What it Means to be a Foster Family
Foster parents provide a safe, nurturing home for children to heal. While there are currently about 150 licensed foster homes in Circuit 10, which covers Polk, Highlands, and Hardee Counties, more are needed. According to Teri Saunders, CEO of Heartland for Children here in Polk County, “That really is our greatest need. While donations and financial support are always helpful, at the end of the day money can’t buy what our kids in care need. They need moms and dads that are going to help them heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.”
Saunders explains that over the last few years, they have redesigned their approach to foster care. They have revamped the training program to better prepare their foster parents for that moment when they get the call to take those first children into their home. Heartland offers different classes in their three-county area that run for about eight weeks, and they conduct two home studies. They have also developed a mentoring program and have streamlined the licensing process. Once a foster family completes the training, they become licensed regularly within 30 days, which is phenomenal compared to other parts of the state or the country.
From a demographic perspective, Heartland’s foster parents range in age from their mid-20s on up into their mid-70s. They have couples as well as single foster parents. As for personal characteristics, Saunders says, “We need people who are very caring and nurturing and that are able to be flexible to meet the needs of the children and meet our children where they’re at. They are coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and all of them have had traumatic events in their lives.” Kim Daugherty, chief community relations officer at Heartland, adds that foster parents should “have just a strong interest in children and want to make a difference with the life of a child, as well as … they see the impact that it could have long-term on a community.”
Foster parents often face the challenge of a child coming into the home with extreme behaviors. It takes time and work to understand what approaches will best help the child feel calm and safe. Daugherty says Heartland gives foster parents an opportunity to understand a child’s trauma history. Many times behaviors, such as hoarding food or bed wetting, may be tied to what that child has experienced. By knowing the child’s story, the foster parents, the case workers, and the support system are best equipped to help that child over the long term.
Foster parents also develop strong relationships with both the case manager assigned to the child and the re-licensing counselor assigned to the home to offer support, guidance, and ensure that the home remains safe.
And when foster parents are able to build support networks around themselves, such as with other foster parents, it becomes a partnership. The goal is for the children to participate in normal activities. Saunders shared that with one of their foster families, the adult son and his wife sometimes take the foster teenage boys over the weekend and the children enjoy being in that different environment. “It really works out well because it’s not only support for the foster parents themselves, but it also ends up being a social support network for the children.”
When foster parents enter the program, they understand that the children are being placed temporarily while their biological parents are working on what they need to. Many foster parents actually help with co-parenting. During supervised visits they can serve as role models and mentors for the biological parents needing to learn better parenting skills.
Daugherty says that often people considering foster parenting just don’t know how to take the first step. “So what I would want to say to them is that Heartland for Children has staff members who are willing to welcome them with open arms and walk alongside them through every step of the process. Potential foster parents that I’ve met many times are very fearful of having to say goodbye to a child, so we do our very best to prepare them. But we’re all humans and we have emotions, and we ask them to open their hearts and their homes to these children. We understand that it’s a loss when a child does leave. We recognize that emotion, we acknowledge it, and we really try to do a good job of being there to help support that.”
Foster parents who have been doing it a long time say that although their purpose is to make the child’s life better, they get more out of the experience than they could have ever imagined. “They get very excited,” continues Daugherty, “when a child is able to go home with their biological parents, and they see success there and healing on many different levels.”
Saunders welcomes the opportunity to talk with anyone thinking about foster parenting: “I would say if someone is considering it or has been thinking about it, now’s the time.” Heartland for Children can be reached at (863) 519-8900, ext. 289, or heartlandforchildren.org. For more information, Daugherty also recommends fosteringflorida.com.
story by Jana Huss