Tracy Johnson’s plate was already full when she began fostering more than two years ago. A single mom of a 10-year-old son and speech pathologist for Edmond Public Schools, Johnson requested placement of one foster child at a time. She received her first placement call for an 11-month-old and his newborn brother. Though it wasn’t what Johnson was expecting, she didn’t hesitate in saying yes. She cared for the sibling set for five months before they were moved to an adoptive home.
“When they left, I said I’m only doing one next time!” said Johnson.
As luck would have it, she was placed with a little boy whose biological mom was expecting. When asked if she would take the baby when she was born, she agreed wholeheartedly.
“I have seen a bond with siblings that I can’t imagine if they were split,” said Johnson. “The 20-month-old takes care of his sister. He hears her cry before I will. If I get four more calls [for siblings] I can’t imagine ever splitting them.”
Keith Howard, president and CEO of Circle of Care, the placement agency through which Johnson fosters, says while the agency does its best to place children within foster families’ parameters, Circle of Care’s foster parent training exposes them to the realities of siblings in foster care. According to the agency, a sibling group of three has only a 65 percent chance of staying together, while a group of five has a 0 percent chance, primarily because most foster families simply don’t have the necessary space or vehicles.
Howard, himself a foster and adoptive father, says like Johnson, he realized through his own journey the importance of supporting sibling relationships in foster care whenever possible.
“That sibling relationship will be the longest relationship in their lives,” said Howard. “They shouldn’t suffer the consequences of that relationship being broken because the system can’t keep them together.”
Circle of Care ascribes to a report by the 2002 National Youth Leadership Advisory team position paper that describes the experience of foster siblings placed in separate homes as “extra punishment and a separate loss.” Like Johnson, Howard has witnessed the benefits of his kids healing together.
“They can openly talk about past experiences together and keep those memories alive,” said Howard. “Negative and positive, as siblings, they understand and relate to all those things. If we just had one, they wouldn’t have as many opportunities to process or might not feel as comfortable.”
Johnson’s unique foster care journey means she’s taken home two newborns straight from the hospital, spending about two years waking up in the night with babies. Johnson always wanted more kids, but after her divorce from son Cooper’s dad, she wasn’t sure that could become reality. Her sister, who has also fostered, inspired Johnson to take the leap of faith.
“I have a heart for kids; I work with them every day,” said Johnson. “But I needed to be convinced I could do this as a single and working mom.
Howard says while the “norms” of society can get in the way of parents like Johnson believing in their abilities, some of the best foster parents he’s worked with in his career have been single moms.
“You can’t let society dictate that for you,” said Howard. “We make sure those families have a strong support network and identify the resources they need.”
Johnson also wondered how Cooper would react. The mother-son duo made the decision together to foster. Described by his mom as mature and responsible, Johnson says Cooper has taken in their foster children like siblings and is very helpful in caring for the babies.
“It’s been beneficial for him to learn about helping others and realizing people don’t have everything we have,” said Johnson. “This has made us stronger in some ways, and in others he’s been able to realize it’s not all about him.”
She appreciates that Circle of Care holiday parties and events include biological and adopted children like Cooper.
“We create inclusiveness because fostering is just as much a part of their story as anyone,” said Howard, who ensures biological and adoptive children have been included in the family’s decision to foster before parents even begin training.
Circle of Care helps its foster parents understand how biological children may react when foster children are introduced to the home, including working through the emotions of getting less attention, understanding what foster children have been through and explaining differing expectations in the household. Howard encourages parents to make one-on-one time with biological and adoptive kids and to allow those children to help foster children acclimate to the home. Though difficult behavior and feelings of unfairness are normal, Howard stresses that children are resilient and will bounce back.
“Instead of saying the journey is negatively affecting a child, you have to step back and determine how to help a kid walk through that journey,” said Howard.
Though Johnson admits fostering can be stressful, she has never regretted her decision. A self-proclaimed “planner,” it’s been a struggle for Johnson to let go of some control and her desire to know all the answers. The hardest part for her, though, has been witnessing how trauma impacts children, a reality even for newborn babies removed from biological mothers.
“I just pray for their parents to make the changes needed, and that’s hard because sometimes they don’t,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
She loves seeing her foster children grow, develop and enjoy opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them, her enjoyment of the strong bond with her current foster children’s biological family came as a bit of a surprise.
“I worry about [mom] just as much as I do the kids,” said Johnson. “I’m hoping she’s OK and doing the right thing.”
Circle of Care humanizes biological parents during foster parent training, explaining many are simply parenting the way they were parented.
“They don’t have the support system many of us do,” said Howard. “They are hurting, broken humans, and as many poor choices as they’ve made, they still love their kids.”
Case managers assist foster parents in setting appropriate boundaries with biological parents, empowering them to become the support system those parents lack. When reunifications happen, that healthy bond can translate to ongoing success for a biological family.
Small gestures make a big impact
As Johnson serves as a support system for her foster kids’ biological mom, she also relies on her own support team. Her mother and sister have been crucial to her journey, but she also receives emotional and financial support from Circle of Care. Volunteer families provide respite care, and volunteers are available to care for children during monthly support group meetings. Caseworkers bring welcome baskets to new placements, a co-op offers basic necessities and an annual back-to-school drive outfits all children in the home. Johnson says sometimes the smallest gestures mean the most.
“Anything small, like a meal or gift card, is greatly appreciated,” said Johnson. “And an encouraging word makes a huge difference.”
Those seemingly insignificant recognitions of the big work she is doing every day bolster her resolve and faith in herself to continue.
“You can’t be perfect, but you can enjoy every day,” said Johnson. “Enjoy the challenges because it makes you realize how good the good days are.”
Generously sponsored by Kimray, this is part one of a series that will provide stories of OKC foster families. Find more information about the foster care system and how to become a foster parent at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.