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What it means to be a foster parent is often masked in stereotypes. Yes, parents get funding to support the child, but it doesn’t cover everything. No, they’re not “doing it for the money.” And, no, not all children in the system come from situations that are harmful to them.
Some kids might be funneled into foster care even though they have a healthy, functioning family, says Beth Hall, the executive director and co-founder of Pact, an adoption organization. This can happen, for example, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes parents who don’t have legal status in the United States into custody.
“The idea behind calling it a resource parent — instead of a foster parent — is to focus on the job. The parent is to be a resource for the child. The change [in terminology] has to do with trying to put children at the center of the process,” says Hall.
For many resource parents, it’s a role that takes a lot of heart and love. We asked 10 people — some who’ve already fostered, others who are just applying — to talk about their experiences within the system.
Shannon Colavecchio, 41 • Tallahassee • Currently fostering
“If not for my grandparents, I would have ended up in foster care as a child due to addicted parents.”
Elizabeth Friedland, 35 • Indianapolis • Currently fostering
“For me, it was an alternative to traditional motherhood. I was in my early 30s and still hadn’t met my Mr. Right, but I didn’t want to hold off on having a family.”
Michelle Neff, 29 • Asheville, N.C. • Training for fostering
“My husband and I are experiencing infertility. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 endometriosis, so fostering allows us to still be parents.”
Elizabeth Dorman, 36 • Waukegan, Ill. • Currently fostering
“My foster sister had an electric wheelchair and I would ride on her lap, thinking she was the coolest girl in the world. … It taught us to always work harder to see past the surface of someone who could be a new friend, and who had a lot to offer.”
Colavecchio: “[My foster son] is 5-going-on-50. I call him ‘Little Man.’ He is so wise and perceptive for his age. ... That means some days, like when his mother cancels her weekly visitation, he is openly angry and sad and hurt. My job is to help him talk about what he is feeling and to let him know how much he is loved. … [He] is a bright, brilliant example of an amazing child who can be anything he wants.”
Dorman: “[We have] a 4-year-old, plus a 2-year-old who came to us at 12:30 on a Sunday night, when he was 2 months old and dropped off at a fire department. He came to work with me the next day and slept under my desk. (Foster parents do not typically have or take maternity leave.) We thought we were done having kids, when we were surprised with a biological baby who is now 1. Then, we found out our 2-year-old had a newborn baby sister. We fought within the system to track her down and bring her home to raise them together.”
Tina Bonetsky, 41 • Albany, N.Y. • Formerly fostered over 30 children
“My husband and I fostered together. He was adopted through foster care, so he had a deeper understanding than most of what kids in foster care need.”
Joanne Mallett, 75 • Tucson • Formerly fostered 16 children
“Sadly, my partner died 10 years ago. She and I lived together for 34 years. … We shared the same thoughts and feelings. The county officials in the great state of Texas did not care that we were gay (in that time not acknowledged, but they surely knew). They were desperate for safe places to put children who came under their care.”
Clio Andris, 33 • State College, Pa. • Applying to become a resource parent
“I really wanted to have a family, but I just haven’t gotten married or found a real partner yet. Having a baby would be great, but there are already so many kids that need homes. I have a really steady job as a professor, and I bought a house three years ago. It’s a lot of space — three bedrooms — for just me, and I wanted to make it a safe, happy place for a child or teen in need.”
Anne Forney, 31 • Arlington, Va. • Licensed and waiting for placement
“It definitely has encouraged me to educate myself about topics, such as African American hair care, cross-cultural placements and cuisine differences.”
Bonetsky: “It’s really easy to think the parents of kids in care are horrible people, until you meet them. Once you put a face to a name, you are able to realize that they are human beings that made a mistake.”
Mallett: “Having children of different skin colors has made me sensitive to bigotry in its many manifestations.”
Colavecchio: “Being a foster parent is one of the hardest things, but also one of the most joyous things. These children come to you broken or scared or yearning for safety, but they have such a capacity for love. They show you how powerful love can be in healing wounds. Every day, even if it’s small, you can see in a foster child the impact of a safe, stable home filled with love. It is so powerful.”
Kristen Perry, 43 • Lafayette, Colo. • Currently fostering
“It is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done, and at least once a week I think I am no good at it and I can’t do it anymore. And I do think at some point, possibly quite soon, we will stop doing it because of the toll it takes emotionally. I’m not sure how many more times I can have my heart broken.”
Forney: “Many people think that they are not qualified to be a foster parent, and that is not true. In Arlington, Va., the basic requirements are that you [are over] 21, that you are employed and live in or near Arlington County, and you can do it without a partner. Family reunification is the primary goal in foster care.”
Bonetsky: “There are still things we struggle with regularly: mental-health issues, finding services and dealing with loss. No matter the struggle, it has been worth the work.”
Dorman: “Our bio parents love their kids desperately. One has done everything the courts have asked, but she cannot parent. Every time I see her and hear her voice, I see my daughter. How could I not love this mom, too? I support and encourage her. She can never know where we live for safety reasons, but she is family.”