Tabitha Jones assumed guardianship of her niece and nephew in 2013, becoming a single parent nearly overnight. Jordan and Jentry, ages 4 and 5 at the time, moved from Texas to live with Jones while she and the children’s biological parents, along with an attorney, completed the necessary steps for Jones to become their guardian. Two years later, Jones has a vastly different life and is especially grateful for the help she’s received from countless individuals and organizations along the way.
“It truly does take a village,” Jones said. “Without the support of my family and friends, this would not have been possible. Everybody in my life has gone above and beyond in providing me and the children with support and love.”
For traditional foster parents and even adoptive parents, a typical fear is traveling this difficult, emotional journey alone. But many find the opposite is true.
“As a single mom with no family in the state, a support system was especially critical for me,” said April Adams, who has fostered and adopted through Sunbeam Family Services. “Sunbeam has a person on-call 24/7, which is truly a blessing. When I was new to fostering, I could call and feel supported in any of my panicky moments. Having that lifeline is invaluable.”
Jones has relied on the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) for its guardianship placement services, made use of private counseling services for her niece and nephew and also credits her employer for supporting her and being understanding about the changes in her life. Jones and Adams admit they were both scared and unsure at the beginning of their journeys, and that fear still surfaces occasionally. Jones remembers she and the kids both crying at the dinner table the first night at her home.
“I was scared to death,” said Jones, who also recalls being especially anxious about dropping her niece off for her first day of school. “I broke down sobbing in the front office, and then again when I got to work.”
But Jones and Adams have learned that any form of parenting comes with fear and insecurities, which are assuaged by a community ready and willing to help.
“You will enter it feeling alone and thinking you are ‘the only crazy person’ you know,” Adams said of becoming a foster parent. “However, after being immersed in this community for four years, I’ve almost forgotten there are people not involved in foster care! The resources out there are amazing, and the support is there. It’s very easy to get connected to great fostering communities once you take that step.”
Material goods help ease financial burdens
While a toothbrush and change of clothing don’t seem like much, to a foster child with nothing to his or her name and a foster parent taking in a child within an hour of receiving a placement call, it can be everything. When children are removed from their homes, they often leave most belongings behind. Going to a new home, learning that home’s rules and schedule and relying on unknown people to care for them are difficult changes for foster children, especially without anything to call their own.
Citizens Caring for Children is a nonprofit that supports foster families by providing material goods and emotional support. Each year, the organization meets the needs of more than 4,000 foster children in Central Oklahoma through its Resource Center, back-to-school program, Joy 4 Kids holiday gifts and mentoring services.
“Children in foster care experience a lot of turmoil in their young lives, and while it may not seem like a lot to provide material goods to these children, we believe that the more self-confidence we can help instill for the children, the better chance of success they have in school and in life,” said Lauren Barnes, director of operations for Citizens Caring for Children. “The stipend that foster parents receive from the state is far from covering all of a child’s expenses, so we try to help bridge that gap.”
The stipend foster parents receive through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services ranges from $506.40 to $646.20 per child, depending on the child’s age. The Citizens Caring for Children Resource Center had more than 2,700 visits in 2014, and each child can visit four times per year. Items are new and range from necessities like toiletries and clothing to popular children’s items like a stuffed animal and coloring books.
“We have had children ask why the shoes have plastic bags in the box because they have never seen new shoes before,” Barnes said. “Other children are so excited for their new clothes that they wear them out. The foster parents are always excited to receive the help, and many wonder how they went so long without knowing about our services.”
Similarly, Circle of Care, a nonprofit that places foster children and assists children and families in crisis, offers co-ops, where there is no limit on the items of clothing a foster child can receive. Through partnerships with various churches and United Way of Central Oklahoma, Circle of Care can provide material goods like car seats (properly fitted by trained volunteers) and cribs. The organization also reimburses $250 per year, per child to its foster families to cover expenses for typical childhood experiences, like a zoo pass, museum memberships or camp fees. Welcome baskets are delivered to each Circle of Care foster family when a child is placed in the home, including an outfit, blanket, photo album, toys and a toothbrush for the child.
