The Savior taught that “whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me”—and now, perhaps more than ever, there are many children with arms outstretched waiting to be received.
This May marks National Foster Care Month, a time to both build awareness for the thousands of children in Arizona who need out-of-home care and to show appreciation for the many families who step in to help these children in crisis.
Foster care is intended to be a temporary placement for children who, for whatever reason, cannot live in their homes. Over 14,000 children in Arizona are currently in the foster care system. Often victims of neglect, abuse, poverty, or any other number of issues, these children have a special place in the hearts of many Latter-day Saint families who have opened their homes to them.
Every foster family’s story is different. Rachael Thompson got the call from Child Protective Services on Christmas Eve of 2011: a baby girl had been abandoned at the NICU. At only four pounds, she would come with an entourage of therapists and nurses and present a challenge to the Peoria North Stake’s Thompson family, who already had three biological children and one child recently adopted through foster care. The Thompsons were not yet looking for another foster placement—after all, their adoption had just been finalized. Would they open their home to this little girl?
For Thompson, a foster parent since 2010, there was no question. “We immediately said ‘yes’ to the placement,” she says, adding that her family “felt a pull to this child.” Within a few years, the Thompsons had adopted the sweet little girl who completed their family.
Such life-changing experiences have helped Thompson and many other foster parents redefine what it means to be family: “We feel the power and love it takes to create a family without sharing DNA and know that we are forever a family because we chose to love each other no matter what may come along.”
Sometimes the call to foster is unexpected. Goodyear Stake’s Tammy Davis says, “A friend of our children’s called us one day from DCS [Department of Child Safety]. She explained that her mom had gone to jail, and she needed a foster home and asked if we would be willing. That was the beginning of our fostering career.”
Some families foster out of their sense of abundance. Leon Crandell, a member of the Prescott Valley Stake, says, “My wife and I were foster parents and then adopted six kids. We felt that we were so blessed and had so much—why have more kids when there are so many who need loving families?”
Still other families look for the most special needs. Tiffany Evans, another member of the Goodyear Stake, has, with the help of her family, fostered sixteen kids over the last four years. The Evans family has a special license for children with disabilities: “We have loved all of them and learned so much about their individual interests, gifts, and needs.”
Whether physical, emotional or social, many foster children do come with special needs. The Peterson family, currently living in the Gushikawa Branch in the Okinawa Military District, adopted two children out of foster care. The pair had been in the system for nearly two years and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from abuse that had put them into foster care in the first place.
The first year was “the hardest year of my life,” admits Monica Peterson. “The screaming fits and anger and destructive behaviors were so overwhelming.” But now, seven years later, both kids are stable and well-adjusted, the oldest of the six Peterson siblings. “I could not have hoped for two better children to set the example for their younger brothers and sisters,” says Peterson.
Hannah Eiselin, a member of the Liberty Ward in the Peoria North Stake, was an adoption counselor in the Church for twelve years. Now an on-call counselor with LDS Family Services, Eiselin and her husband have adopted two children from foster care and fostered children beyond that. She understands well the complex world of foster care.
“If you are used to having things the way you want them,” she laughs, “forget it!” Children came come to a foster family at any time, under any circumstances—and sometimes, they come only with the clothes on their backs and limited background information. “You have to be super flexible,” Eiselin continues. “You don’t necessarily know about when they sleep, what their schedules are . . . you eventually figure it out.”
Some families are able to adopt children they have fostered, but ideally, a foster situation ends when a child is returned to their own family once they can care for that child again. Eiselin’s heart goes out to these families. “They have so much to overcome,” she says. “Often they are younger families, sometimes single moms—they’re in survival parenting mode. If they didn’t have that support [growing up], it’s hard for them to have the insight they need to parent.”
Eiselin tries to build good relationships with the families whose children she looks after. “Our stance is that we’re going to try to support the birth families in getting their kids back—we can be a catalyst for their change. We’re working together for the same goal,” she says.
She says that it’s bittersweet when foster children leave their home. “You have to be ready for that ride,” she says. The family had twins in their home for four months. When they left, “it was hard, and I miss them, but maybe our influence continues.” She remains hopeful for their futures.
While children going home to their biological families can cause some heartache for foster families, it’s all part of the plan, says Tammy Davis. The biggest blessings from fostering include “seeing the growth and progress a child can make and reuniting families that were just going through hard times or that just needed some instruction on how to handle their circumstances,” she says.
Foster care is a labor of love, but don’t tell Rachael Thompson that you could never be a foster parent, or that you’re worried you might get “too attached” to a foster placement.
“Honestly,” Thompson says, “those statements are offensive because I am not beyond feelings or devastation—actually, quite the opposite. I felt more than I have ever felt with every child: love, fear, anger, devastation, heartache, anxiety, joy, and blinding devotion.”
But that’s not the point, Thompson says: “The need for children to feel love, safety, and be a part of a family is greater than my feelings. Foster care isn’t about me, it’s about kids.”
This is a 2-part story, continuing in our July/August issue.