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Foster families welcome tears and joys

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Many children awake this Christmas morning to the thrill of presents under the tree and a memorable day with loving parents. But for foster children, who for their safety have been removed from their parents by the Department of Social Services, Christmas can be an unspeakably difficult time.

In the spirit of giving, some foster families provide more than just a clean bed and regular meals to the traumatized youth who land in their homes. They also give warmth, emotional support, and advocacy — all year long.

Here are profiles of two such foster families.

The Wards: Seeing a need

Ann Ward half-jokingly says that a good Christmas is when no one is in the hospital.

That’s because at any moment a breathing problem or broken bone could jeopardize the Wards’ 38-year-old son, Eric, who has survived with the incurable disease Duschenne muscular dystrophy for 18 years beyond his life expectancy.

“It’s the ‘ugly beautiful,’ ” said Ann of the disease, which causes rapid muscle degeneration. “The ugly thing is the disease, but it has made beautiful things happen.”

Among those beautiful things are Ann and her husband Ray’s decision to become foster parents, because Ann would be staying home full-time with her son.

Since 1986, the Wards have welcomed more than 80 foster children ages 6 to 19 into their home. When their now-grown daughter Christi was 10, the Wards began fostering girls, usually one at a time.

Some foster youths, who Ray calls “the overnighters,” run away after receiving a hot meal, a shower and good night’s sleep. Others stay for months and even years, able to find stability and even thrive in the Wards’ home.

About dealing with the difficult histories that some foster youths bring with them, Ray said: “It is not a problem, just a process.”

Ann describes their parenting style as mellow but persistent. A youth who does not feel like eating dinner might be invited to at least sit at the family table, where he or she can feel accepted. On a good day, each foster child is invited to either assist with making dinner or cleaning up afterward.

For some, meeting a youth with a terminal disease has been a turning point. “Kids would complain about their lives, but then they would meet Eric, and think, ‘Maybe we don’t have it so bad,’ ” Ann said.

But Eric — who first needed a wheelchair at age 12 — would disagree. Speaking slowly because of a tracheotomy in his neck that allows him to breathe, Eric said: “My problems are nothing compared to the kids’ problems. I’ve got a safe house with good parents and a good sister. I’m so lucky.”

Throughout the years of having foster children in their home, the Wards have noticed the girls, often those from abusive families, felt safe with Eric. They would stay up late together sharing music and talking.

Many foster children bonded with the Wards as well. One young woman later asked Ray Ward to walk her down the aisle at her wedding because he was the only father figure she had known. One teen gave birth to a son while living with the Wards. She and her son spent their first two years together at their home. Later, when the son felt unsafe in his birth mother’s home, he asked the Wards if he could return.

Ann now serves as a mentor to other foster parents, co-leading a weekly support group through the Family Care Network, the foster family agency with which she is affiliated.

One of the aspects of Christmas is giving, but as Ann said: “That’s what it should be like all year. If you see a need and have the means to meet that need that’s why we’re a foster family.”

Admittedly, the Wards get more than they give.

“Because we were willing to help other people in pain, it has helped us get through our own pain,” Ann said.

The Darts: The most important gift

When their first foster child, 31⁄2-year-old Tristan, arrived at Trina and Jason Dart’s San Luis Obispo County home in 2008, they felt as if Spiderman had just dropped in.

The formerly homeless youngster, who “practically lived in his Spiderman costume,” quickly became accustomed to a warm bed and a new older sister to play with, Trina recalled. The foster child’s name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, and Trina Dart asked that her city of residence be kept private.

The Darts immediately enveloped Tristan into their family, treating him as if he were their own child. He woke up knowing he would always have breakfast and that he would be picked up from school. The Darts’ daughter Ella, then 5, learned to share her toys and the attention of her parents with her energetic new brother.

Within a few weeks, preschool teachers commented that Tristan seemed like a totally different child — more outgoing and talkative than the withdrawn boy before foster care.

Trina hardly believed it, having felt guilty that she hadn’t had time yet to take him to the beach or on any special trips.

“It was a huge ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “What I found out is that kids really just need consistency and love. It’s pretty simple — you can change someone’s life.”

During the 18 months that Tristan lived with the Darts, Trina took him to visit his birth parents, who were working with the Department of Social Services toward requirements to regain custody. The Darts also coordinated phone calls and visits with Tristan’s grandparents in Arizona, who ultimately were charged with his care when his birth parents did not follow through with their case plan.

When the Darts said goodbye to Tristan, it was incredibly difficult, especially for young Ella — but his foster family promised to visit.

However, Tristan’s grandparents unexpectedly cut off contact with the Darts after taking the boy to Arizona.“It felt like a death in the family,” Trina said.

