In recognition of National Foster Care Month, The Citizen interviewed three current and former foster parents in the Keys. Their experiences were varied. Some had eventually adopted their foster children, while others had simply continued taking in foster kids after their earlier charges were reunited with their biological parents. All agreed that foster parenting is a calling that is both challenging and rewarding to the foster parent, and that while not everyone may be cut out to do it, everyone can contribute to a foster child in some manner. Currently, the need for foster parents is greatest in the Upper and Middle Keys, although foster parents are sought throughout Monroe County.
Ja Good, Key West
"I've been a foster parent for about six years now. I'm retired from the military and I thought that this could be a great way to give something back to the community. I had always hoped that I would be able to do something like this during my retirement years. I also work for the Healthy Start Coalition.
"I got interested in fostering, because we had a week when there were a high number of children needing placement in foster homes. In fact, it was the first time I realized that there was a need for homes for Monroe County children.
"Since the goal for most of these kids is to eventually be returned to their biological parents, when whatever issues they might have had are resolved, I thought I might be able to help.
"Fostering is a lot of work. It's challenging sometimes. Your emotions and parenting skills are definitely challenged. However, it is so worth it to see a child come into your home and bloom and blossom. We give them that opportunity. We make sure they're safe while their parents are working on whatever issues they have going on. Going into care can be very traumatic for a child. We want to do everything we can to minimize the impact of that trauma.
"In instances when the children can't be returned to their biological parents, some foster parents choose to adopt them. That wasn't the case with me. My daughter is 31 now, so I'm beyond the point where I wanted to raise any more children. In fostering, there is an adage that you foster until one sticks. Sometimes the system is very slow in determining the outcome of their case. And sometimes you develop a deep bond, and do adopt when the time comes that the child is ready for adoption.
"Anybody can be a foster parent. You don't have to have a whole lot of money. You just have to have a heart that's open, and a willingness to open your home. You want to take care of the child and advocate for their best interests. That's what our child welfare systems are supposed to be doing. There are a lot of dedicated people who make up the child welfare system, but there is nobody but the foster parents who can spend as much time with the child, and gets to see his or her best qualities, and where they're challenged.
"You have to try to love them as your own children, even though they're not.
"We have a wonderful community of foster parents here in the Keys. They're all very giving of their time and energy, and resources, to help the kids in their care. They really offer up an amazing amount of love.
"Theoretically, foster parents here get kids from Monroe County, but sometimes they're from Miami/Dade. However, we really don't have enough homes for our own kids in the Keys. We need caring homes more than anything.
"The last child I fostered was in my home from the time he was seven months old to the time he was 2 ¬½ years old. He's now moved on and living with a biological aunt and uncle in the Florida Panhandle. I try to visit him about once a month, and we Skype all the time. I guess I stay in contact with about half of my previous kids, and I've seen the kids come back to visit their foster parents as adults.
"Foster parents can continue to stay connected with the kids they've taken care of in many cases. Other times, kids come into your home, and then the families move on with their lives, and address the issues that brought the kids into the system in the first place, and you don't stay in touch with them. So you get both extremes.
"In the last six to 12 months we've seen an increase in need in the Middle and Upper Keys. In most cases parents continue to have visitations with their kids, as long as it's not harmful to the children, and the parents are doing what the court requires of them.
"In most cases, the kids end up being reunited with their parents, or another biological family member. The child's safety and protection is the most important thing.
"Foster parents receive a small stipend, but it's not enough to cover all the costs. Raising any child, especially in the Keys, is expensive. There are some other resources you can draw on. There's the Conch Republic Fund, and a program called Voices for Children, which operates through the Guardian Ad Litem program, to provide money for summer camp, and that kind of thing. You don't have to be rich. You just have to meet the licensing requirements, and have to have a heart.
"This is an extremely rewarding calling, and fills a huge need in our community.
"I highly recommend that anybody who's interested in doing this call Wesley House and make an appointment to go in and talk about it."
Teri Christian, Key Largo
"I actually got into foster parenting out of necessity. I had found myself in a situation where the children of a distant relative were being removed from the home, and being placed into foster case. They were boys, aged 2 and 6 at the time.
"I saw it happening, and the kids were just terrified. So I went to the Department of Children and Families to find out how I could get the kids into my own home. I went through an extensive background check, and they eventually designated me as a nonrelative caregiver. Later, the boys had a half-sibling girl born to their mother, and I took her home as a newborn until she could be placed in the care of a relative.
"After the boys were placed in my home, I became a licensed foster parent.
"Ultimately, the boys couldn't be reunified with their biological family, so in 2008 I adopted them. At that point I had been raising them for three years.
"There's a lot of training associated with foster parenting, which is a good thing. It prepares you for many of the situations you encounter. I also adopted a 17 1/2-year-old boy who had spent multiple years in the foster system and struggled very much with it. We were able to provide normalcy after many months.
