As it turns out, foster parent qualifications do not fit so easily into a nursery rhyme.
Sandra Holder, regional administrator for the Tennessee Valley region of the Department of Children's Services, said being a resource parent, the DCS term for foster parents, is not an easy job.
She said resource parents must understand that all children carry with them some degree of emotional baggage, and resource parents should be willing to listen to the children’s concerns.
“They’ve suffered trauma,” Holder said. “They’re feeling the loss of their parents.”
The reasons youth end up in the foster care system vary from parental neglect to truancy, abuse or trouble with law enforcement.
According to John Johnson, director of foster care and adoption for the Tennessee DCS, drugs are playing a major role in new arrivals.
“There’s a wide spectrum,” Johnson said. “... We are seeing more drug-exposed children.”
Holder said the resource parents the region has are great but that the department needs more of them because of the high number of children in need of safe homes.
Bradley County is part of the DCS Tennessee Valley region. This region blankets 10 other counties: Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie.
Reasons for becoming a foster parent differs across the 11 counties. However, most foster parents’ reasoning holds a common theme: a desire to make a difference.
Earl Reid and his wife have been foster parents for seven years.
He said his daughter and son-in-law became foster parents first. Reid and his wife would visit the little ones at their daughter’s home. They decided the system could use another pair of hands.
“There seem to be quite a few of them,” Reid said. “We just jumped right into it.”
The couple adopted one of their foster children, because “It just worked out that way for the betterment of the kid.”
DCS allows resource parents to adopt children who will not be returning to their parents and who have been in the resource parents’ house for at least six months.
Reid said he and his wife knew what they were getting into when they adopted their child. Things have worked out pretty well, he said.
Being a resource parent can be very rewarding, according to Reid.
“It is a very rewarding experience when they come back down the road and tell you they’ve missed you,” he said. “... When they come back years after they left and say those were the best years, when I was with you.”
Reid offered two warnings for those interested in becoming a foster parent, “Be willing to do the hard work, and give up a lot of your free time.”
All DCS prospective resource parents must take the 23-hour PATH (Parents as Tender Healers) service program. Each parent must also provide five references, be fingerprinted and undergo a thorough background check. A home study is also completed to determine if resource parents meet home standards.
According to Tn.gov, resource parents can be: single or married; with or without children of their own, employed or not employed, but able to financially meet the children’s needs; in sufficient good health; 21 years or older; and homeowners or renters.
Kathleen McAndrews, resource parent, has been with DCS for 25 years.
She was hooked by her first child in 1988, a little 3-year-old boy who had been abused by his mother.
He did not initially enjoy interacting with McAndrews or trust her. She said the toddler depended on her husband unless he was at work.
She continued to care for the little boy. One day sticks out with crystal clear clarity.
“I will never forget for as long as I live, because it still brings tears to my eyes,” McAndrews said. “... I was drying him off [from a bath] and he said, ‘Mom,’ and I looked up and he said, ‘Mom,’ and I just looked at him and he put both of his little hands on my face and said, ‘I wuv you.’”
Their interaction was the catalyst for McAndrews’ continued work in the foster system. As she said, “To me that is when I knew what I needed to be doing.”
Knowing what she needed to be doing, however, has not always made the job easy.
“... You would have to be pretty cold-hearted not to become attached to these kids,” McAndrews said.
Then she quickly added, “To most of them, not all of them. Some of them you cannot wait until they find another placement for the kid.”
McAndrews knows a thing or two about the different kids in the system. She said she lost track of the number she has had once she hit 80.
Some people ask her how she recovers from growing close to a child and then having him or her placed in another home or with their biological relatives.
She said she gives everyone the same response.
“I would rather have my heart broken and heal from it, because I know I will, and know the child is in a better place, than sit at home and hear about all these horrible things being done to these children and not do anything at all,” McAndrews said.
“I understand not everyone can do it, but I don’t understand how people know they can do something, but they are afraid they are going to get hurt so they are not going to do anything.”
She advised those looking into the foster system to, “Keep your eyes focused on the children and try really hard not to get caught up in the politics.”
McAndrews said it is important for foster children to feel like they are accepted and loved.
“A lot of people will take respite for foster kids and take their own kids on vacation, and I am like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” McAndrews said. “Do these kids not have enough issues with not belonging?”
Kristen Stucker with Youth Villages, a DCS contracted foster care organization, said foster parents need to know it is going to be a tough job. She said it will also be rewarding.
“It’s not going to be that immediate sense of gratification,” Stucker said. “It’s going to be the small things that you see every day and the improvements you see little by little.”
Stucker said couples considering becoming foster parents need to make sure they are both wanting to, “And that they have a heart for children and just want to make a difference.”
Jennifer Davis of Chambliss Center for Children, another foster care organization, listed what she looks for in interested parents.
“Motivation,” Davis said. “I don’t think you can be a therapeutic foster parent if you are in it for the money. If you are doing it the way you are supposed to, it’s not a check anyway, as the money is supposed to go for the child.”
Continued Davis, “I look for patience, empathy, being able to work as a team, because the No. 1 goal when these children come into care is to reunify with their parents.”
She said great foster parents all say they felt a calling to join.
More information on DCS’ system can be found at www.tn.gov/youth/index.htm.
Those interested may also check out the Bradley Polk Foster and Adoptive Care Association. Parents from both the private and DCS sectors meet at 7 p.m. every second Monday of the month at Mayfield Elementary.