For foster and adoptive parents in Ky., loss is a part of life: So is joy
Published 8:34 am Thursday, December 7, 2017
Choosing to love
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series by Olivia Talbott looking at the need for foster care and adoption in central Kentucky and what it’s like for foster and adoptive parents. In order to protect the privacy of children in the foster system and their biological parents, the names of the foster parents quoted in this story have been changed.
By OLIVIA TALBOTT
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On a daily basis there are many causes, fundraisers and needs that vie for our attention. For many foster and adoptive parents, the need to care for kids who have lost a permanent home is what they sink their lives and hearts into.
There are over 2,400 children in foster care who need permanent homes, according to Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. These are the stories of a few of those who responded to that need.
Tammy and Bill
“There is such a big need in foster care,” said Tammy, whose journey as a foster parent began 23 years ago. “And we didn’t want to bring more children into this world because of all the children who needed a home.”
Tammy and her husband, Bill, have fostered 40 children over those 23 years, most of whom were sibling groups.
“Finding people to take sibling groups is nearly impossible,” said Tammy. “But the children have already lost parents — they shouldn’t have to lose each other.”
Tammy and Bill have adopted seven of their foster children.
“One of the cool things is when you realize, after pouring your life into the kids — is when they accept you as their parents, when they adopt you back,” said Bill.
“This our normal,” he added, “Family is a choice — not blood.”
Tammy and Bill’s first fostering experience was when they took in a sibling group of a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old — while having two young children of their own. Soon, the number in their household grew as they began to take more placements.
“As long as the children are safe, they are better off with their biological parents,” Bill said. “Reunification is what we’re going for, but it’s a waiting game. Not all families can get it together in 15 months.
“We understand that the biological parents feel helpless. We take that into account. … We aren’t in this to steal people’s children.”
In helping their foster children understand their situation, it’s important to be respectful of the biological parents, Bill said.
“One of our foster sons once asked me why he wasn’t with his biological father anymore,” he said. He replied that the child “was like an airplane: shiny and fun — but his daddy just didn’t know how to fly him.”
“We were fostering and figured that we’d adopt eventually,” said Tammy. Their chance came when an 8-week old baby entered their lives. “Her mother had picked us out because she wasn’t able to keep her because of her mental state,” Bill said.
He added with a smile, “I’m still wrapped around her finger.”
That was just the beginning of fostering and adoption for Tammy and Bill.
“Our social worker called us about a little boy and asked us to keep him through the weekend.” Tammy said. “But he had two other siblings and we didn’t want to separate them, so we ended up fostering them all and eventually adopted them.”
After a period of closing their home for a time, Tammy and Bill reopened to fill a specific need.
“A friend of ours said, ‘I know you’re not a baby person, but I have a baby sibling group that no one can handle,’” Tammy said with a smile. “So we took them.”
“We moved into this giant house and we wanted to fill it,” added Bill. “So we thought we were to foster or adopt again, or else downsize.”
According to Bill, their parenting style rests on a delicate balance between flexibility and consistency, because sometimes having such a large family is like “herding cats,” with “scheduling being the most difficult part.”
“Consistency isn’t always convenient and it’s easier to give in,” Bill said. “But the children need the consistency.”
“Our two biological children weren’t always on board, because fostering is a loss,” Tammy said, in light of the departure of an infant sibling group that they fostered for four years. “It’s like the death of a family member when they leave.”
“People start fostering because they want a baby or because they want to change the world,” Bill said. “But you have to realize that it’s not about you. It’s mentally, physically and emotionally draining. You have to be prepared to suffer when the kids leave.”
In spite of it all, Tammy and Bill’s outlook has not swayed. “We would do it again,” Bill said. “To gain what I have gained in my family, it’s worth all the pain and suffering.”
Jan and her husband’s foster care journey started with infertility, which led them to look into adoption.
“I was working full time and international adoption was going to be $30,000-$40,000 thousand dollars,” Jan said. “We just couldn’t do that.”
So they turned to foster care.
“My husband was hesitant at first,” she said and laughed. “He is a quiet guy and he didn’t want to go to the classes and talk about his feelings.”
The couple were preparing for a vacation when they got their first placement.
“Two little children came up needing a temporary foster home,” Jan said. “We visited with the kids and we took them, and they stayed with us for about a year.”
Jan said not keeping the kids was the most difficult part.
“We were an employee of the state and our job was to reunite the children with their parents,” she said.
Making this particular case more difficult was the fact that the children were recommended “non-return to parent,” according to Jan.
“Termination day came and we thought it would be cut and dry,” she said.
But the judge surprised them and ruled that the children should be returned to their parent.
“Without warning the kids left immediately,” Jan said. “We didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Jan remembered thinking: “I will never do this again.”