“We want them to feel safe and welcome right away,” said Mike Slack, vice president of development for Circle of Care. “I had three baby showers when my son was born. There’s no time for showers with foster kids.”
Local foster mom Wisper Ruder, a former foster child herself, has a total of seven children in her home, and knows first-hand expenses can be astronomical. Consider buying back-to-school supplies and clothes for four or five kids all at once. She and her husband now make use of Circle of Care’s co-op, back-to-school supplies and Christmas wish list fulfillments, easing their financial burdens considerably and allowing them to continue providing critical, loving support to the children in their home.
Therapy and support groups offer healing
In conjunction with the fear of tackling foster care alone is foster parents’ typical worry that they won’t be able to handle their foster children’s traumatic backgrounds, and the emotional outbursts and challenging behavior that can come with it.
Already familiar with her niece and nephew’s living situation and behaviors before she became their guardian, Jones knew counseling was imperative to help them heal. The kids began counseling as soon as they came to live with her and she’s seen firsthand the impact it’s made.
Before they are officially certified and children are placed in their home, foster parents working with Lilyfield Christian and Adoption Services receive extensive training on the impacts of trauma and how to help foster children heal. The trauma all foster children have experienced, whether due to neglect, abuse, multiple placements or simply being removed from the only home and parents they have ever known, affects their very brain chemistry and potentially their ability to develop empathy, trust and conscience.
“A traumatic experience is one in which we feel profoundly and deeply unsafe, so much so that even after the frightening experience is over, we may still experience feelings of fear or anxiety,” said Mireille Mistkowski, manager of marketing communication and development for NorthCare, a community mental health center offering counseling and therapy services. “Children in foster care may have also experienced changes in homes and caregivers. Not only is this kind of disruption traumatic, but it can also influence the way that children attach to their new caregivers and other adults in their life.”
Lilyfield, along with other foster care placement and adoption agencies in the state, use the evidence-based, trauma-focused Trust Based Relation Intervention (TBRI) approach, which specifically addresses issues for children having difficulty bonding with their family. Foster children often have emotional or behavioral issues related to their past trauma, and the TBRI method facilitates a process of trust and communication, which directly addresses their attachment issues. According to therapists at NorthCare, it’s imperative that foster parents employ empathy and imagination to better understand why their foster children behave the way they do.
“To imagine what it would be like for an older sibling to feed their younger brothers and sisters is an important step to understanding why this child might hoard food under her bed,” Mistkowski said, “even in a house with a fully-stocked fridge and pantry.”
In addition to directly helping foster children heal from the trauma they have undergone, many therapy programs include family and individual counseling for foster parents, equipping them with new parenting strategies for children who have experienced trauma and a deeper understanding of their children.
“We often work individually with a child and incorporate the parents into the therapy process,” said Lisa Hopkins, marketing and development coordinator for Lilyfield. “We educate the parents on common issues that arise for foster and adoptive parents. We know the challenges that face foster families are complex and that families need continued training and support as they parent the children they welcome into their home.”
Lilyfield and NorthCare’s individual and counseling services are available for any individuals or families who need them. Both Lilyfield and Sunbeam Family Services provide free childcare during monthly support groups and training, which Adams knows is key.
“I know many foster parents who have a difficult time meeting their continuing education requirements because many trainings lack child care,” Adams said. “Child care can be tricky for foster parents.”
Support groups and training cover a variety of topics, including attachment, trust, effective communication, safety and parenting styles. Foster parents often find a great deal of comfort in these support groups and ongoing training.
“I typically attend trainings at Sunbeam even if I am not in need of hours because I value the time I am able to spend with other foster parents,” said Adams, who also stays connected with foster parents through Facebook groups and physical support groups. “It’s so great to know that you can go to a group of people and ask for last minute items that you need for the placement you just were informed you will be getting, or just have other people who truly understand the journey you are on. I need that foster parent community like I need oxygen!”
Sunbeam, Lilyfield and Circle of Care all host parties throughout the year to help foster families celebrate the holidays, special events and each other.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to just feel the love and support of the community,” Adams said.
