By CASEY CHAFFIN
Jessica Ratliff had five kids in her home: four of her own, and one foster baby. Then a Department of Human Services (DHS) worker called: Can you take a foster sibling set, two kids under the age of two?
“How many people have you called?” Ratliff asked.
Twenty-four people. Ratliff was the twenty-fifth.
Ratliff said yes, for the meantime.
“When you tell me you’ve called 24 other homes, I can do it, but I can’t do it for long,” she said. Foster families often have to provide short-term care while DHS workers find suitable long-term placements, often outside of Marion County. Ideally, there would be open foster homes available for immediate long-term care, but that’s just not the case. There are too few foster families and too many kids in foster care.
Foster parents usually show up in the news for the wrong reasons: abuse, mismanagement of the foster stipend, and so forth. But the cameras don’t show up to document the foster parents working hard and doing the best they can for the kids that come into their care.
“I think because there’s such negativity in the press around foster care lately that no one wants to go get involved with it. When all you see in the headlines around it are scandals and abuse, people don’t want to sign up and do that,” Ratliff said. But that’s not the mindset the community needs.
“If people don’t like what they see on TV about foster homes, they need to step up and be the good foster homes. We just need people to step into that role and give these little children what they need,” she said.
Ratliff and her husband opened up their home to foster youth just under four years ago and have generally fostered kids under the age of four. They’ve taken in about eight long-term placements and many more short-term placements over that time.
“It’s the hardest, best thing we’ve ever done,” she said.
But foster parenting isn’t a task to be taken on lightly. Foster parents need to have a love of children, but they also need more than that—a willingness to stay with a child even when the going gets tough.
Shane and Malia Witham have fostered 24 kids over a period of six and half years. Malia and Shane also have three of their own “forever” children in the home, in addition to the children they foster. But they don’t usually make this distinction when they have a foster child in the home: “We’re not babysitters, we’re parents,” Shane said.
Foster parenting is a task that requires the involvement of one’s entire community—not just those acting as foster parents, but also their own kids, their extended families, their circle of friends.
“It’s a family affair, it is not just my husband and I, because it changes the entire dynamic of our home,” said Malia.
Incorporating foster kids into the dynamic of one’s home requires acceptance of the children as they are, not as one would like them to be. This requires adjusting one’s expectations of behavior.
Kids who come into one’s home from somewhere else are often used to different routines, and in the case of kids coming into foster care, these routines often aren’t ideal for the children’s age group.
Ratliff described a one-year-old she fostered who threw his food on the ground when she put him in a high chair for snack time. Usually when a small child throws their food, Ratliff said, it means they’re done eating.
But when Ratliff took the child out of the chair, she saw him trying to eat off the floor. She realized he was throwing food because he wasn’t used to eating in a high chair.
“He wasn’t done, he wanted to eat in a more comfortable environment,” she said.
Especially when working with young foster children, who can’t yet articulate their needs, listening to behaviors and adjusting one’s sense of a “normal routine” accordingly is important.
As opposed to forcing the child to eat in a high chair immediately, she tried to find safe, but less restrictive places in the kitchen to feed him. “Their worlds have been flipped upside down,” she said, just by coming into care, so one shouldn’t force change too quickly.
“Over time, we gradually work on that to get them to healthy, scheduled routines that are appropriate for their age,” she said.
Malia noted that while fostering is truly challenging, the impact a foster home can have on a child is immense. Throughout our conversation, the Withams referenced a sibling set of three who lived with them for two years before moving on to live with their biological relatives a year ago. They still keep in touch and provide respite care for the kids on occasion.
The three kids came to the Witham household with high needs and intense behaviors, but over the course of the three years they’ve known those siblings, they saw how their supportive environment allowed the kids to grow.
“The growth that we’ve seen from when they moved in with us to now, you can see in behaviors what unconditional love, what stability, what routine, all of those things that were not a part of their lives before, it changes them,” Malia said. “They are different kids.”
One of the most challenging parts of being a foster parent is letting go and saying goodbye to the foster kids, especially when they’ve been in the home for an extended period of time. And that’s often a reason people cite for not becoming a foster parent, because it would hurt too much to give up a child they’ve developed a bond with.
But foster parents are supposed to get too attached. That’s part of their job.
“They need us to be heartbroken when they leave, because that means that we loved them with every part of our being and that’s what we do,” Malia said. “It is hard. And sometimes I wonder how many times can we do it. At what point does your heart say I can’t break anymore? I don’t know. We’re not there yet. It is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but they’re worth it.”
To find out more about becoming a foster parent, adoptive parent, or short-term respite care provider, visit MarionFosterOrAdopt.com, where you can contact local foster parent certifiers.