”I think it was when our first foster kid came back to see us, and she told us about a big decision she had made and laughed, saying, ‘And all I could hear was Nathan’s voice in the back of my head, saying have you thought about this, have you thought about that?’ That was so important to me, that she had actually taken on board what I’d been saying.”
Nathan Wiehe and Cassie Ravo love fostering teens. Ravo caught the fostering bug in graduate school when she did an internship working with a foster care program for unaccompanied refugee minors, overseen by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although her work was limited to finding a good fit for the kids once the referral came in, the foster care seed was planted. She graduated, married Nathan, they bought a house, and then, thought: we both have really flexible jobs, we want to connect to our community, and we have a big empty house … why not foster? Nathan wasn’t sure, he’d never given it any thought, but he agreed to go to the information session.
“That session was so good, we decided to go ahead,” he said. “It is important that you don’t commit until you are ready. You can even do the training and decide not to foster.” But part way through the training of six weeks, they decided they were going to do it.
In the training, which takes place at night from 6-9 pm, they were given instruction on parenting kids who have had trauma, how to understand the foster care system, the rules, how to interact with the first family, working with the social workers, the attorneys, etc. “The County does a good job with this; they don’t sugar coat, but it’s not doom and gloom.”
Ravo and Wiehe got licensed in about 6 months. Some people take a while longer. And because on their form they had said the age group they were interested in working with was teenagers, it didn’t take long to get the call. “Six weeks after getting licensed, we had our first youth join us, a teen of 17 and a half. That was a steep learning curve. ... Parenting for the first time a young woman who was almost an adult. She was with us for 14 months.”
“After she joined our family we converted one of the spaces in our house to a bedroom and upped our license to two youths,” they said. “A second youth joined us two days before the last home inspection — they needed someone right away. Now we have had five longterm kids. The shortest has been ten months, the longest was 20 months. Just depends on the youth and their case. Sometimes they can go home, and sometimes they transition into an independent living program.”
Ravo and Wiehe specialized in teens who weren’t going to be able to go back home, or were planning to transition to independent living. Between 18-21 there is a program called Fostering Futures, and they can go into that.
Was the COVID-19 pandemic difficult as foster parents? Yes, but not that difficult. “Talking with friends and telling them it was tough, they said, yes, but it’s not like they are three-year-olds, unable to sit still, so how hard could it be? But it was hard because teens feel invincible, and the last thing they want to hear is they can’t see their friends. We had to make sure they were safe, set up frameworks for them, mandate curfew. And if they missed the curfew, then we had to pull back some of their free time outside of the house. We got to spend a lot of time in the same house with each other. Our youngest youth so far was 13 – they are much more willing to do schoolwork. It’s harder to keep the older ones interested in school and focused.”
The Ravo-Wiehe family had other learning curves to absorb. They quickly became a multi-ethnic combined family. “None of our kids would have been mistaken as our biological children, so we got some sideways looks in the grocery store.” They said being in the greater D.C. area gave them many opportunities. “One of the kids had friends who were DACA recipients. We went to rallies and talked about the politics around DACA. One youth was with us during the BLM movement demonstrations.” For one of their foster gender non-conforming kids they had to learn a different set of pronouns, one set for inside the house, one set for outside. “We wanted to support them in any way we could, and sometimes that just meant making sure we had the right barber, the right shoes, and the right pupuseria.“
How do they handle the increased workload of kids as parents with two jobs?
“We just as a habit do meal planning. We work out of a couple cookbooks, plan the week, the kids pick out a meal and prepare it. The 13-year-old needed a lot of supervision, but the 19-year-old just did it. This way, they got a life skill too. They had to clean their own bathrooms and spaces. Sometimes they need more structure. For one, doing laundry regularly was a challenge, it just wasn’t on their radar, they didn’t wash a shirt every time they wore it. So we set up a date when they did their laundry. “
Will they keep fostering?
“We’ve been at this for four years. We have always had one or two kids. One of our current kids is enlisting in the Marines soon, and we might go down to one instead of two while we renovate our house a bit. But we will definitely keep fostering over the long term. The County is so wonderful. You can say, ‘don’t call me right now’. You really can say no when you need to.”
The joy that comes from fostering was never more real than on a special graduation day last year. “One of our kids wasn’t necessarily on track to graduate, but then he put in so much work and graduated against all odds. He invited us to the graduation and we stood there, along with his other family, like the proud (foster) parents we were. “
“We’ve loved fostering teens. Sure, they are teens and present challenges, but they are so cool. There is a lot of personal growth going on. You can have real conversations with them, learn from them, learn with them. And,” says Wiehe with a grin, “you can relive your glory days of go-karting and laser tag!”
Foster care becomes important when teachers or counselors report a situation where children are at risk, or a family is for some reason, unable to parent effectively. “There are currently 82 children in foster care in Arlington, said Erica Serrano, Outreach and Recruitment Specialist for the Arlington County Department of Human Services.
“Summer is always a high call month. As children resume in person activities such as school, camps, and extra-curricular activities we expect to get referrals to foster care from the mandated reporters who up to now haven’t had much direct contact with children. We need to be ready for those calls,”
For more information about fostering in Arlington, see: Openheartsopenhomes@arlingtonva.us or visit https://family.arlingtonva.us/foster-care/
The dates of the next Information sessions are:
Tuesday, June 1 at 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 at 10 a.m.