Building Families Through Foster Parenting
Sarah and Donald Beiler wanted children but had problems conceiving. They thought foster parenting was one way to bring kids into their home near Ronks in Lancaster County. “We were searching and asking God who we could call and get started,” Sarah Beiler says.
Then the Beilers saw a newspaper ad for COBYS Family Services, an agency in Leola. The couple has worked with COBYS for more than two years and has fostered six children. They are in the process of adopting two: Yarelis, who turns 8 this month, and Daniel, 2.
Some foster parents, like the Beilers, want children but can’t have them biologically. Others have grown children and miss having kids in the house. Many see it as a calling by their religion or love of children.
Christine Bingman of Windsor Township in York County, started foster parenting about 20 years ago and took a break from it. Now she and her husband Todd hope to adopt three boys they’re fostering through Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg Inc. The couple wanted two siblings, but the agency told them about the three brothers: a 2-year-old, a 13-year-old and a boy who turns 8 this month. “We knew it would be a challenge, but we were up for it,” she says.
Bingman says the boys’ mother had mental health problems and couldn’t take care of them. She didn’t give their names because their biological parents are appealing for their parental rights.
Wendy Hoverter, administrator of Cumberland County Children and Youth Services, says most younger children end up in foster care because they’re abused or neglected. Teenagers are more likely to land in the system because of behaviors like skipping school or running away from home.
Each agency works differently, but generally prospective foster parents have to go through training and several interviews at the agency and at the parents’ homes. Like many agencies, COBYS individually interviews both parents.
The agency tries to place children in their home school districts and keep siblings together to maintain some stability, says foster care supervisor Sharon Kingsley. COBYS also seeks foster parents who share children’s ethnic backgrounds. “If a child has grown up in a family that only speaks Spanish and they’re placed in an environment where the family only speaks English, that can be jarring,” she explains.
Foster parents can say how many children they are willing to care for and if they prefer specific age groups, says David Gross, president of Cumberland County’s Foster Parent Association.
Even for people who are ready to be foster parents, living with children full-time can take some adjustment. At first, Bingman says, it was hard to get used to having three boys in her house. “I felt like I was initially on an extended babysitting adventure, and at some point, they were going to leave.”
In 14 years, Gross has fostered 30 children and adopted two of them: Kaitlin, 16, and Shelly, 14. Some who have moved out keep in touch through visits and e-mail. “A lot of times it’s the hardest job you’ll ever have, but it’s the best job,” he says. “It’s like raising your own kids. Some days you want to choke them, and the other days they make it all worthwhile.”
Foster parenting can be a good option for couples looking to adopt, but only if they are able to face the prospect of the children going back to their birth families. About half the children COBYS works with return to their biological parents.
Part of foster parents’ role is to help birth parents take better care of their children, and Kingsley says children often feel torn between the two sets of parents. She suggests that foster parents keep birth parents up-to-date on what their children are up to. That could mean bringing crafts the children make at camp, sharing pictures and asking children to choose birthday gifts for their biological parents.
Not everyone can handle that. “If you don’t have the philosophy that people can change, you shouldn’t go into foster care,” says Rachel Kuhr, director of adoption and foster care for Jewish Family Service.
Gross says it’s hard to be sad about children going back to parents who’ve put their lives back together. “I think, if it’s possible, family needs to be with family as long as it’s a safe situation,” he says.
He says it’s also rewarding to protect children from family situations that will never improve.
The Beilers have enjoyed seeing Yarelis morph from a child who didn’t trust anyone into a cheerful, content girl. “It’s really been a blessing that we can see that change,” Donald Beiler says.
Rebecca VanderMeulen is a freelance writer and frequent babysitter from Thorndale.
Are you qualified?
To be a foster parent in Pennsylvania you must:
- Be at least 21 years old
- Pass a medical exam saying you don’t have a communicable disease and are physically able to care for children
- Secure child abuse and criminal history clearances
- Avoid verbally or physically abusing foster children and withholding food, clothing or shelter
- Allow foster children to visit and communicate with their birth families
- Have a home with a flushing toilet, running water, a working phone and a separate sleeping space for children
Other characteristics agencies look for:
- Financial stability
- Character references
- Support from family or friends nearby
- Experience dealing with grief and loss
- Some agencies say couples must be married, although single and divorced people can be foster parents