In hindsight, the Darts might have prepared themselves differently for the sudden end of their relationship.“The hard part for people to comprehend is, they were never yours in the first place,” Trina said.

The Darts, who are affiliated with the Aspiranet foster family agency, once again welcomed foster children into their lives — next hosting a sibling pair.

Trina says that the great need trumps the complicated emotions of fostering children. “If you choose not to, then these children don’t have safe and loving homes for that time — and that’s heartbreaking.”

The Darts are currently caring for a 10-month-old boy, whom they received when he was 2 weeks old. It has become apparent that the baby’s birthmother won’t be able to care for him, so the Darts are in the process of adopting him. “He’s perfect and our daughter just adores him,” Trina said.

Still, memories of Tristan linger — he appears in Trina’s dreams — but the Darts have learned something greater.

“The gift we gave him wasn’t caring for him,” Trina said. “It was being able to let him go.”

FOSTER CARE FACTS AND FIGURES

A snapshot of foster care in San Luis Obispo County:

At any time, there is an average of 350 foster cases in San Luis Obispo County, meaning that children are in the protective custody of the Department of Social Services, but could be staying in group homes, with foster families or with relatives who live in or out of the county.

About 55 percent of foster children are placed with relatives or other important adults in their lives. San Luis Obispo consistently ranks highest of all counties in California in this measure.

In about 98 percent of foster cases, the children were removed from their homes because of some form of neglect or abuse. The most common contributing factors are methamphetamine abuse (32 percent), other drug abuse (24 percent) and mental health issues (20 percent). Other factors include domestic violence, alcohol abuse and stresses in the home.

About 32 percent of the children in foster care are teens.

About 92 percent of foster children have one or more physical or mental health conditions requiring treatment, ranging from asthma to cavities to depression.

Foster children in this county are predominantly white (65 percent), followed by Hispanic (26 percent). Whites make up 55 percent of the overall county population, followed by Hispanics at 38 percent.

There are currently 115 licensed foster families in the county, although many only accept infants.

The average basic payment to foster families ranges from $600 to $760 monthly to assist with food, clothing and basic care.

If children cannot be placed with their parents, placements with licensed foster families are as follows: 29 percent in Atascadero, 27 percent in Paso Robles, 25 percent in Arroyo Grande, 10 percent in San Luis Obispo and the coast and 9 percent in Nipomo.

About 53 percent of children are in protective custody for one year or less; 18 percent for 1-2 years; 10 percent for 2-3 years; and 13 percent for four years or longer.

Siblings are able to stay together in foster care 66 percent of the time. Siblings are sometime split up because there are not enough foster parents willing to take more than one child or multiple ages at one time.

About 65 percent of cases close with children living reunified with their parents. Of those who reunify, 82 percent stay and 18 percent return to foster care within a year. Of the 35 percent of cases that were closed without reunification, 18 percent of children were adopted, 12 percent were in guardianship and 5 percent emancipated at age 18.

Source: Information from the SLO County Department of Social Services based on 2010 statistics. People interested in becoming foster parents should call 781-1705.

Christmas comes back with the children

Families who regained custody of kids also get donations of items and money

The county Social Services Department is playing Santa this season by providing basic clothing, gifts and Christmas trees to eight families headed by parents who recently regained custody of their children.

The first-ever effort was funded by community donations of money and items totaling about $5,000.

When social workers interviewed parents about what would make a good Christmas, many asked for shoes, underwear and jackets for their children. “It would be huge if we could have a Christmas tree,” one reunited birth parent told social worker Holly Prieto.

“These are not families who are double-dipping,” Prieto said. “It’s the families with their kids back who are really struggling.”

Parents who have recently quit using methamphetamines, started new jobs or found a place to live have a hard enough time just maintaining stability, let alone providing a cheerful holiday with the desired trimmings.

The project to help these delicate family units started when Salon Rue in Paso Robles contacted Prieto wanting to assist foster children for Christmas.

The salon’s donation snowballed into an extended effort of monetary and item donations from Trinity Lutheran School, Mission School, Cal Poly, Paso Robles Bible Church, La Panza Ranch in the Carrizo Plain and some local Christmas tree vendors.

A total of 30 children will benefit from the effort.

Excess donations valued at $2,000 have been placed in a trust fund so if a birth family is in need of some basic item —say an microwave — then the department can buy one.

“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in 15 years at social services,” Prieto said.— Julia Hickey

How to donate

Donations to the birthparent support trust fund can be sent to: Department of Social Services, Birth Parent Support, Attn: Accounting, County of San Luis Obispo. P.O. Box 8119, San Luis Obispo, 93403-8119.

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