Q: Why Become a Foster Parent?
A: Why Not?
By Catrina McCulley Wagner
As she pulled the car up to the curb in front of the children’s shelter, the caseworker glanced in her rearview mirror to see 8-year-old Cody in the back seat gazing fearfully at the tattered brick building with the murky windows and crumbling concrete steps. Was this his new home? What would his life be like in this run-down place full of kids, like him, who had been taken from their parents and were awaiting foster homes? How did he end up here? He stared at the shelter, trying not to blink, as his eyes filled with tears.
“Currently, there are more than 15,500 kids in need of foster care in Illinois,” says Kendall Marlow, Deputy Director, Division of Communications for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Foster parents and their families play a critical role in the lives of thousands of young people, providing a temporary safe haven, love and support, with the ultimate goal of getting the child back to his or her family. “Illinois has a need for more foster families. Kids need stability and love in order to thrive, and foster families can provide that during a difficult time in their lives,” Marlow says.
Egyptian Electric Cooperative members, Christine and Les O’Dell have been married for 20 years and have two children, Grant, 19 and Sarah, 16. They love being parents and this year, decided to become foster parents because they knew they had more love to give. The couple completed their foster care training and almost instantly got a call for a potential placement.
“Christine and I talked about how we really needed to make a list of questions to ask (for when placement calls came in), but we didn’t have time. We received a call that very evening asking if we would take an infant girl. We said, ‘yes.’ Then a little while later, we got a second call. The caseworker said they could not find a placement for the girl’s older brother who was four and would we be willing to take him for a night or two? We agreed,” remembers Les.
“When they brought the children, the little boy instantly stole our hearts. He was the most outgoing, pleasant and polite little guy we’d ever seen. We instantly fell in love with them both. But the next day our caseworker called to say that they had found a family in a nearby community for the infant girl. She wondered if we’d be interested in keeping the little boy. We said, ‘Absolutely!’”
In the three months that followed, “J,” the little four-year-old, stole the O’Dell’s hearts and forever changed their lives. “He was a delight. All of us loved him and he considered our daughter to be his best friend. He was enthusiastic and loved to learn. He had two younger sisters, though, and the goal is to keep siblings together. Eventually a placement for all three was found and “J” left us to live with his sisters and another foster family,” Les says.
“It was hard to say goodbye and let go, but we knew there would always be another child who needed us,” says Christine.
And she was right. At the beginning of the summer, the O’Dells welcomed another foster child into their hearts, a seven-pound infant boy. “We absolutely love him like he is ours and we really enjoy loving him and watching him grow. He still has daily visits with his mother and, of course, the goal is eventually reunification. Until then, he is one of us,” Les says.
“We are so blessed to get to have these children in our lives. This was not something we would have ever expected to be doing at this point in our lives, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We get a little less sleep now, and we are re-learning how to parent younger children, but every time we get a smile, or see a milestone, or get a hug, we just want to experience more of it. We want to see these children grow into their fullest potential in life. To know that we are making a difference in the lives of children is worth it,” says Christine.
If you are reading this thinking, “I have more love to give, too,” consider becoming a licensed foster parent. “The first step is to contact your local DCFS office or private social service agency. Foster parents choose who they wish to be licensed by. Some base their decision on their religious affiliation, personal knowledge, or location,” says Judith Rehder, DCFS Downstate Resource Development Manager.
“The physical home is licensed, as well as the parents. The home needs to be a safe, clean environment, large enough to accommodate additional children. The parent(s) have to be physically healthy, pass criminal records checks and be fiscally solvent. A licensing specialist will come to the home and do a preliminary check. If all looks good, the family will proceed through the licensing home study and the prospective foster parents will complete an extensive training course designed to prepare them for the challenges of caring for foster children.
“Foster parents can choose how many children they wish to foster at a time, contingent on the size of their home and how many children they already have. However, many limit their availability to only one or two, regardless of the other factors. They can also choose the gender and ages of prospective foster children. Foster parents often know their strengths or family needs and thus are the best to make these decisions,” Rehder says.
“Illinois has a need for foster parents of all kinds, but especially those who would be interested in taking an African American child, those who speak Spanish, and those who are willing to take sibling groups,” Marlow says.
“These (foster) kids will work their way into your heart fast! The hardest part is having them leave. But we know that while we don’t have much to give, we do have lots of love and so we just try to make their lives as good as we possibly can,” says Les.
“Prepare to have your heart broken, but in a good way.” Christine adds. “Your heart will break for these children who just desperately need love and stability. Prepare to fall head over heels in love with your foster children. I couldn’t imagine being a foster parent without giving myself over to it completely. You have to have enough love in your heart to give away.”
Becoming a foster parent can be a lot of work and even sometimes heart breaking, but if you can help just one child reunite with his or her family or find a good and loving forever home then … Why Not?