By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
OSKALOOSA — Richelle Pipho-Holle and her husband Jim Holle became foster parents three years ago because they have space in their home and in their hearts. The first three children they fostered have moved on to another foster family that plans to adopt them but they still call Richelle and Jim “Mamma Chelle” and “Daddy Jim” when the couple visits.
May is National Foster Care Month, a time to raise awareness about foster care issues and to recognize the importance of permanency for every child and the essential role that foster parents, social workers and advocates play in children’s lives. Some 424,000 children are in foster care nationwide, said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime advocate for foster children (https://tinyurl.com/2y5nueh7). About 10,000 children are in foster care in Iowa, according to Families Helping Families of Iowa.
Richelle and Jim, members of St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa, prepared for their foster parenting role by completing a 10-week class, paperwork, first-aid training, medication management training, a home inspection and consulting with their three grown children. The preparation was essential but they had to discover for themselves the patience, the demands, and the overwhelming joy they would experience as foster parents.
“I had gotten to know someone who works in the juvenile court system and she had been telling me about foster parenting and it had interested me,” said Richelle, who operates a registered child development center in her home.
Richelle describes the training that she and Jim received as eye opening and interesting. “To be honest with you, it was very hard to go to class to hear how these children are treated and how they entered foster care. It made us want to do this all the much more.”
Licensed to care for two children at a time, Richelle and Jim agreed to accept three young siblings (with a judge’s approval) who arrived in their spacious home on May 14, 2018. They had three days to prepare for the children’s arrival. “Yes, we were prepared and no, we weren’t prepared,” Richelle said of becoming foster parents to a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and a 3-month-old. The children had many needs and came from an unsafe home life. She and Jim had agreed to take in children with a variety of conditions because of her experience as a preschool teacher who has worked with learning and social disabilities.
“The biggest need is for foster homes willing to take sibling groups of three or more and homes willing to work with older kids and those with emotional or behavioral challenges,” said Christa Hefel, recruiting and training manager for Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services. The Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit works to assure that children become successful adults.
Each of the three children entrusted to Richelle and Jim arrived with two outfits, nothing else. Foster support groups, friends, fellow parishioners and strangers responded, bearing gifts of diapers and baby wipes, clothes, food and other necessities. “We live in an amazing community and have an amazing network of support,” Richelle said. “We have a great parish, great friends inside our church and outside our church.”
Jim continues to work fulltime as CFO of Community 1st Credit Union, so meeting the children’s needs, taking them to therapy appointments and showing them love required good coordination. “We had to treat them like newborn babies who had nothing and get them caught up to the age they were,” Richelle said.
The older two children had rarely been outdoors. “Their day consisted of watching television and sitting on a couch. The baby had never been taken out of his car seat. He sat in it and slept in it overnight. We took him to a chiropractor. He couldn’t hold his own head up because he wasn’t used to supporting his neck.”
Working through the challenges was gratifying. “Every little thing was a triumph — every book they got to read, every outfit they put on, every meal was a reward for them,” Richelle said. “To see their joy in such simple things was a joy for us. We would play a game with them or color a picture. We celebrated birthdays and Christmas. Getting to go on a car ride with them was fun.”
Richelle teaches preschool in her home three days a week so on those days she took her foster children to a licensed daycare provider. They cried when she dropped them off. “It was very hard for them. Separation anxiety is a big issue for foster children. I had to reassure them that I would come back to pick them up. It was scary for them at first. Until they realized that every time I would come back.”
She and Jim received respite from other foster families, which proved to be a godsend, especially when Jim’s sister died suddenly. The children stayed with a foster family for four days. “It’s such a nice break. We were taking them to someone we knew was equipped to deal with children dealing with trauma,” she said.
The three siblings stayed with Richelle and Jim for 10 months. “We still keep in touch with them and visit regularly,” Richelle said. “It’s so great to see them. It’s the best day for us when we get to see them.”
The couple’s second foster parenting experience lasted three weeks, prior to Christmas when they welcomed a 5-year-old and his 2-year-old brother. While it was hard to let go of them, “I felt reassured they were going home to a good situation,” Richelle said. Their mother was in a treatment program in which she could keep her children with her.
Patience and love required
The purpose of foster care is to provide “a temporary place for children to live safely in a home while the family (of origin) is working on getting their children back,” Christa, of Four Oaks said. Every family that becomes involved in DHS is in a crisis. “… Foster parenting is about supporting the family and helping them through that crisis and hopefully getting their children back home.”
Richelle and Jim have provided respite for other foster families. “Being a foster parent is exhausting. You are always a host in your own home. You are always the doctor, the teacher, the mental health therapist,” Richelle said. “So when another foster family can give you a break, it is very valuable.”
Their own children, ages 28, 25 and nearly 20, have also been supportive of their parents’ foster parenting. “They’re glad we’re doing this. They are not surprised we’re doing this. We talked to them at length before we agreed to do it.”
Adoption is an option the couple has not ruled out. “I’m 50 and Jim is 54. We’ll let God decide, and do what he says is best,” Richelle said. “We truly believe God is guiding us and supporting us and allowing us to do this and helping us to do this.”
Richelle deeply appreciates that foster children, no matter the situation they have come from, “still have a deep love for their mother. These kids still love their parents. They always want to know why they can’t go home … Our job isn’t turning them away from loving their birth parents. We are just temporary. The goal is for these kids to go home. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Foster parenting requires patience and understanding that “these children just want to be loved. That’s all they want.”
Q&A on being a foster family
Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services, based in Cedar Rapids, serves the eastern two-thirds of Iowa with foster care and adoption support, connecting individuals with training and licensing resources and accompaniment on the fostering or adopting journey.
The nonprofit agency works with the Iowa Department of Human Services and other organizations to serve children and families across Iowa’s 99 counties. Christa Hefel, recruiting and training manager with Four Oaks, spoke recently with The Catholic Messenger about the process to become a foster parent.
Q: What is the process of becoming a foster parent, and how long does it take?
A: The prospective parent(s) start with an online inquiry and then have an online orientation. The next step is filling out paperwork, which includes background checks and background information about the prospective foster parent(s) and their family. Then they take 10 weeks of training — three-hour classes weekly. They must complete 30 hours of training to become licensed foster parents. Class providers “try to make schedules accommodate family needs.” During the class, the prospective parent(s) complete a home study. A month after class concludes, a caseworker submits the paperwork to Iowa DHS for licensing. Foster parents complete a mandatory six-hour follow-up training annually.
Q: Is there an “ideal” candidate for a foster parent?
A: “You have to be able and willing to love and take care of children. You have to have time to commit to children, meaning if you are coaching every night of the week and working all day and are busy all weekend; it might not be a good time. If you’ve got time, and space in your home, there’s no time better than the time being.”
Q: What should prospective foster parents keep in mind?
A: “Fostering isn’t easy” but it’s “absolutely” worthwhile.
Learn more about foster parenting
If you are in a position to become a foster parent, or volunteer to provide respite care or donate clothes, meals, or tutoring services to a foster family in your community, check with the Iowa Department of Human Services (dhs.iowa.gov/foster-care-and-adoption), the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (http://www.ifapa.org/), and Four Oaks Foster & Adoptive Family Connections (iowafosterandadoption.org/).
(Reporter Lindsay Steele contributed to this story.)