Opening their home
LeRoy residents Angie and Gordon Tower discuss ups and downs of hosting foster childrenOSCEOLA COUNTY – In the past three years, Gordon and Angie Tower have hosted 16 foster children in their home – and each one has been difficult to let go. One 4-year-old boy came to them as an infant, and the Towers have decided to adopt him rather than have to say good bye to him too. “Our whole goal of foster care is to see them into a nice, stable environment,” said Gordon, 46, who is a pastor at New Beginnings Fellowship Church in Reed City. “When there’s not a stable environment for them to go to, that’s when you’re like ‘OK, what else can we do for this child?’ Our theory is that every child deserves a chance in life.” He and Angie, 44, who have been married for 27 years, began the process of becoming foster parents as a form of ministry after the couple left their work as youth pastors in Stanwood. Incidentally, they received their first foster child in 2010 the same week they started their current church in Reed City. “I wanted to do it (in the early 2000s) because as youth pastors we saw a lot of teens who needed help. But we were so busy, and our kids were still young,” said Angie, who has raised three biological children with Gordon. “To be honest, I was afraid of it (at first) because you just don’t know what you’re going to get into. I was so afraid of the kids, but the hardest thing is working with the (court) system.” Children are placed in foster care as a last resort to remove them from an environment of extreme abuse or neglect. Child Protective Services investigates any complaint of abuse or neglect and determines the best course of action. In extreme cases, CPS petitions the court system to have the child removed, and a judge rules on the petition. Once a child is placed in foster care, a case worker begins working with the family to outline a plan for reuniting them. “We explain to each of the families that the court is the ultimate authority and they have issued removal orders,” said Bill Melcher, foster care licensing supervisor for the Mecosta-Osceola Department of Humans Services. “DHS positions itself as experts in services available to the family to address the court’s concerns. We know what the court wants to see done.” Weekly family team meetings are held with parents, the case worker and professionals from other agencies that can offer resources, such as WISE or 1016 Recovery Network. “We tie in what the reasons were that these kids were removed, and then we try to address each one of those with an appropriate service,” said Luther Lovell, acting director of Mecosta-Osceola DHS. Parents regain custody of their children after they have completed the plan. Placements generally last about a year, with the length of time determined by how quickly parents complete requirements to regain custody. “If (parents don’t make progress), we need to start looking at permanency elsewhere,” Lovell said. “If the parents can’t get it together, we have to make a decision within that year. We need to look at what we can do long-term.” Angie has found it difficult to accept the court’s decisions in some cases. She was shocked to learn about the conditions in which some children live with their parents, and she worried that having regular contact with their biological parents while in foster care would add stress for the children. “What surprised me absolutely the most was that when you get a child into your home and they’ve been taken from a horrible situation, immediately, they have visitation with parents,” she said. “Not only that, but the parents are given so many chances over and over again.” However, Lovell said the ultimate goal of foster care is to reunite families and it is important for children to maintain contact with their parents along the way. “We want parents to have as much visitation as they possibly can. They need to have that bond with the child,” Lovell said. “Ultimately our goal is to reunite that family with their child. While that’s not always possible, certainly it’s important to that child to maintain as much contact (as possible with the parent).” Becoming licensed as foster parents can take four to six months, depending on how quickly parents move through the process. For the Towers, it was about 10 months after beginning the process that they received their first foster child. There are several private foster care agencies in the area, in addition to DHS, that can license families to host foster children. The process for becoming licensed includes a background check and extensive home check looking at the quality of water and sewer system and making sure bedrooms are up to code, among other things. Families must be licensed and the house must be licensed, Melcher said. Foster parents are approved to host a certain number of children at one time, and they can designate if there is a specific age group or behavioral issue with which they work best. Foster parents make about $17 a day per child, which is used to cover the child’s food, clothing and transportation costs; DHS covers medical or counseling expenses. Parents are compensated with up to $30 a day for children with more demanding behaviors or needs. “This is not a money maker for foster parents,” Lovell said. “You have to be in it for the right reason.” Gordon and Angie went through Eagle Village’s “PRIDE Training,” where they learned how to deal with behavioral issues typical of foster children, what to do when a new child comes into their home, how to navigate the trail of paperwork in getting certified as foster parents and a plethora of other information useful to families preparing to temporarily raise other people’s children. Structure and routine are key in helping foster children adjust to their new homes, the Towers have learned. Disciplining foster children and teaching them the expectations for that household requires an entirely different approach than when Angie and Gordon raised their own children, who now are 24, 21 and 17. “We try to make the kids feel what a normal family would have,” Gordon said. “A lot of them didn’t know how to respond because they never had that – someone to just outright love them for who they are or treat them the way a normal child should be taught. It took them awhile. It felt like every time they were just getting it, feeling comfortable and feeling like this is what home is like, they’d get removed.” Family dinners are an important part of the Tower family routine, and most of their foster children had to be taught to eat meals at a table. Another way Angie and Gordon try to make the children feel like part of the family is to create a “life book” for each one. A “life book” is a scrapbook filled with photos of family activities and trips, reports cards, art projects and awards the children receive while staying with the Towers, and the children take their book when they go. “Even though we would never get to see them again, they have a piece of this part of their life with them,” Angie said. “When they leave I write, ‘You came to us on this date, you experienced all these things with us and you were a blessing to us when you were here.’ Then all you can do is pray.” In light of the trauma most children in foster care have been through, behavioral issues are common. Some foster children struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition caused when a young child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met by their parents. Lacking that parental bond means the child cannot properly bond with anyone, and he or she uses extreme behavior to keep others away. The Towers have hosted two children with RAD. For the most part, they said their foster children’s behavior has not been much more extreme than any typical child. “When our first little one came here, he was just like any other little kid – he just needed someone to love him,” Angie said. “Yes, he had behavior issues, but it wasn’t anything you haven’t ever dealt with if you’ve worked in the public school system or a church (youth ministry).” It’s critical to meet the needs of foster children in their first placement, Lovell said, because frequent moving only adds to their trauma. Sometimes foster parents go into the situation with unrealistic expectations for how the children will respond. “When people go into foster parenting, they go in with the best intentions,” Lovell said. “These children come into foster care having a lot of issues. The vast majority of them have been impacted by childhood trauma, and what we know about childhood trauma is that they don’t respond to (security and a nurturing atmosphere). It’s absolutely necessary that they get all that, but they’re not going to respond the way a foster parent might want them to.” Having more local foster homes available would give foster care agencies more options in determining the best placement for each child, rather than placing them in the only home available – sometimes in another county. “We have a recognized problem of a lack of homes. We have a recognized problem of children in need of care in our own backyards,” Lovell said. “Sometimes we can exacerbate the problem for these children. We aren’t helping them when we have such limited homes available.” More local foster homes also would allow more children to stay in the same school district or keep living with their siblings. School is an important part of maintaining stability in a child’s life, Melcher said. “Their life remains normal between 8 o’clock (a.m.) and 3:30 (p.m.) because they’re with their same teacher, same school, same friends,” he said. “They may be going home to a different home, but they also see their parents more frequently. That lowers the stress.” In addition to needing more foster parents, DHS also reported a need for people to supervise visits between parents and their children, people to offer transportation to the visits and facilities where the visits could be held locally rather than requiring parents and children to meet in a different city.