“After that, I would still get calls,” Jan said. “But I wasn’t ready yet.”
Then, they got a call for another sibling group in need of a temporary home.
“A lot of people don’t want a sibling group,” Jan said. “But it’s actually an easier adjustment for the foster kids to have a blood relative in a home of people who act and look nothing like them.”
One of the children had been in foster care her whole life and had been in 11 placements by the time she was 4 years old.
“She was having major behavioral issues — they thought she may be autistic,” Jan said. “She wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t look us in the face, and she had so much anger.”
After a period of learning healthy authority and what it meant to be a part of a family, she adapted to her new life beautifully, according to Jan.
“Today she is so smart and such a deep thinker!” Jan said. “Kids need structure. They don’t come well-behaved and well-adjusted. Just be patient and consistent and show them that you care.”
Jan and her husband kept the new sibling group and eventually there was a day in court. This time, they were surprised by a verdict from the judge that the kids would stay with them. They were able to adopt the group.
“It’s important to have a relationship with the parents,” Jan said. “The birth parents need to trust you. In getting to know the parents, you will better understand your children.”
And to the joy of Jan and her husband, they were also reunited with the original sibling group they had lost, after their legal guardian gave up custody.
They adopted that sibling group as well.
“We are so open with the kids,” said Jan, sharing her philosophy: “We never throw their parents under the bus, but we use them as a life lesson by telling the children that their parents were the victims of their life choices.”
Looking back, Jan said their foster care journey has been “one of the most stressful processes anyone could go through.”
“I don’t know how someone does it without faith in God — I couldn’t have,” she said. “But the ultimate thing you can do is make life better for the kids.”
Patty and Scott
Like Jan, Patty and Scott’s foster care journey also began with infertility and they were disappointed to learn that the price tag that came with the application for international adoption alone was more than $1,000.
They were introduced to foster care through an article in The Advocate-Messenger about a sibling group in need of a home. They began taking classes to qualify as foster parents, anticipating adoption soon after.
“I went into it just for adoption,” Scott said. “I was not agreeing to open our home until the last night. I just couldn’t be okay with having the child taken away.
“We got the first little girl and she changed our lives. She was with us for several months. Her picture is still on our wall.”
“When she left, we cried for three days and thought we couldn’t do it again,” Patty said.
While foster parents become emotionally involved in loving and caring for their foster children, the children understandably become a part of the family, even though the goal is always reunification with their biological parents, according to Scott.
“The hardest part is realizing that there are parents out there that treat their children in ways we don’t understand,” Scott said.
“Early on, we were very insecure and judgmental of the biological parents,” Patty said. “But we had a duty to understand that reunification is number one.”
She added, “one thing we’ve learned that we couldn’t be told, no matter how frustrating it was, was that our foster children still love their biological parents. No matter how bad the trauma was, they still want to go home.”
Then a surprising thing happened, according to Patty: they found out they were expecting a child of their own.
“We took a break from fostering and didn’t think any more about it,” Patty said.
Then their son began to pray for a brother or sister every night, Scott said.
“So we went through recertification process and began waiting for a placement,” he said.
They wound up adopting a group of two siblings, a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. After that, they had to decide whether or not to continue taking more foster placements.
“We’ve tried to get out of it many times, but just couldn’t,” Patty said, explaining how they decided to continue fostering.
“We’ve always been very specific about the age and sex of the children we would take into our home,” Scott said. “Our first priority has always been to protect the children already in our home.”
Patty added, “We’ve ended up having 28 foster children and said no to very few, even though we felt guilty doing so at first. I set my mind to be professional and that I would not get emotionally involved in another child’s life. But one of our foster children went up for adoption, and they asked us to adopt her.”
Their children were all on board, but Scott took longer to convince, as he hadn’t planned on adding more children to their family.
“It wasn’t until I got still and I heard God ask me ‘are you going to listen to me now?’” he said. “I said yes.”
Scott and Patty’s family grew with the adoption of another daughter.
“If you would have said this is what our life would be like, I would have called you a liar,” Patty said. “Their stories have become our own.”
“Our son could recite how to build a meth lab at the age of four when he first came to us,” Patty said. “He should be delayed due to the drug use of his mother, but he is a genius and surpasses all the statistics.”
“I don’t want the children to ever be ashamed of where they’ve come from,” Patty added. “Because we all have baggage — it just comes in different sizes, colors and textures.”
“Our lives are much richer by what these children have brought us,” Scott said. “You’re made to feel noble, but it’s not noble and I’m not any more special than anyone else. People always compliment us on the great thing we are doing, but it’s not a great thing; it’s the normal thing, because it’s our calling.”