Most parents hope for their children to be raised in happy, loving homes, with all the attention and affection they could need.
Sometimes, however, the biological family is unable to provide that kind of home environment for children. That’s when foster parents step in.
Tira Jackson has been a foster mother for 10 years, raising her own daughter while taking in two other children, at different times, for long periods of time.
“I grew up in foster care and I thought it could be a really good thing for me to do,” said Jackson.
Not all of her experiences in foster care as a child were pleasant ones, she said, but that only encouraged her to open her own home to a child in need.
“I felt I could be someone who could help avoid the bad experiences I had," she said. “You can’t avoid or change what’s happened in your past, but you can help someone adapt their situation.”
Jackson is one of dozens of foster parents that take in children through the Adolescent and Family Growth Center, a Springfield-based private foster care agency that places children between the ages of 11 and 18 years old in foster homes.
Currently, 438 children are in foster care in Fairfax County, said Emma Marshall, a community educator with the county’s foster care program.
The county’s child protective services will receive a phone call to check on a family, Marshall said, and upon investigation, if it is found to be in the child’s best interest to be taken away from their natural family, they will be put in foster care.
“The care can be specialized, like if the child needs a therapeutic home,” Marshall said. “It all depends on the needs of the child.”
IN MANY CASES, children will be returned to their families within five days, she said. However, some children may need to be placed in foster homes for longer stretches of time.
Foster parents, like Jackson, go through specialized training before they’re certified to take in children, Marshall said.
“We put all parents through a 27 hour course which trains families on how to deal with different types of families, interacting with the biological families and how to deal with the separation and loss they may feel if a child is reunited with their biological family,” Marshall said.
One hundred and fifty families have been certified to provide foster homes, she said, but the need is growing and more families are needed to take on the growing number of children, especially from African American or Spanish-speaking homes.
“No child is left alone. Some families are certified to have more than one child at a time, but we still need more families,” Marshall said.
A foster parent for two years, Kim Fernandes was inspired to help out children in need after reading about the foster care program.
“I’ve had a few short-term kids and one that lived with me for a few months,” she said. The boy in her care now will most likely be staying with her for a few years.
“I try to make sure the kid doesn’t know how long they’ve been placed with me, because that might make the situation more difficult for them,” she said. “I just want to try to teach them something different, something that will help them down the road.”
Although she has no biological children, Fernandes said she feels she can connect with and understand teenagers.
“Of course, there are some trying moments, but I know I want to do this and what I get out of it I just can’t explain,” she said. “It’s so satisfying. I didn’t realize this but it really helps you grow as a person.”
Fernandes said she’d like to dedicate her life to helping teenagers, owning a big house where she could take in several teenagers at a time and give them a safe place to live.
“I just love these kids,” she said.
To help out with those difficult situations, many foster parents rely on support systems through Fairfax County or private service providers.
“We work with families to do in-home visits to support the parents and the children,” said Randall O’Toole, the clinical director at Adolescent and Family Growth Center. “In cases where the biological family is available and we feel treatment is in the best interest of the child, we will work with the family.”
Each child placed in foster homes through the Adolescent and Family Growth Center is given one hour of private therapy each week, O’Toole said, which “helps kids develop positive and healthy relationships with the adults in their life.”
Many children who come to them are coming from homes in which neglect, abuse, drug use or other harmful habits are common occurrences, he said.
“Being a foster parent can be an incredibly stressful job, so we want to make sure a therapist is available to help the parents as well,” O’Toole said.
THROUGH AFTER school programs, children learn, through “affirmation and instruction,” that they are worthy of time and attention, said Stan Smith, director of programs and training with the Adolescent and Family Growth Center.
“When they come here after school, they feel safer with each other here than in schools,” Smith said. “They’re all on the same foot here. This gives them a place to talk about their experiences and what it was like in a not so great situation.”
However, with foster children, the question of what happens after graduation from high school or becoming a legal adult brings with it even more uncertainty.
“These kids don’t necessarily have a place to fall back on,” said Marianne Werth, director of foster care with the Adolescent and Family Growth Center. To help the children prepare for being independent, the center offers some life-skill training, like budgeting and time management, to make sure children can care for themselves in the future, she said.
For foster parents, the time spent with these children is a reminder of how important their work is to those in need.
“The reality is, children deserve to be children,” Jackson said. “If I can allow for that, there’s a greater chance they’ll be able to get themselves together. If we don’t help these children now, we’ll need protection from them later.”