WKU Public Radio partnered with WKU PBS and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to produce a radio series and television documentary on foster care and adoption.
More than 400,000 U.S children are in foster care, removed from their families when their parents are in crisis and can’t take care of them. There’s a group of people who unselfishly answer the call by becoming foster parents.
One of them is Melanie Watts of Bowling Green. She didn’t give birth to any of her three children, but loves them just the same. She adopted them through foster care, a journey that began while working as a captain at the Bowling Green Police Department.
“Maybe I hit the age, maybe it was just that point of my life where I thought something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I thought to myself, I just need a child. 'One would be great,' I kept thinking. So I went through the foster care program," explained Watts. "I was working one afternoon and got a call to check child welfare. We get there, and there’s a child laying in a stroller wearing a white onesie, or at least it had been white at one time. It was now brown, her diaper was brown and almost dragging, and the mom, you know, is upset that social services is there."
"We’re trying to calm mom down, tell her the situation, and we were trying to feed the baby, change her diaper, and we then realize she has lice, she has scabies. Little did I know, two months later I’d get a phone call saying, 'We have a seven-month-old child, you have hour to get her,' and she was the same baby.”
That was now five-year-old Lexie. Watts would go on to take in Lexie’s half-sisters, three-year-old Abby and two-year-old Ella, and now there’s a fourth child, whom Watts is still fostering. She, like many foster families already stretched thin, take in more when no one else will.
“One would’ve sufficed, but I didn’t want a sibling floating, or being placed in another foster home and they never know each other," said Watts.
Eight thousand children in Kentucky are in need of safe and loving homes. They are in the state foster care system due to no fault of their own. Fonda Walker recruits and certifies foster parents for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“Our agency becomes involved with families and children when there are reports of abuse. It could be physical abuse, it could be sexual abuse, it could be someone reporting raised voices in a household, it could be emotional abuse, negative talk towards children," Walker explained. "Sometimes we get reports asking for foster care because there are reports of parents using drugs in a home, or other substances, and they’ve been arrested, therefore there’s no one to take care of the children. We also receive reports when parents have passed away, and there’s no one to take care of the children.”
When John and Deanna Gott married, she already had a son, and was reluctant at the idea of more children. It was John who suggested becoming foster parents.
“He was very persistent that he’d like to do this, and I had basically raised my son by myself. He was almost 16, and so I really thought I was finished and was looking forward to that part of life, but I agreed to go to the classes. After one class, I knew that it was what we were supposed to do. It’s been going on 11 years, and we’ve adopted five children.”
One of them is 22-year-old Nelson Gott.
“Ever since we got with them it’s been great," Gott said. "I loved every minute of it, and even to this day I come back and see them because they’ve taken care of me and been there for me, helped me through stuff, so I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
All foster parents agree that fostering is a rewarding, yet difficult, journey. The experience is rife with unknowns. When children are placed in foster care, the goal is always reunification with their birth families.
John and Misti Carrigan of Warren County became foster parents in 2011 and have since adopted two children from the state's child welfare system.
"It’s probably one of the most amazing things we’ve done. It’s probably one of the most heartbreaking things we’ve done," Misti said.
“Some of the children come into foster care with a lot of hurt, especially the older children and feel like they’re in foster care because their parents don’t love them and they don’t understand why they’re there," John said. "You've got to try to explain to them that they are loved by their parents, but their parents just don’t know how to love to where you can stay in their home, and maybe they’re trying to get help so they can get you back.”
A few days after children enter state custody, a meeting is held between social workers, birth, and foster parents. Biological parents are reminded why their children were removed and are given conditions for getting their children back, such as obtaining suitable house, stable employment, substance abuse counseling and parenting classes.
“We’re talking about a process that gives parents a significant period of time to work on tasks, and requires the court to be very patient. And obviously that’s what you want to do because the law holds the parent-child relationship as one of those most cherished relationships known to the law, and as such, will not disturb that relationship absent of significant reasons," said Warren County Family Court Judge David Lanphear.
When a child is removed from birth parents, social workers first try to place the child with family members. If a suitable arrangement can’t be made, the child will enter a foster home, group home, or residential facility. A child can be in state custody from days to years, and it’s the strangers that children are placed with who often become their biggest advocates.
