Fostering children offers own rewards
Family is appreciated
WARREN — When children enter foster care, they are often carrying the trauma of whatever led to their placement with a county children services office, and the trauma of being separated from the life they knew.
But a well-trained and empathetic foster family can do more than provide safe shelter; it can help the children process what they’ve been through and advocate for them during the time the kids are in the system.
Like being a parent, fostering isn’t always easy, but it is filled with rewards for the family and the children. In June, local children services agencies are celebrating Foster Family Appreciation Day, and spreading awareness about the need for foster families in the Mahoning Valley.
Carrie and Ray Braun have welcomed 10 children into their Warren home since becoming a certified foster family four years ago.
The kids have lived alongside their two children, Reilly, 6, and Lyra, 2, and in a few months will meet the newest addition to their family when Carrie delivers a little boy or girl.
Licensed through Trumbull County Children Services, the Brauns are one of 74 families that care for an average of 155 children a year.
Stephanie and Andrew Huddleston of Salem are certified through Mahoning County Children Services, where just 50 families are licensed to care for 296 children in the system, as of Friday.
“The agency currently oversees 50 local, county-licensed foster families, but we need more — many more,” said Jennifer Kollar, public information officer for the Mahoning County agency. “We need more and as many in-county options for children so these children remain in their own community. Evidence-based research reveals that children do better when they are able to remain in the communities where they are from.”
The Huddlestons have cared for 50 children in the decade they’ve been licensed, and adopted three who live alongside their biological son and daughter.
When a child is placed with a foster family, they might stay for days, weeks, months or years depending on their situation.
Kids have stayed with the Huddlestons as long as 28 months, and up to six months with the Brauns.
Both have also taken children for respite care, when a foster kid placed with a different foster family needs a place to stay when the foster family can’t care for them temporarily.
Becoming a respite care provider or a person certified to babysit for foster kids is another way to help kids in foster care, without taking on the full responsibility of becoming a licensed foster family, Stephanie said.
And, she wants other people to take a second look at becoming a foster family.
“I know a lot of people say they can’t do what we do because they might grow too attached to the children who eventually leave. But that is exactly what the kids need, someone to put them first and give them a sense of normalcy. Some kids don’t know what it is to have a family meal, or do laundry or make a meal. You don’t need to be a perfect parent, you just have to be there for them and never give up on them,” Stephanie said.
And while there is a serious, multi-step process to become a foster family, it isn’t as hard as it seems, Stephanie said. A friend of hers finished the requirements in three weeks and there are people at the agencies to help.
Carrie said it can be tough to work in the continuing education, but there are online and in-person class options, and the families can choose what types of courses they take and focus on learning the skills to help children.
Being around other children has helped her biological children with their social skills and have taught Carrie more about parenting, she said.
NOT ALWAYS EASY
It isn’t always easy to earn the trust of the children, but once a foster parent does, it can help the children work out their trauma, Carrie said.
“When you are dealing with behavioral issues with a birth child, you know what environment they are exposed to, you know their history. You know how to read their behavior and figure out how to respond to them. Some kids in foster care have had horrific experiences — they were removed from their homes for a reason. You don’t know their problems and you can’t fix it. But you can earn their trust and learn pieces of their puzzle and help them to get the services they need,” Carrie said.
It is rewarding, Carrie said, to reach a breakthrough with a child and connect them to people who can help.
Stephanie said being a foster mom has taught her to adapt and to communicate with kids from different backgrounds.
“The kids have trauma and they go through things that can trigger the trauma from before foster care, or in foster care. There are a lot of ups and downs, but it requires patience and compassion,” Stephanie said.
Family members in Stephanie’s life adopted or fostered children, so the seed to contribute herself was always there, she said.
But when her daughter came home from preschool one day asking for a little sister, she and Andrew looked into the process and started down the road to becoming licensed.
“I grew up in a broken family and endured trauma. Growing up, I felt like while I was going through that if I was strong enough to get through it, I wanted to help other children make a difference in a child’s life and bond with them and explain how I got through it,” Stephanie said.
Now, 10 years later, the Huddlestons make their family decisions based on being a foster family.
They replaced their vehicle with a 15-person van and designed their home to care for children.
“We involve the kids in everything we do — vacations, wedding anniversaries, everything. If the children cannot go, we don’t go,” Stephanie said.
Andrew Huddleston said he hopes to teach the kids things they “take with them.”
“Especially with the older kids, to give them some type of a foundation, so when they leave the system they have skills they can take into adulthood,” Andrew said.
Carrie decided to become a foster mother to honor the memory of her mother, who never wanted a child to go without love and care. Her mother, who gave birth to her in the wake of the 1985 tornado, would “love” what Carrie and Ray are doing, she said.
In the Braun house, a wall is dedicated to the handprints of the kids they have fostered. Seeing the wall with the handprints of the other kids helps new children trust that they are heard, welcomed and not alone.
The colorful wall of handprints and names is next to a quote stenciled on the wall: “You put your hand on our home and on our hearts.”