustration, happiness, sadness, joy and hope,” said Tanner. “But eventually you hit a point where you realize that your feelings and emotions are not what this is about. It's about saving children who need us, and whatever they are going through, whatever they need, it’s just more important than everything else … even you. Until enough people figure that out, Oklahoma is going to remain in a foster care crisis. It's not enough to pray that these kids will find someone. You have to be that someone.”
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about becoming a foster parent or find volunteer opportunities to support foster children, visit www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.]
Illustrations by Brittany Viklund