By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — For Nick and Jessica Ragsdale, foster care is about doing small things with great love.
“Our job is to love them, and love them the best we can,” Jessica said of the children to whom they have provided a safe haven. “My mom would always say there is no such thing as too much love.”
The Ragsdales, members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf, provide respite care to children in the foster care system, allowing foster parents a temporary break from the responsibilities of 24-hour foster care.
The Ragsdales first began looking into foster parenting while struggling to conceive their second child. At the time, they hoped to foster an infant with the intention to adopt (foster-to-adopt). “Deep down, it was something I always kind of wanted,” Jessica said of becoming a foster parent.
The couple participated in foster care classes every Monday for six months, and looked forward to seeing what the future might hold for their family. That future turned out to be a little different than they anticipated. The week they received their license, Jessica discovered she was pregnant. It was a joyous revelation, but one that caused Nick and Jessica to rethink their approach to foster parenting.
The Ragsdales were still interested in supporting children and families in the foster care system, so they shifted their focus to respite care. Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) requires foster parents to seek respite care from a licensed foster home if they will be away from the child overnight or longer.
“Respite provides a break for the foster parents,” said Christa Hefel, recruiting and training manager with Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services, based in Cedar Rapids. “It is very important so parents can take that vacation, have time with family in an emergency or any other reason they may need a break.” A child in foster care is allowed 24 respite days a year.
Jim Holle and his wife, Richelle Pipho-Holle, recently spoke to The Catholic Messenger about their experience as foster parents and identified respite care as a godsend. “It’s such a nice break. We were taking them to someone we knew was equipped to deal with children dealing with trauma,” Richelle said.
Generally, the Ragsdales receive a call from their social worker every couple of weeks with a request for care. Respite providers are not entitled to know everything about a child’s situation — just enough to identify the child’s needs and determine placement compatibility. Like other foster parents, respite providers can accept or decline a request.
Nick and Jessica have cared for some children for a day or two, others for a couple weeks. Jessica said many of the respite requests they receive are for older kids and teenagers, though the couple has found younger children to be the best fit for their family. The Ragsdales now have three biological children: Sammy, 7; Genny, 4; and Julie, almost 2.
When foster children enter the home, Nick and Jessica prepare Sammy, Genny and Julie by telling them there will be “visitors, special friends to stay with us,” Jessica said. As a precaution, the Ragsdales do not accept children with violent backgrounds. These children deserve safe and loving homes, too, but “If it’s not right for you, it’s not going to be right for the child,” Nick said.
Nick and Jessica hope that hosting foster children will help Sammy, Genny and Julie learn the importance of sharing kindness with others. Jessica said, “Our children have a great opportunity to learn to connect and love. We (as foster parents) are learning how to connect and love, too. It’s a learning experience that helps us grow in our wisdom and faith.”
Nick said, “it brings me joy to see (the foster children) interact with our kids, seeing our kids sharing. It’s always nice to see your kids playing with and bonding with a child who is in need.”
The family has welcomed “a good variety of children” through the years, Jessica said. “Some are very quiet, others are very, very outgoing. Some of them, their lives have been full of chaos. We feel like when they come here we are the calm for them. Some, it feels like we’ve known them our whole lives.”
The Ragsdales have formed relationships with some primary foster care parents, offering regular respite care to them. This is advantageous because “you don’t want to move these children around anymore than you have to,” Jessica said.
She and Nick have not ruled out the idea of a permanent placement, or even adoption, if the right situation came along. “Love starts in the home,” Jessica said. When it comes to being a foster parent, “the joys really are endless. You give a little, and you get so much more in return.”