Foster mothers and families give homes to children in need
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2012
5/24/12 at 3:41 PM
Find more information on how to become a foster parent.
Related Story: Resource center helps provide for foster kids, families
Helen Lee has been a mother to 286 children in the Tulsa area, welcoming the abused and neglected to her table, an empty bed, family vacations and her love.
The foster mom of 43 years has photos of every child who has been part of her household.
"I remember all of them, even if I can't think of their name right away," said Lee, who raised the children in a rural ranch house in Mounds.
At 73, Lee is still keeping up with children in need, including the adoption of a teenage foster child three years ago. Her husband died 12 years ago, so her cousin and long-time respite provider, Sue Fisher, moved in.
"As long as I can chase a 2-year-old, I'll stick with it," Lee said.
Lee said the culture shifts during the last four decades have made the scars on children more physically visible and emotionally damaging. She said drug use and the prevalence of violence and sex in the media are among the most significant changes.
"Our society has become more violent, so our children see and are subjected to more violence," she said.
When children come into her home, there are basic routines she teaches - brushing teeth, bathing, combing hair. More age-appropriate responsibilities get added as they stay. Getting therapy for the children is also part of their lives.
"Kids come in with some fear, and you have to be ready for that," Lee said. "They may have been jerked out of their home, been in a shelter, other placements or heard stories from other kids. You have to be willing to deal with that fear."
Out of all the children entering her home, only a handful were too violent to stay, which had more to do with emerging untreated mental illness than acting out, she said.
"They have to know you will love them no matter what they do," Lee said. "Love isn't enough. It's a calling. God told us to do this and it has stayed in my heart that I was supposed to do this."
Fisher, 66, said it has never crossed her mind to stop fostering children or walk away from a difficult child.
"You can't," Fisher said. "These kids need to be loved. They need attention. They need more than just being taken care of."
Lee raised seven of her own children, at least two nieces or nephews and adopted four.
The women take advantage of all the training and resources available from DHS, saying parenting is a never-ending lesson.
"You never have this down. I'm always learning something new," Lee said. "I love the laughter I get from the kids and the love. We need more foster homes. The shelter is always full, and these children need someone to really care for them."
'It is priceless'
Wendy Smith is the calm in the room as children bound into the kitchen and living room after school, negotiating for snacks and rushing to get ready for an evening dance.
The 37-year-old stay-at-home foster mom just smiles.
"It's definitely a lot busier and very entertaining," she said. "It's made our family more - better and happier."
Smith, her husband, Jason, and two children watched and listened for years as their neighbors took in foster children.
"I used to think that was crazy, seeing the kids and how their house would get torn up from the wear and tear," she said, laughing. "But then we started to feel a call that we could do this. I think God had a lot to do with it because you have to have skills for it. Fostering is a kind of a calling."
The family went through the Bair Foundation, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to recruiting and supporting foster homes, to become foster parents with DHS in September 2010. They decided to become a therapeutic home, which are placements for children who have more challenging behaviors.
"I can't explain how good it feels to be a mother to kids who don't have one or one who hasn't been there for them," Smith said. "To be the first person in their lives to treat them as a mother should, well, it breaks your heart. All the kids we have taken have given me that gift. I never imagined there was such a need until I was in it."
Smith's home is a model of controlled chaos.
As the kids come into the home, all make a beeline to Smith for a hug before they head on to chores, showers, homework, snacks or play.
She has charts on a pantry door outlining the chores expected of each child and pull tabs listing choices of rewards and punishments. House rules are posted and basic, "No lying, no yelling, no stealing," among them.
"We have very set boundaries but are very loving," Smith said.
The couple can take up to three children. They have asked for the children to be younger than their own, who are 12 and 16.
"We want our kids to be influences, not be influenced," she said. "We wouldn't have done this without our kids agreeing. They make a lot of sacrifices. They share their rooms, their things and their parents.
"They've learned how not to be selfish and give of themselves. They see money is not so important - that it is not what people value or what people should value in you. They are finding the most important things in life are relationships."
