Ashley Leck couldn’t have written the beautiful, messy story that led her five children to call her mom. Neither could she have orchestrated the closeness between siblings who may share similar backgrounds but don’t all share DNA. Her foster care journey began with some apprehension.
“I was very cautious in getting involved because of the unknown,” she said of becoming a foster mom. “I was scared about my ability to do it well and love appropriately.”
After prayer and consideration, the Lecks approached Youth & Family Services, Inc. of El Reno in 2010 as the organization was initiating its foster care program. YFS is a non-profit that has a variety of programs to serve the families and kids in the El Reno area. The Lecks became one of the first families YFS trained to care for foster children in need of stability and love.
Their first call for placement was a 6-year-old girl. A self-proclaimed planner, Leck was unsure whether she could say ‘yes’ to the unexpected development. A unique opportunity to meet with the child at the YFS emergency youth shelter changed her mind.
“I instantly fell in love and knew she was supposed to be in our home,” she said.
The Lecks adopted that little girl. They have since fostered 24 other kids and have adopted four additional children. Leck credits YFS for not just providing resources and training but also for developing an entire community of people on which her family can depend.
“They have been there when everything falls apart,” she said, “and they have loved us through it.”
Fostering a committed community
Youth & Family Services was formed in 1974 to provide emergency shelter for children and youth. The organization now comprises more than 10 programs serving Canadian, Blaine, Kingfisher and Oklahoma counties, including counseling, independent living for young adults, drug and alcohol education and a first-time offender program.
Along with several other organizations under the Oklahoma Association of Youth Services umbrella, YFS launched its foster care program in 2009 as a complement to other programs already in place, particularly its emergency shelter. OAYS operates 31 youth shelters through partner agencies across the state and those shelters were often where children were first placed upon removal from their homes. Similarly, when children were removed from a foster care placement due to a disruption, they were often put back in a shelter until a new placement could be found.
“Children in foster care are a part of the continuum of services that youth services agencies serve,” said Shawn Black, executive director of OAYS. “We decided to recruit foster care homes and provide services to foster care families in an effort to reduce and eliminate [placement] disruptions.”
Since launching its foster care program, YFS has served more than 200 foster children with 36 currently licensed foster homes in its communities. As of April 1, the organization has facilitated 20 adoptions. YFS staff is proud of their 95 percent success rate with foster placements.
“Once we accept placement of a child, we are generally able to keep them within our network of families so that they are connected to each other and lots of friendly faces,” said Dee Blose, YFS executive director.
That network of families has been instrumental to the Lecks, from providing long-term connections with other foster parents to trading respite care when they need a break. Once dependent on more seasoned foster parents for advice, Leck is now a mentor for other foster moms, cultivated by YFS to strengthen and empower its community of parents. Respite care is readily available to YFS foster families, as the organization requires potential foster parents who have been trained and approved to provide respite at least twice before accepting a placement of their own.
“We do require more of our foster parents,” said Melissa Larimore, YFS foster care director. “They must be certified volunteers through us, starting at our shelter and events. And then respite allows us to all test the waters, to know the type of placement that would be best for them.”
The opportunity to care for a child over a few days also shows potential foster parents how readily available the YFS team is when they have questions or concerns, building their confidence in the program. The Leck’s community was never more apparent than after they accepted placement of the boy who would become their third adopted child.
“Five days after placement he needed major surgery,” Leck said of the 3-year-old who was fully dependent on a feeding tube.
Ashley and her husband stayed with him in the hospital for six weeks after surgery, at least one of them at his side around the clock. They relied heavily on their YFS family to do their laundry, provide meals, maintain their home and babysit their other children.
“You have to be willing to let people in and be honest about your circumstances,” Leck says of fostering. “You are vulnerable and it’s humbling.”
Leck was willing to put herself in that position for the sake of her now-son, who had previously spent his life in a hospital or children’s center without a consistent caregiver.
“He had never had a parent,” said Leck. “He thought my name was ‘mom.’”
While accepting the placement of a child who needed so much medical attention was intimidating, the Lecks trusted the YFS team.
“They get to know their families so closely that they can say ‘this placement will work or this won’t,’” said Leck. “They hold your hand through all of it. You’re never left alone.”
That support includes attending court with their foster parents, going to Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) meetings, helping when kids are sick or on a break from school, intervening with schools and daycares when necessary, offering crisis counseling and providing material goods like diapers, clothing and car seats.
Because many children in foster care have the goal of reuniting with biological families, the YFS team also helps foster families bridge with, or develop safe relationships with, biological parents. Leck says while that process felt unnatural to her in the beginning, now she sees it as imperative for even her adopted kids to know where they came from.