“The role foster parents play in this process is invaluable. Foster parents provide a safe harbor for children in times of distress," said Lanphear. "I’ve had cases where foster parents are here every time and parents are not, so that speaks volumes to you. We need good foster parents.”
It doesn’t take long for foster parents to form an emotional attachment to the children in their home. The hard part is knowing in the back of their minds that the children may one day leave and return to their birth parents.
“When children leave our home, it’s great for them to be reunited with family, but we lose a part of our heart. I think they take a part of us with them," said Misti Carrigan. "We’re definitely a changed family when they leave.”
After experiencing infertility, Kristyn Hall and her husband David adopted a son and later decided to expand their family by becoming foster parents. They brought home a newborn baby boy and later his brother, but the boys eventually returned to relatives.
“Having them for over two years, they were part of our family as much as our son was, and so it was very hard to let them go," Kristyn recalled. "We struggled, I’m just going to be real and honest, but we had a lot of support.”
Denise Lambrianou is a former adoption specialist with the Family Enrichment Center in Bowling Green. She's also the mother of four boys adopted from foster care.
“I would say if you don’t get emotionally attached, you’re doing it wrong because it should hurt when they go back home," Lambrianou remarked. "You are taking care of someone else’s child. If you were in that situation, you would want someone taking care of your child to love them and nurture them. You can’t do those things without building an attachment."
Kim Wilson is licensed clinical social worker who practices in Bowling Green. She says that children removed from their birth parents face a range of emotions.
“The most prevalent emotion is fear. The worst fear for a child is fear of the unknown. There is fear and longing and uncertainty," Wilson explained. "Children love their parents and want to be with them. There is unsureness of what’s coming. You’re walking into a house full of strangers – kids, adults you’ve never seen before. Everything changes.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about children in foster care is that they’re at fault, but the children are victims of their birth parents’ poor choices. Unfit parenting is often accentuated by substance abuse.
“I see some sad circumstances sometimes with parents who I think don’t realize the blessing they’ve received in having their children," Lanphear recalled. I frequently tell parents, when drugs are involved, you must choose which you love most, the drugs or the children, because you cannot have both of them. They’re free to make bad decisions if they want, but I tell people all the time, bad decisions are going to chase you the rest of your life. Unfortunately, there are many who learn that lesson the hard way.”
In some cases, birth parents will voluntarily give up their parental rights. That was the case with David and Kristyn Hall whose one-year-old daughter Peyton entered foster care when her biological mom put her up for adoption right after giving birth. Kristyn never got to meet Peyton’s biological mom, but gets emotional at the thought of what she would tell her today.
“I’ve thought about that question a lot. The night before Peyton’s adoption, I wrote her a letter telling her how much I loved her, but also how much her birth mom loved her because she chose life for her," sobbed Hall. "If I could see her today, I would first tell her thank you, and I would just remind her how much I love her and if there ever comes a day when Peyton asks a question, that I would tell her that there are two women – her birth mom and me – who love her very unconditionally.”
It’s more common for parental rights to be terminated by the courts after parents refuse over a lengthy amount of time to work their case plan and meet the conditions of having their children returned.
“If the parent does not work on those tasks, and the child can’t be returned to the parent, that’s when they start the road to termination," said Warren County Family Court Judge David Lanphear.
At that point, foster children become eligible for adoption, and in most cases, are adopted by their foster parents. John and Misti Carrington remember the day well when they shared the news to with their son Chance who officially joined their family at age four.
“I think once the adoption was finalized he could be him," John recalled. "He could just relax and realize he’s not going anywhere and we could tell him that he wasn't going anywhere. He was ours forever and he's just one of us."
Adoption day marks the culmination of a journey that maybe began as trauma but ended in triumph.
“I always say that we’re in a court room, not a hospital delivery room, but today, you can celebrate as if you were. You know, in a hospital when a baby is born, it’s a celebration. Family comes, people bring balloons, it is a joyous moment, and so I want people to be able to celebrate adoption in the very same way," said Warren County Family Court Judge David Lanphear. "I’ve had as many as 75 people in this courtroom. Typically, in front of the bench we all pose for photos. I always give the children a stuffed animal, and so it’s a very happy time."
