By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Early in their marriage, Theresa and Daniel Smith, now of LeClaire, talked about becoming foster parents because Daniel grew up with foster brothers and sisters and his sister is a foster parent. “It’s a family thing,” Theresa said. “We think of it as taking care of God’s children and taking care of the least of these.”
A five-year challenge with infertility accelerated Theresa and Daniel’s decision to become foster parents. Members of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, they completed the training and other requirements and received their license to provide foster care in January 2018. In the short span of three years, the couple has fostered six children and adopted two of them; Theresa has given birth to a son and is now pregnant with a child due in September.
Foster parenting “is definitely something you have to feel called to do,” said Theresa. She and her husband discerned that calling and turned to God in making decisions about fostering and adopting children. They are grateful for the support they receive from Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections, the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, Fostering Hope in Scott County and social media foster parent support groups.
“Foster care is a temporary living situation for children whose parents cannot take care of them and whose need for care has come to the attention of child welfare agency staff. While in foster care, children may live with relatives, with foster families or in group homes,” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based private philanthropy devoted to developing a brighter future for children at risk.
Reunification is the goal
More than 3,600 children in Iowa were placed in foster care for the third quarter of the current fiscal year in Iowa. Of that total, 2,245 children were placed with relatives or adults who have an emotionally significant relationship with the child, such as extended family members. The other 1,395 children were placed with foster parents (Iowa Department of Human Services).
Adopt Us Kids.org reports a large need for more families to foster teens, children with special needs or behaviors and sibling groups and foster or adoptive parents for African American, Latino and Native American children.
The goal of foster parenting is always reunification, Theresa said. “Foster parents are expected to work in partnership with the child, the child’s DHS worker, and the child’s parents to achieve this goal,” the Four Oaks website states. “We want them to co-parent,” said Christa Hefel, recruiting and training manager with Four Oaks, “to help parents successfully get their children back.” Reunification averages around 50 percent in Iowa (families helping families of iowa.org).
Theresa kept a notebook for each of the six foster children she and her husband fostered to keep their parents posted about their child’s day. Maybe the child visited a park and really enjoyed it. Maybe a child had a rough day and Theresa was able to figure out the reason. For two of her foster children, she did a nightly video chat with their parents.
Challenges and joy
The first few weeks with a new foster child are the most challenging, Theresa said, because the foster parent and child need to adjust to the new situation. DHS removes children from their homes when they are in an unsafe situation. In a new setting, something that seems inconsequential could trigger an adverse reaction. “It’s figuring out triggers and figuring how to manage those triggers,” Theresa said.
Their first foster child, whom Theresa and Daniel adopted, is now 4-½. Elijah arrived in their home with just four hours of notice when he was 16 months old. Recently, the Smiths moved from their home in Donahue to LeClaire and the move has proved unsettling to Elijah. “He’s asking if (some object) is here at the new house. It is; he just hasn’t seen it yet because it’s in a new location… moving has been a big trigger for him.”
Theresa said she and Daniel felt called to adopt Elijah. “We fell in love with him. He’s hilarious. He’s one of those kids who is very loving.” Just last month, the Smiths adopted his half-sister, Ella, now 11 months old. She arrived at the Smith household just two days after her birth. As with Elijah, the couple completed a waiting period before adopting Ella.
Four of the children the Smiths fostered returned home. Two of those children, “we had to end up finding another home for,” Theresa said. The placement did not work out. That happens sometimes, Hefel said. The Iowa DHS asks families to provide a 10-day notice so that the state agency can find a new home for the foster child. The re-entry rate (moving from one foster home to another) in eastern Iowa is 8.08%, higher than elsewhere in Iowa, according to the DHS statistics. That is why foster families have a caseworker, a network of support and other resources to help work through challenges, Hefel said.
“You might fall in love with a kid or you might not and that kid needs to find another home,” Theresa said. “There will be moments in a case where you will just have to rely on God and trust that his will is what is going to happen.”
A supportive role
With the rapid, but joyful growth of Theresa and Daniel’s family, the couple has decided not to be foster parents again until their children are older. “There’s always a way to be involved in foster care; for now, we’ll shift to a more supportive role,” she said.
Theresa chose to share her family’s foster care story because she hopes it will encourage other families and individuals to get involved, either as foster parents or in a supportive role.
Some people may be called to praying for foster or adoptive parents, or to provide respite or to clean the house, pick up groceries. Some may be called to babysit, to help with transportation or to accompany a foster or adoptive parent to a court appointment.
“We are all called to assist in some way. I think foster care is an unspoken topic in our society. I think we need to talk about it,” Theresa said. “As Catholics, we need to protect God’s children, and the least of these.”
How you can help
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/).
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 misconceptions do people have about fostering?
A: Many people believe that single parents or someone who is divorced cannot foster. “Yes they can!” People also assume that foster parents eventually adopt their foster children. That may be possible in some cases. However, the goal is to work with birth families to reunite them with their children.
Another misconception is that “all foster children are naughty,” which is not true. Many children do not have behavioral issues while some struggle. Kids just really need love, consistency and structure.
Some prospective foster parents worry about becoming too attached, but “I want them to get attached! It is important for foster parents to care for the children, to be good mentors for them, to help the children feel safe.”
Q: How can families with children at home prepare them to welcome foster children?
A: Maintain open communication. A caseworker in the home study works with the family to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Q: In what case might adoption be a possibility?
A: Adoption is possible if the birth family is not able to meet all the safety requirements and is unable to be reunited with their children. Then, “DHS may look to a foster family to adopt the child if rights have been terminated.”
— Lindsay Steele