Smith said they get support from Bair and other community resources to help financially. She raves about some DHS caseworkers but said some are unresponsive to calls.
Those are issues the agency is seeking to address in a pending child welfare plan, which seeks to lower worker caseloads to between 10 and 12 and restructure the organization for better customer service to foster families.
"This is not a job that will make you famous or wealthy, but it is priceless," Smith said. "There is no price on getting to be an influence in a child's life who may not have another influence."
'Surrounded by care'
When the parental rights were terminated for a foster child in Jessica Spencer's care, the foster mom wept with the natural mother.
When children have left her home for reunification with their families, the 30-year-old single woman has wept in secret.
"These children deserve to be loved with reckless abandon," Spencer said. "I choose them, even if it causes me pain at the end."
Spencer was about 26 when she started the training and process of becoming a foster mom.
"I always wanted to be a mother," Spencer said. "I love mothering, and mothering has great rewards that are just not explainable."
She has taken care of about seven children during the last three years, most of them infants and young children.
"I've been to the Laura Dester Shelter, so I know where kids are if they are not in my house," she said. "This really is about one-to-one. If I have one kid with me here, that is one less kid in the shelter."
Spencer has worked in nonprofits and organizations that serve at-risk children. She currently has an evening job schedule as an administrator at a school so she can spend the days with the children.
"A good portion of my reward is that the children feel extreme love while they are here, no matter what happens before or after," she said. "While they are here, they will be surrounded by care."
Spencer said her experience with DHS has been varied. She said some workers have trouble promptly returning calls or providing information on services the child needs.
"Some workers, I want to kiss their feet they are so phenomenal," she said. "With others, it's the exact opposite experience."
She gets support for clothes and other material items through the Foster Care Resource Center and church.
"The state does not give enough money to take care of kids, not even close," she said. "But I live frugally and I'm very connected to my faith group."
It is important to Spencer to know and work with a child's biological parents.
"I have a huge respect for them, and they've been through a lot," she said. "There was a baby who was with me from birth, and it was so hard letting go. But that mom worked hard and turned her life around. It's a story about her having time to pull it together."
Oklahoma foster parents
Therapeutic foster parents
- 3,984 parents among 2,321 homes
- 41 percent have served for less than a year and 40 percent have served between one and two years
- 30 percent are between 40 and 49 years old; 28 percent are in their 30s and 21 percent are in their 50s
- 59 percent are women
- 65 percent are married
- 77 percent are white, 12 percent are black, 10 percent are American Indian
Monthly state rate paid to foster parents
- 1,431 parents in 948 homes
- 30 percent have served more than six years, 26 percent have served three to five years and 30 percent have served between one and two years
- 52 percent are 50 or older
- 63 percent are married
- 67 percent are white, 27 percent are black, 4 percent American Indian
$498.33: For children 13 years or older
$430: For a child age 6 to 12
$365: For newborns to age 5
Child Welfare Improvement Plan
This plan comes from a settlement agreement reached in January between DHS and the nonprofit Children's Rights, which filed a federal class-action lawsuit in 2008 seeking reforms in the child welfare system. The plan addresses 15 areas of concern, which will be overseen and implemented by a three-person monitoring panel. The plan is pending approval by those monitors. A central part of the plan is ramping up the recruitment of foster homes - 500 in traditional homes and 150 therapeutic homes. The plan and oversight commissioners of the agency have called for improved training and better customer service to foster families. By having more foster-home options, the overcrowding in the shelter can be alleviated and shelter use for babies and young children can be eliminated.
To find out more about being a foster parent, call 1-800-376-9729
Original Print Headline: Safe from abuse
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Helen Lee (center) sits with her adopted children Katrina Lee, 14, and Paul Lee, 25, and their dog Hogan at their home in Liberty. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Helen Lee bakes a cake with Katrina. Lee has been a foster mother for 43 years for 286 children. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Foster mother Wendy Smith shows a chore chart she uses for children she cares for in her Collinsville home. Smith and her husband operate a therapeutic foster care home for children with more challenging behaviors. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World