“When they get older, they will have questions,” Leck said. “As their adoptive parent, it’s important for me to be the door they go through to facilitate those relationships, versus the wall they’ll go around someday to get there.”
Leck knows her kids’ biological families love them and want the best for them. She sends them photos regularly and says she’s even closer to her kids’ biological moms than they are.
“I want them know about the day-to-day parenting,” said Leck. “It’s still a joint effort because at some point they will go to them. I want to have established a relationship where they trust and respect me.”
Even more than the lessons on bridging with biological families, parenting trauma and working with OKDHS, Leck appreciates her YFS workers being a listening ear in both the good times and difficult. She can call any time of day or night, even now that her kids have all been adopted, and know someone will answer. Leck recalls Larimore being there for her on what she calls her “worst day.”
“I called her crying and she was there in 20 minutes,” Leck said. “She saved me and saved our fostering experience.”
Offering shelter from the storm
The warmth of the YFS family is palpable at the Donald W. Reynolds Caring Center, the organization’s emergency youth shelter in El Reno. Aptly named, staff is trained to care for children in times of great chaos.
“Our shelter is meant to be a very short-term experience, a time for the crisis to be stabilized,” said Blose.
While the word “shelter” often conjures cold, institutional imagery, the opposite is true of The Caring Center. Handmade quilts drape every bed, made with love by community members to immediately give children the sense that someone cares about them. Family-style tables encourage residents to dine together, a cozy fireplace and comfortable furniture give a homey feel and an inviting kitchen offers plenty of space for kids to cook or frost cookies together. Structured activities include outings and field trips and a beautiful backyard area, playground and Thunder Cares basketball court stand at the ready for fun. In addition to leisure and recreational activities, children have access to health screenings, crisis counseling, skills instruction and education. Staff is available to residents around the clock.
Opened in 2008, the shelter is small, housing up to 10 children at a time. Residents typically stay no more than 30 days. In 2015, The Caring Center served 145 children with an average age of 12. While OKDHS has closed its own shelters statewide in favor of placing more children in family environments, the organization can make use of shelters like The Caring Center as needed.
“We have not necessarily seen an increase in numbers of referrals,” said Blose of the state-run shelter closures, “but rather we have seen an increase in the level of care of some of the children and youth that are being referred by DHS. These are some of the children and youth that are most likely to be looked over for traditional foster care.”
As such, the uniqueness of an organization that operates both a shelter and a foster care program means those youth in the shelter can sometimes be placed with families faster, and it can also mean more secure long-term placements. Before the Pinnacle Plan was enacted or OKDHS contracted with private agencies for foster care placement, YFS was piloting its combination shelter and foster care program. After seeing kids leave the shelter and come back numerous times, the team knew something had to change.
“That is one great benefit to our complimentary foster care program,” said Blose, who recalls one teen who’d been in the shelter 17 times before their program began. “Sometimes we can actually match up children, youth and foster families in a very non-threatening way.”
For the Lecks, meeting their first daughter at The Caring Center allowed both parties an opportunity to get to know each other before committing to the placement. For foster parents Rick and Kristi Murphy, YFS’s unique, intentional approach to foster care placements is what piqued their interest in becoming foster parents in March 2012.
“They carefully match the needs of a child with a family that is equipped and willing to meet those needs,” said Kristi Murphy.
Leck knows how special the staff makes its residents feel because of the many happy memories her daughter has of living there.
“That was a traumatic time in her life and yet she really likes to go there,” she said. “She has great memories of being there. She talks a lot about someone who fixed her hair for her.”
Becoming forever family
Leck says her family’s dinner table often resembles a therapy session, with conversations about former foster families and biological families continuing long after the plates have been cleared. She’s learned that being honest about her own feelings with her kids opens the door for them to share, too, and to learn to trust her. At the end of the day, the message she and Jason want to convey to their five adopted children is that they love them for who they are, no matter what.
“Yes, there are hard days,” said Leck. “But my kids are worth the hard days.”
For Leck and Murphy alike, those hard days have been tempered by an agency that ensures its foster families never feel alone in what can be a very daunting process.
“[YFS has] encouraged us through some difficult teen behavior, believed in our parenting skills and trusted us to make appropriate decisions about the teens living with us,” said Murphy.
That support means Kristi and Rick have been able to continue growing their ‘forever family,’ with the promise of many holidays, job promotions, college graduations, weddings, babies and birthdays to be celebrated with their former foster kids in the years to come.
“We worry about them, cry both happy and sad tears with them, and [just] do life with them,” said Kristi of the kids who have left her home, but not her heart. “But most of all [we are] proud of them as we see them succeed in both the small things and the big things.”