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Foster care 'really does make a difference'

Jean Craig sat at a party Thursday night with a stack of photo albums, their contents showing a fairly typical family life: Christmas trees surrounded by gifts, children dressed in costumes and carrying trick-or-treat bags, kids hamming it up for the camera with Mickey Mouse at Disney World.

And there were school portraits—so, so many pictures of children in front of fake backgrounds.

But the photo albums tell only half of Craig’s family story. Not pictured, but also part of their memories: School suspensions, holes punched in walls, fires deliberately set, arrest reports.

In the past 20 years, Jean and her husband, Harold, have welcomed more than 300 children onto their Hartwood farm as foster parents for UMFS, an agency that helps find families for the most challenging foster children.

Some stayed overnight, as a break for their exhausted foster parents. Some stayed a week. Some a year or more. And one became a permanent part of the Craig family, getting adopted eight years ago.

Jean shared the highs and lows of her years as a foster mom during a reunion held Thursday evening at the UMFS office in Fredericksburg.

A handful of families came to the reunion to share their stories and talk about the joys and challenges of therapeutic foster care, which is for youths with the most challenging behaviors. Some have disabilities. Some have mental illness. Just about all of them have deep emotional scars.

“Foster care is hard. But it’s healing, it’s hopeful. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. But it really does make a difference,” said Tammy Franges, the agency’s resource parent liaison and a foster parent.

Foster care supervisor Jean Hepburn told the group that the evening was all about celebrating the dedication of foster parents.

But she also wanted to plead for help.

The agency has plenty of youths needing homes—with more than 5,000 foster children in Virginia, there’s never a shortage of kids needing a family. But the agency needs more families willing to take on these challenging cases.

So Hepburn asked the families who’ve already been in the fray to tell their stories to other parents, anyone who might be interested in foster care.

Keisha Elliott said she’d recommend foster parenting to anyone, although it wasn’t always easy. Her family adopted four children from foster care.

Her biological daughter, Sahja, was 11 when the Elliotts adopted their first child, a baby with a profound disability.

Sahja was an enthusiastic big sister as the family added twins Nasavia and Savian and then Daniel. The experience touched her so much that Sahja became a social worker and now works for Spotsylvania County’s Department of Social Services as a foster care case manager.

“I wanted to be part of that kind of change and healing in a child’s life,” Sahja said Thursday night as she held 7-year-old brother Daniel on her lap.

Nasavia ran by with a construction paper heart with dripping glittery painted letters spelling “Family.”

Nasavia was 6 when she and her twin brother entered the Elliott home as foster children. Mom Keisha didn’t bond right away with the girl and wondered if it was going to work.

“We had to just keep at it,” Keisha said. “And now it’s beautiful. You think that you’re blessing a child, but I feel like they’ve been blessings to me.”

And Nasavia agrees. When Hepburn asked the families to share their stories, the girl approached the podium with a smile.

“I’m so grateful to have a mom and a dad and a sister who sits at the table and talks with me when I have my ups and downs,” Nasavia said.

That was what Jean hoped to give the kids who came to her farm. She and her husband ended up with some of the most difficult children.

Jean liked the challenge and found that putting them to work on the farm helped most of them.

As they did their chores, the kids would talk about their pasts, telling stories that broke Jean’s heart.

Most people don’t know what some children endured. But Jean knew, and that motivated her to continue helping the children and teens. Even when they damaged her property. Or set fires. Ran away.

“A lot of people give up, but you can’t give up on them,” she said.

She and her husband adopted Alyssa, who came to them when she was 8. Alyssa is now 19 and helping Jean take care of Harold, who has cancer.

They didn’t officially adopt any of the other kids who came through their doors. But Jean considers them hers. And most return the sentiment, keeping in touch, calling Jean “Memaw” and stopping by to visit.

“Somehow, they always remember the way to the farm,” Jean said.

WANT TO GET INVOLVED?

United Methodist Family Services is looking for people who are interested in foster care.

At a party for foster families Thursday night, Tammy Franges—the agency’s resource parent liaison and a foster parent—said that foster parents have just two commonalities: a love of children and a desire to make a difference.

If you have those traits and would like to learn more, call 540/898-1773 or go to umfs.org.

The party took place in the agency’s training room, where posters gave information about child protective services, finding a match and intake procedures. But one poster simply read, “You don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973 aumble@freelancestar.com

 

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