Foster parenting, although known about by many, is pursued by few. Different from adoption, fostering provides children with a safe place until the birth family is able to care for the child again, if reunification is impossible or until an adoptive family is secured. Opening your home to a foster child is a noble pursuit.
On an average Wisconsin day, approximately 8,000 children are in foster care. There is a huge need for loving families, and unfortunately, the foster parents who are profiled by newspapers and television reporters are often the worst. But the truth is, there are terrific parents working with professionals to provide safe and loving environments to foster children. If you ever consider reaching out and becoming a foster parent, these parents are a wealth of information on the benefits of fostering.
In order to celebrate them, we’ve spoken with a few parents who work with the Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin (CSSW), an organization with a great reputation in our community.
Tina Kreitlow and Rebecca Neumann
Tina, an executive for the YMCA, and Rebecca, a professor at UW-Milwaukee, have been foster parents for two years. Both of them were pursuing individual foster care licenses when they began dating. But after six months, with their relationship growing long-term, they merged their individual applications into a joint application. Tina joined Rebecca’s application process, since Rebecca’s was closer to being finalized, and the CSSW was pleased to make the adjustment. As a same sex couple, Rebecca says, “We never felt judged. We found them to be flexible and understanding and they made sure all our questions were answered.”
Tina had always wanted to adopt and both women had researched local and international options for adoption. After studying the topic and talking with other adoptive parents, they recognized the need for loving foster families in Milwaukee and turned to the CSSW, a place where they could make a difference in a child’s life—and possibly adopt.
Their advice for prospective families is to approach the process with an open heart and mind. There are many possibilities, many children that need love—some will make you laugh and others will make you cry. “The process is not for everyone,” says Tina. “It can be an emotional roller coaster. But it is highly rewarding. And if we knew then what we know now, we would still do it all over again.”
“The goal as we understand it, as foster parents, is to be a bridge for a child when a family needs support and other interventions,” says Rebecca. Keeping that and realistic expectations in mind, has helped their family thrive.
A foster parent since 1997, Brenda has fostered close to 100 children. She currently does emergency placement, but has been a long-term foster mother in the past, and has adopted three of the children she was introduced to through the foster system. Two of her children are grown, one teenager is still at home and she continues to foster.
Before fostering, Brenda would visit nursing homes, and although she felt a connection with the elderly, she would only have an opportunity to talk and laugh with them for an hour or two at a time. She craved something more personal. This desire, to be active with the life of someone in need, led her to foster parenting.
“You have to get into foster care because you love children and love the structure of a family, because you love these children like your own,” says Brenda.
Yet she acknowledges the challenges of taking care of unknown children, some of which are from volatile environments. She says it is important to remember your love is necessary, even if there is a reunion with the parents. As a foster parent, she must make this transition as steady as possible for the child. Sometimes this relies on her establishing a relationship with the biological parents as well.
“You have to be the adult and understand that the children are in an unknown environment. Work with them. Let them know they are loved, whether they are with you for a day or a year,” says Brenda. “And you want to establish a good relationship with the parents if you can, because the foster program emphasizes reunification. Since I’m emergency placement, sometimes parents call to talk to their children. So I talk to them on the phone while the children are in my home. Give them security—security is key.”
As a Milwaukee Public School social worker and former employee of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, Kristin was familiar with the need for foster parents. After years of thinking about it, she realized there was never an ideal time and began the licensing process as a single individual.
“I think a lot of people think I became a foster parent because I wanted a child and was single, but it wasn’t that way for me. I really just wanted to give back to the Milwaukee community in some way and thought this might be a good fit. I like children and wanted life to have a bigger purpose,” says Kristin.
When Kristin speaks to people interested in fostering, she tells them it is both challenging and rewarding. There are case managers visiting the home, possibly a nurse to check on younger children, court meetings and the emotional heartache of a child leaving if a reunification is possible. Although she urges potential foster parents to consider these concerns, she is clear that her experience has proved the positives outweigh the negatives.
“Adults can learn a lot from the resiliency of foster children and their unconditional love,” says Kristin. “My little guy has taught me so much around those issues.”
