Foster dads step up in times of need

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an effort to protect the children currently placed in local foster homes, some of the names of the foster parents and children have been changed. Those that have been changed are marked with an asterisk.

Area foster children — some taken from their homes because they have been proven an unhealthy or unsafe environment — are looking for a sense of normalcy and love, commodities not often found in the tumultuous situations from which they were taken.

This Father’s Day, a small percentage of fathers will celebrate knowing that some of the children they currently care for might not be in their care next year. Still many, if not all, give those kids something that child experts agree they need — positive male attention.

Of the 32 foster parent families in Sumter County, only 11 have fathers in the home, a ratio that is typical, said local social services authorities.

Jerry Allred has been working with the foster parent program since the early 1990s. For the past five years, he has worked with John K. Crosswell Home for Children as executive director. Allred said he is a father figure for many of the children who come to the home since many come from single-mother households.

“How can you measure the importance of a father in any child’s life?” he said. “For girls, the father is her first relationship with a man, and that is huge.”

One problem, Allred said, is that many foster children haven’t had a positive male influence in their lives.

“There have been very few males in their lives,” he said. “It’s very unusual to have a child come to us where there is a father living in the home.”

The children’s home currently has four male staff employees, only one of which is a “cottage father” or someone who supervises the cabins where the children live.

“We have very few males apply,” he said.

Allred said the foster parent program is largely female.

“That’s not bad because these kids need the female influence,” he said. “Having a male influence — that is something a lot of our kids are missing.”

Bob Tucker* has been a foster parent alongside his wife for about two years. The experience, he said, is the manifestation of his spiritual convictions.

“I feel like, as a Christian family, we’ve been blessed,” he said. “This is one way that we feel like we can show love to others. We are a foster family.”

Several months after they made the decision, the Tuckers had completed the necessary paperwork and training. Tucker was on a camping trip when his wife got the family’s first call for a placement: a newborn child who was born addicted to drugs needed a home. Samantha* would need regular doses of methadone on top of her regular care.

“You think, ‘It’s not my child,’ but then you just love them like you love your own,” he said.

For more than a year, the Tuckers cared for and nurtured Samantha and, under their care, she said her first words and took her first steps.

With the mother out of the picture, Tucker said, it became clear that Samantha would be put up for adoption.

“You know it’s temporary,” said Tucker. “It was heart-wrenching, but we had to sit back and leave it in God’s hands.”

Tucker acknowledges that the biggest obstacle others cite in becoming foster parents is the possibility that they will become attached to a child, only to have him or her taken away. Tucker doesn’t think like that.

“In foster parenting, the goal is reunification,” he said. “You do what you can for them as long as you are with them.”

The Tuckers currently care for two small children. He said they are blossoming.

“People think you have to be something special,” said Tucker. “(Foster) children are just like any children: They need love.”

Even speaking on the phone, you can tell Patrick Ford* is smiling when he talks about the two children currently in his home. In the two years he has been a foster parent, Ford and his wife have had five foster children filter through their home.

“We loved the thought of being able to help a child, to show this child some kind of hope,” he said.

After seeing commercials on foster parenting, he took the advice of a co-worker to look into the program. Licensed and approved for the local foster program, the Fords received their first placement in about a year.

“It wasn’t just one child, but two girls,” he said. “But it was all pure joy.”

The father of one biological son, Ford said he wasn’t used to playing with little girls.

“I was guilty of doing some of the girl stuff,” he admitted, laughing. “We did all the tea parties and that stuff.”

Where some might have felt awkward with two new additions in the home, Ford said everything was very natural.

“It fell into place,” he said. “They just want to know someone cares about them.”

It’s that love, Ford said, that gives you the strength to see the best done for the child, even if that means they leave the care of the foster parent.

“The heartbreak is there. How can you not get attached?” he said. “They will remember the love we gave them as someone who was there to listen to them and to guide them.”

“In a way, you get the same feeling like your (biological) children,” he said. “It’s just your family.”

Foster fathering in Sumter County

Sumter County currently has 26 children in foster care, 12 of whom are in specialized foster care because of an emotional, mental or physical need that requires extra training on the part of the foster parent. The numbers are lower than usual, said Sandra Williams, a state Department of Social Services supervisor of foster parent licensing.

“We used to have more children,” she said. “The state has gotten more progressive in getting children into permanent placements.”

There is a lot involved in becoming a licensed foster parent, she said. Extensive background checks and several home inspections are just the beginning.

“It does take some time and effort,” she said.

Once a foster parent license is obtained, parents are issued a two-year license wherein they must take 28 total hours of training.

From that point, foster parents might receive placements of children from their own county or from surrounding counties.