A family in North Alabama has been taking in foster children for close to three decades. A few years back, they brought two brothers into their home. One was extremely ill with a myriad of breathing and lung problems. The couple took the boy to doctor’s appointments and stayed with him in the hospital when he had a tube put down his throat.
After all, that’s what family does.
The boy got well, and the Department of Human Resources (DHR) was able to locate the boys’ fathers—two different men. Neither had any idea the boys existed. But when they found out they were fathers, both men stepped up to the plate and did everything they could to gain custody of their boys. It started with visits, but soon enough, the boys were living with their biological fathers.
Natalie Balch, Director of Social Services at AGAPE of North Alabama, worked with the families throughout the process.
“That’s what foster care is supposed to be,” Natalie said. “Foster parents are supposed to help kids get healthy and partner with biological families to help biological families get healthy so the kids can return home.”
AGAPE provides training and certification so parents can take foster children into their homes. It isn’t an easy task. The certification includes a 10-week class plus additional training in things like water safety and CPR throughout the year, Natalie said.
For most, their parenting styles have to change as well. Foster children have gone through some kind of trauma—neglect, domestic violence, drug abuse, physical or sexual abuse.
“You can’t parent a foster child in the way that your parents parented you,” Natalie said. “It takes a little extra effort…because they’ve experienced trauma, so you have to parent them with that trauma in mind.
“It’s been proven that kids who experience trauma, especially at a young age, have differences in their brain. Their neural pathways aren’t necessarily connected in the same way, “Natalie explained. “They don’t feel safe in the same way that a child who has been connected to a loving caregiver from birth may feel. That’s why you see a lot of out-of-control behavior.”
You have to go into foster parenting with the full understanding of what that child has been through and a plan to make that child feel safe again.
If You Can’t Give Them Back
The number-one thing people say about becoming a foster parent is they wouldn’t be able to give them back to their family. Maybe you’ve even said it. To that, Natalie has some advice.
“If you’re the type of person who feels like they couldn’t give a child up, you’re exactly the type of person that child needs,” Natalie said.
Natalie said there also has to be a change in the way we think of foster care. Foster parents aren’t taking children forever or until they are adopted by another family. This isn’t a rescue mission. Foster parents must go into it knowing the end-goal is to reunite children with their parents.
It’s a tough notion to swallow, especially after finding out what some of these kids have been through.
“Your goal as a foster parent is to partner with DHR, who has custody of the kids, and the biological family, who is trying to get custody back…,” Natalie said. “You’re not just committing to that foster child. You’re committing to working with that biological family as well to help them get healthy and get their kids back.”
Helping Foster Children
If you aren’t in a position to bring a foster child into your home, there are several ways you can still help them live happy, healthy lives.
Natalie has a 3-year-old foster daughter and no biological children. When that little girl came to her home, Natalie had nothing. No toys. No clothes. Nothing.
That’s the case for many of these children. Unless a family happens to have a child who is the same size and age, the foster parents will need some essentials. You can help by sending gift cards or money to new foster families to help offset some of the costs.
Other ideas include:
- Taking meals to foster parents. They are bringing another person into their home and trying to adjust to the new dynamics. If the foster parents need a lot of basic supplies, you can also host a shower.
- Get certified to provide respite care. Foster parents can only leave children with people who have been certified to take care of them. Go through the certification process, then give the foster parents a weekend to themselves.
- Put together welcome-home bags for the kids when they come into a new foster family.
Foster care isn’t for everyone, and AGAPE knows that. They aren’t asking foster families to do something that is easy. But even if you can’t bring a child into your home, you can find ways to help the children adjust to their temporary new lives.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Natalie said. “It has to be a calling.”
And if you do feel this is your calling, contact AGAPE of North Alabama for more information on foster care training. Maybe you can be the next family caring for a little boy who’s hoping to reunite with his father someday.
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