Carl and Carlene Keys
While working in hospitals and nursing homes, Carlene began looking for an experience that was more personally rewarding and became interested in foster parenting. Her husband, Carl, supported her in the application process but felt she would be doing more of the child care since he was working full time.
Now, both Carl and Carlene are retired, and they are both full-time foster parents. More than 70 children have stayed in their home, some for a night, others for a year or more. Open to emergency placement, the Keys’ household is licensed for up to four foster children at a time.
“We love doing it. We see such a difference in the children. One of the foster children called me just the other day to tell me how much he appreciated us, and he’s 26 now. We keep in touch with the children we had long term, and it’s wonderful the big family we have now,” says Carlene.
As parents, grandparents and foster parents, the Keys have learned the importance of understanding the needs of the children. Some of their foster children are not accustomed to being in a loving environment. But with repetition and consistency, the Keys are able to provide a safe and nurturing home, where children can learn, no matter how long they stay. The Keys say the children relax when stories are read to them, and they listen closely to what the children tell them. Eventually, the children blossom.
Advice to prospective foster parents? Carl recommends taking classes and coming into the experience unbiased. “You can expect a lot of love, a lot of emotional reward,” he says. “The kids appreciate it, many of the biological parents appreciate it and you learn a lot about other people. It’s very rewarding.”
Emotionally moved by stories of foster children in troubled situations, Judy became a foster parent more than 20 years ago. She has been a mother to nearly 50 children.
“When we started fostering we had three biological children of our own and wanted to provide a safe place for kids who needed a place—we never intended to adopt,” says Judy.
Yet the DeVries family did adopt the first child who was placed in their home. After the adoption they began to foster pre-adoptive newborns, babies who needed to be cared for while adoptions were finalized. Judy’s children helped to care for the babies during these years, but eventually her heart was drawn back to older children in need. There was always help for newborns; older children have fewer options.
Judy planned to stop fostering when her oldest son, whom she adopted, graduated from high school. That was two years ago. She and her husband have continued to foster parent, typically one long-term placement child at a time. Judy works outside the home, too, carrying health insurance for the family through her job. She says if she could secure insurance another way, she would gladly bring more children into her home.
“As with anything you do, there are pros and cons, yet I maintain this is the most incredible thing we’ve ever done,” says Judy. “To make a difference in a child’s life is extremely rewarding.”
Maintaining a relationship with some of the children and their families has helped Judy see the rewards of her fostering.
“My husband and I have a picnic at our lake home every summer, and we invite our former foster kids and their families to come. So we get to see them. All the families have the common bond of foster care, and we get to talk about struggles and challenges,” says Judy. “And then I get to play with all the kids.”
A friend of the family helped Judy with babysitting her foster children. That friend ended up adopting two of the foster children from the DeVries’ home. Yet another example of the ripples of support and good endings foster care can provide.
"These are the children who will grow up and run our country. We need to give them stability, and let them know they are loved, wanted and worth the effort.” Says Judy, “I get more out of it than the kids do. It’s a lot of work, and a blessing.” •
The myths of foster parenting
Myth #1: You have to have a traditional family structure to be a foster parent.
Myth #2: Once you adopt, you don’t continue to foster.
Myth #3: Single people don’t foster.
Myth #4: Parents stop fostering when they’re retired.
Myth #5: Staying in touch with fostered children is impossible.
Myth #6: Fostering should lead to adoption.
The facts of foster parenting
Fact #1: A foster parent has to be 21 years old.
Fact #2: A foster parent has to possess sufficient verifiable sources of income. A foster parent can be employed full time, or part time, or be a stay-at-home parent.
Fact #3: A foster parent is invested in the future of our community’s children.
Fact #4: A foster parent can be living in a home or apartment with adequate space for a child.
Fact #5 Foster parents can be any race, or of a different race than the child.
Fact #6 Foster parents can be single, married or partnered.
If you have questions or are interested in being a foster parent, contact CSSW at (414) 453-1400 and speak to a recruitment team member.
This story originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.