"Initially, with my two young boys, there was a huge strain, because visits had to be supervised, and the poor kids didn't know where to place their loyalties. They were so confused, although I think it was easier because they were familiar with me. I had known them for about a year and a half prior to them being placed in my home.
"To be a foster parent you have to be very open-minded and nonjudgmental, loving and caring. You need lots of understanding, compassion and empathy. You need to help these children, and help their whole family, because in this day and age, you're not just fostering children, you're fostering the whole family.
"Nowadays they have the biological parents interacting with their foster parents, which makes sense. It really helps everybody if you try to involve the biological parents in their kids' lives. You can invite them over to celebrate holidays, birthday parties and for extra-curricular activities, like sports games. A lot of times, the biological parents just don't know how to interact with their children, so you can help to facilitate this.
"The process of becoming a foster parent takes about six months from beginning to end, including a 12-week course. Then you have home inspections, and visits from the health department.
"As a foster parent, every day was a surprise. But what really caught me off guard was the effect that the foster kids had on my biological children. My foster boys had medical needs, and that took up a lot of time. Eventually, my two biological kids started feeling a little left out. That's something I try to advise other foster parents to be careful of. Because, from the moment they wake up to the time they go to sleep, your kids are suddenly sharing their parents, their toys, their bedrooms, everything with these new rivals.
"In that sense, I consider my kids to be the true heroes. They deserve huge credit for being able to adapt.
"Eventually, I became a family support worker at Wesley House, where I work with children and parents. Until I became a foster parent, I didn't realize the needs that were out there.
"When you become a foster parent your entire life changes. Your friends, interests, everything. It's kind of like when you have biological kids for the first time.
"You don't have time for the spa. You don't get your nails done. And you don't go out to eat all that often. I frequently socialize with the other foster families in the Keys.
"Right now there are 13 foster homes in the Keys. There's always a waiting list of kids hoping to find foster homes, and more entering the system all the time.
"What's terrible about that is that we find ourselves in situations where we can't place kids in local foster homes, so they have to go to Miami. There's a huge difference between the Keys and Miami, and it can be devastating to the kids to rip them out of their comfort zone and move them hundreds of miles away.
"But however much work being a foster parent is, it has been such a rewarding part of my life, and made me a much happier person. My experiences have helped me to realize the importance of life. What really matters isn't a huge house, or a fancy car, or a big bank account.
"What makes me happy is seeing these kids become happy, and watching them grow and flourish. If you can do just one little thing to edge them out to the right side of where they need to be and it works, it feels like a miracle has been accomplished. The smallest thing can make all the difference in the world. It's a gift to you as an individual.
"One thing that's really important, I think, is to make sure not to label these kids. It's not their fault that they're in the situation they're in. And you don't want to label their parents as bad people either, because then the kids think that if their parents are bad, then they must be too.
"Everybody has something they can offer a foster child, even if you can't go all the way and be a foster parent. Maybe you can mentor them, or donate money so that they can be on the football team. The need is huge here. If people really knew how big it is, they'd be shocked. I can't even begin to tell you how many kids we've had to send to Miami, or even further north."
Christine Cunningham, Tavernier
"My husband and I fostered for six to eight years, until about 2004. It was a rich and gratifying experience for us, though it did have its ups and downs. Eventually, we stopped fostering because my husband felt he didn't have the energy anymore, and so wanted to stop.
"However, I wanted to stay involved so I have. Right now, I'm the president of the Florida Keys Foster/Adoptive Parents Association. I saw it as a way to stay involved in the program and the children going through the system. That was my way to stay connected.
"My husband and I got married later in life and neither of us had children. We thought that fostering could provide us with the happiness that having children in a home can bring about. That was our reason to become involved. Also, we knew that we could contribute, and that we could be helpful to the community, as well as the children in the system.
"At the time, we weren't even considering adopting a child. At one point, we hadn't fostered for about a year, but I was still involved. Then, a baby came along who needed a temporary home because his foster parents were taking a vacation. He had been born in Key West in 2002. We agreed to take the baby for a while. Then, at some point, that baby became adoptable, and my husband and I agreed to adopt him.
"This infant fell into our laps, somewhat miraculously. We weren't pining for a baby and, like I said, hadn't fostered for a year. But we became the baby's parents through fostering. He didn't come with an instruction manual, and there was no plan, but it became just a really wonderful time in our lives.
"Our son is 11 now, and doing great. And this would never have happened if we hadn't been licensed foster parents.
"To be a foster parent you have to be a very patient, tolerant individual, because all children need patience and tolerance, not just foster kids. To teach children you need the same qualities. All kids deserve and need love and respect.
"Back when we first started fostering, the biological parents didn't come to our house for visits. In fact, there was hardly any interaction between the biological and foster parents. It wasn't part of the planning, or the philosophy. This has evolved over time, and for the better.
"My husband and I may no longer have the energy to foster, but I still do enjoy being helpful to the children through the association.
"Anybody who wants to help can definitely be active without actually being a foster or adoptive parent. There are all kinds of ways that people can help out."