All the offices at the La Plata County Department of Human Services were dark Monday night save for the main conference room, where about 16 people congregated. Each went around the room to share what brought them there.
“I’m a school psychologist and a social worker and so I have a lot of training in dealing with kids that have a lot of things going on, so we’re well-positioned to provide for somebody,” said Lars Olson as he introduced himself to the room.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent can find more information and an application on La Plata County’s website: https://bit.ly/3g94SnD
“I have two little ones at home, and I think if I can make a difference in the La Plata area and to another child then that.s great,” said another attendee.
“I heard there was free food,” said Jacob Branch-Boyle, cracking a well-received joke. “No, I don’t really know what we’re doing here yet. A few weeks ago we thought, ‘What if?’ (And now we’re) looking more into this idea.”
The idea? Becoming a foster parent.
The county has only 11 general foster homes that are able to accept children who are not relatives of theirs. Charmaine Summers, the supervisor of foster care, adoptions and guardianships, said her office is seeking to certify more families as foster homes, particularly for older children and teenagers. Summers estimates that her office has placed 14 kids in foster homes this year alone. In 2018, that number was as high as 27 children. She said she hopes to add about nine additional foster homes.
A decline in the need for foster families during the pandemic stretched out the resources that the department had, but Summers said the need is on the rise again. As families fill up and leave the system, she must recruit new foster families every few years.
Monday night’s dinner was intended as an informational session for interested potential foster parents to meet the department’s employees and learn about the process. Two of the county’s current foster families were also present to share their stories and answer questions.
Foster parents can earn up to $50 per day, or even more if they accept a child with special needs. Families at the event emphasized that the county provides critical financial support to ensure children have all their needs met.
After the dinner, Summers and her staff conducted a round of trivia with the intention of busting common myths about the foster system.
“We want to really give people correct information,” Summers said. “We don’t want people coming into this having a different idea, we want to make sure that we are answering the questions.”
While the trivia addressed misconceptions, the answers were not always as reassuring as one might hope.
For example, should one be concerned that parenting a foster child might be too painful if and when that child must leave?
“We hope you fall madly in love with them, because those kids have been through hell and back,” Summers candidly told the room. “They deserve somebody who’s gonna fall head over heels in love with them. ... And so is it hard to say goodbye when and if you have to? You betcha. But that kid has lost everything. And so that to me is a small pittance of what we as responsible adults can do for the kids in our community.”
She also fought to suppress the idea that all foster children are somehow bad or delinquent, or that adopting younger children can avoid behavioral issues. Genetics, Summers said, can still affect even a young child’s behavior.
Joy Larson, a foster mother to two teenagers who she has now legally adopted, said oftentimes poor behavior is the result of a child being in “survival mode.” When Larson’s daughter, who has no biological family members who have graduated high school, started to talk about considering college, Larson said it was an indicator she was no longer in survival mode.
“When they are in survival mode, all they can think about is the moment,” Larson told the group. “The fact that she could literally think forward enough to contemplate college was huge. To me, going to college isn’t even the issue ... but just the fact that she could even think it was a big deal.”
Attendees also heard stories from Blake and Hannah, who asked that their last names not be used to protect their family. The room’s atmosphere was emotional and heavy, but filled with love as the families spoke.
Hannah and Blake met in college, and although they are just 25 years old, they have become an integral part of the county’s foster system. In the last two years, they have fostered eight kids. They have their own biological daughter, one adopted daughter and are in the process of adopting one more child. In addition to home schooling two of their children, Hannah is pursuing a Ph.D.
“I was one of those people that came in thinking, ‘These parents suck,’” Hannah said, referring to children’s biological parents. “I was very angry at a lot of these parents ... two of our kids, their mom, I was really angry at her. And then I met her. And I couldn’t be angry at her anymore. Because I realized that she’s a human just like the rest of us. And she was dealt a really crappy hand. And she did the best she could with what she had. And she loved her kid as much as I loved her kids.”
Hannah’s parents, Phelia and Preston Smith, spoke as well.
“I want to encourage you guys tonight, that if you’re considering this, coming from a non-risk taker, these kids that have been placed with them and (are now) my grand kids have changed my life,” Preston Smith told the group as the night came to an end. “My heart shows now. I was too cool and too proud to let my heart show. And I’m not too cool and too proud to let my heart show now.”