Foster parents are always in demand in every state. Kevin and Mima Lee are both 50 years old. They’ve been married 21 years and have no children of their own. The Lees have come to the Department for Community Based Services in Warren County for the start of a six-week training on foster parenting.
“We’ve been discussing that we wanted kids for a long time and finally decided that it was time to start fostering children," Mima commented. "We got all the stuff that we’d wanted to do at retirement pretty much over with," so now we want to step back in our lives and do what we wanted to do in our younger years.”
Like most foster families, the Lees would like to get a baby. As foster children get older, they become more difficult to place with a family and can end up in group homes or residential facilities. Former adoption specialist Denise Lambrianou says even after age seven, children are considered less desirable.
“I think the big myth is that when they’re older, they’re somehow harder to handle or they’re set in their ways and you can’t raise a child to be what you want them to be," said Lambrianou. "I think a lot of people would say that’s not the truth."
Age isn’t the only factor working against older children. Many others will enter the Special Needs Adoption Program, or SNAP. The name can be misleading. Simply being older or being in a sibling group can place a child in SNAP. Other SNAP children can have medical diagnoses. Amy Smith works as an adoption specialist for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“It’s very, very hard. I will not lie and say I have not cried about these kids a lot, especially when I know how important it is to have my own kids during holidays," Smith stated. "I think about how hard that must be and just want to give them a hug, because at the top of their list is 'Have you found a family for me yet?'"
Teens in foster care who don’t get adopted will age out of the system at age 18. The odds are stacked against them. They can end up repeating their birth parents’ patterns of substance abuse, homelessness, and crime.
“Kids that have an identified family just fare better than ones who age out of foster care," Smith explained. "Kids who age out of foster care, their chances of success in life are just not as good as the ones who have that family support."
When youth in foster care turn 16, the state begins working with them to ease their transition into society on their own. As an independent living coordinator for the Department for Community Based Services in Warren County, Sheila Butler helps teens with a host of tasks like applying for a driver’s license, managing money, enrolling in college, and writing a resume.
“They need these resources so they can get ahead in life. A lot of us have our biological families to get these resources, but foster children just do not. We need these resources so they can have a jump in life," Butler stated.
“One of the jobs of a parent is to prepare their child to be productive in society, and become a happy adult, who can deal with problems. If a child has not had parenting or not been in kept in a good, nurturing environment, we have adults that are likely to have substance abuse issues, to have violent relationships, serial bad relationships, or don’t know how to be stable," explained Licensed Clinical Social Worker Kim Wilson. "Aging out of foster care, children often return to their families of origin if they don’t have love. It’s a testament to the theory that go back to what they know.”
Under Kentucky law, foster youth who age out of the system at 18 have one year to recommit to the state until their 21st birthday. The state can provide young adults with housing and educational assistance.
“I feel like the most rewarding part is when I see a youth who is going to school trying to make a positive change in their life, Butler commented. "I enjoy seeing that they are taking pride in their education and really having that goal to do better, and make a better life for themselves.”
Six weeks after starting foster care training, Kevin and Mima Lee are heading into their final class. Just some paperwork and a home study separate them from their first placement.
Jeffrey Jordan entered foster care at age two. His mother gave birth to him while in prison. He spent more than 15 years in foster care. He never found a forever family, but credits his foster families for giving his life direction.
“I believe that 75 percent of my time in foster care has been nothing but positive and uplifting because I have had that positive throughout my life to teach me right and wrong," stated Jordan.
He always missed not having a permanent family, but certain milestones were especially hard like birthdays and holidays. At age 24, Jordan is finishing college. He’s written a book about foster care, and shares his story as a motivational speaker.
“I have a great church family, and I look at that as ‘Hey, this is your family.'"
Some children in foster care will find their forever families. Others won’t. For them, foster parents have to let go and hope all of the prayers and sleepless nights were enough. There’s a good chance that foster children will not remember their names, but will remember, at one point in their lives, they were loved unconditionally.