Caring adults help mend young hearts
Many foster children don’t know what a stable relationship with a responsible adult looks like. When they are welcomed into a loving foster home that offers consistency and compassion, they begin to understand how relationships should function. Beyond foster parents, it’s important that foster children learn to develop trust in other reliable adults. And it’s critical that foster parents get a break from the physical, emotional and mental demands on their lives.
Jones’ sister and brother-in-law are regular caregivers for their niece and nephew, helping her navigate her work schedule and giving her some time off when she needs it. According to Slack, it’s imperative that foster parents find and declare these alternative caregivers. At Circle of Care, while alternative caregivers aren’t fully trained as foster parents, they do undergo a tentative home study and initial review. Alternative caregivers can also quickly take a child in an emergency, like an illness or death in the family.
“Foster parents need to have a day to clean house, unwind or take a weekend away,” said Slack. “At Circle of Care, we even pay the alternative caregivers so they can take the child out to eat and take care of any other expenses of having the child in their home.”
DHS and foster placement agencies also train and offer respite caregivers. Respite care can last for up to two weeks, and can also be used when families need a break or have an emergency.
Becoming an alternative or respite caregiver can be a more realistic alternative for individuals or families who aren’t able to commit to full-time foster care.
“Although our preference is to have families who want to care for a child for as long as that child needs it, we also need families who are willing to assist and support foster families,” said Tricia Howell, bridge deputy director for OKDHS. “Many families who are interested have asked to just do respite so they can determine if they can make the commitment necessary to provide foster care.”
Ruder and her husband make use of Circle of Care’s regular Foster Parents Nights Out, held at local churches. Parents receive free child care for several hours for all children in the home.
Foster children can also develop positive, long-term relationships with trained adults through mentorship programs, like the one offered by Citizens Caring for Children. Children and mentors are matched for at least one year, with meetings of eight hours per month. Mentors take their mentees to movies, the park, restaurants, adventure and amusement parks, or simply sit and talk.
“Through the consistency and support of a mentor, we strive to keep the foster children in school and motivate them to be productive members of society, either through higher education or work,” said Barnes. “The relationship built between mentor and mentee is a bond that can last for years. We have several mentors who are no longer officially matched, but they still talk to their mentee regularly and support them as much as they can.”
Mentors must be at least 21 years of age, commit to at least one year of volunteering with the program, complete an application, interview and background check and attend training sessions.
Taking the leap of faith
While OKDHS is the agency ultimately responsible for keeping children in our state safe from abuse and neglect, it cannot meet those needs without the assistance of families throughout Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma families have always been willing to step up and care for children who, for reasons outside of their control, come into the foster care system,” said Howell. “Currently we do not have enough families to care for the many children in care and need more than ever for Oklahomans to step up to the challenge and take care of our own.”
For Jones and Adams alike, their fears about their abilities as guardians and foster parents have been alleviated by the people, resources and support systems at their fingertips. Challenges remain, but they know they can conquer them with the help of their respective villages.
“The biggest challenge is just the unknown,” Adams said. “Foster care cases do not come with clear endings. Having a child in your home that you care for daily and love so deeply with absolutely no idea what their future holds can be exhausting and emotionally draining.”
For a person who doesn’t like anticipation, and admits to seeking out TV show spoilers and reading the end of a book first, Adams has found the highlights and successes far outweigh her fears.
“Adopting my boys and being able to establish a peaceful and ongoing relationship with the biological family has been a blessing for everyone,” Adams said. “Bridging with the family of another child and witnessing their successful reunification was rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined. It has taught me so much about people from different walks of life that I never would have experienced and learned without this journey. My compassion has grown in ways that it never could have otherwise.”
For Jones, success means more laughing than crying and spending quality time as a family, doing normal things like snuggling on the couch watching a movie.
“The best feeling by far, though, was hearing them tell me they love me without me saying it first,” said Jones. “I felt like I was finally making a difference and there was finally some healthy attachments formed.”
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about becoming a foster parent and find volunteer opportunities to support foster children, visit www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.]