We are family: Fostering fills a need

For many people, the words "foster care" conjure uncomfortable images of children taken from their parents– for whatever reasons– and bounced from home to home for years, never finding stability, and sometimes finding abuse worse than they endured at home.

But local social service workers say that's an outdated– and unfair– stereotype.

"It can be a very positive experience for everyone involved," says Amy Nash, a social worker with Tri-Area Foster Families, a collaborative organization that recruits, trains and supports foster families in Albemarle, Charlottesville, and Greene counties.

Another misconception is that foster care is always long-term. While foster care is always court ordered, in some cases a child is placed with a foster family for just a few days before returning home. Sometimes the placement lasts a few weeks– and, Nash concedes, sometimes it is longer.

Finding a permanent home for children– ideally, back with their biological parents– is the goal of foster care, says Dana Neidley, chief of social work programs for the city of Charlottesville.

"We try to do that in less than two years," she says, "and ideally in less than 12 months." New federal regulations give biological parents 14 months from the time of separation to create a suitable home environment for their children.

If the biological parents are unable to provide a stable home, even with support and training from the department of social services, the second choice is a "kinship placement," where the child is assigned to the home of a relative or friend.

If this can't be achieved, the child is placed with one of the local families who have had foster care training.

Foster families receive "nominal" compensation, Nash says– approximately $10 per day per child (a few dollars more for older children and teens). Working parents who take in a young child are compensated for daycare costs as well, and there are special supplements of up to $1,000 per month for children with special needs.

In fiscal year 2005, 236 children in the Tri-Area were placed in short- or long-term foster care. Currently, 194 local children are in foster care, 20 of them waiting to be adopted.

Several local families spoke with The Hook about how their families decided to open their homes to foster children.


The Bullards


Taking in foster children was a gradual decision, says Beth Bullard. She and husband Todd, both UVA grads, have four children of their own, ages 6 to 18, but several years ago they took in one of her own children's friends during a "chaotic" period in that child's life.

"I said, 'We can do this'," Beth Bullard recalls.

Five years later, the family has hosted six foster children, ranging in age from an infant girl to an eight-year-old boy, who Bullard says was "confused."

"He left in a chaotic situation, with his parents saying, 'Don't take my kids away'," she says. "He expressed some anger, saying, 'That's not fair, why did they take me away from my dad?'"

Last week, two siblings– a three-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother– arrived at the Bullards' house. Because of ongoing custody issues, they can't be identified, but Bullard says it's going well so far, and that her own children enjoy having new siblings– even temporary ones.

"They're all happy that we do it," she says. "They come to love the kids."

Bullard says she and Todd will continue to take in children as long as there's a need.

"My gifts are with children," she says. And while it's hard to say goodbye, she says the rewards of seeing her foster children reunite with their biological parents make it worthwhile.

"A lot of people say they couldn't give the children up," she says, "but we feel that we can be close and still let them move on."

Beth and Todd Bullard with their family



The Arnolds


Infertility was the impetus for the Arnolds to become foster parents. After years of trying to have children of their own and considering in vitro treatment, they realized there was another way to become parents: foster care.

"It seemed to be natural," says Bruce.

But after going through the foster parent training, they were disappointed to learn there were no foster children available. (They'd been hoping for an infant.)

While they were waiting, a man from their church was killed in an accident, leaving a wife and five young children. The Arnolds, along with other church members, stepped in to provide "respite care" for the exhausted and grieving widow.

A few years later, the mother approached the Arnolds to ask if they would adopt her new baby. They leapt at the opportunity, and now are parents to nine-year-old Taylor.

The couple continued to take in foster children, with the only rule that they wouldn't take a child older than their son.

"There's a pecking order that needs to stay in place," says Bruce.

They met their second son, six-year-old Matthew, when he was 16 months old, and cared for him as a foster child for 14 months. They had regular contact with his biological parents, who eventually decided Matthew would do best if the Arnolds adopted him. Both Taylor and Matthew's adoptions are "open," so both boys know and occasionally spend time with members of their birth families.

The Arnolds haven't been able to maintain relationships with the other foster children they've taken in.

"You want to," says Bruce, "but it's almost too hard."

To families who are considering foster care but are concerned they might commit to more than they can handle, Bruce urges further consideration.

Even after you've signed up and gone through the training, he explains, "You don't have to say yes," if the timing or particular child doesn't seem right for your family.

Bruce, Tammy, Taylor and Matthew Arnold


The Pattersons


"We don't have any children of our own, but we have a commitment to children," says Bill Patterson. That commitment led him and wife Laura to explore the option of foster parenting.

Over the past five years, the Pattersons have had four placements– two of them the same child, an toddler girl the Pattersons are now hoping to adopt. Because the adoption is not final, they have asked that she not be identified.

Patterson, a former Value America employee, has returned to school to become a teacher, something he believes will help him with future foster children.

But while he cites numerous rewards, he acknowledges foster parenting can be difficult.

"When they return to their families, it's bittersweet," he says. "You hate to see them go, but if everything works out the way it's supposed to, the family is where they should be."

Bill Patterson

Families interested in learning more about foster care should call Tri-Area Foster Families at 970-3473.