In 1991, Iris Hope accepted a teenage boy with cancer into her home. Although he was only supposed to stay a month, she still was reluctant to accept him as her first foster child because, as a single mother with teenagers at the time, she felt that a sick child might be too much of a challenge. On the encouragement of her 16-year-old son, however, she accepted the placement.
“I asked God why he sent me a child who was sick as my first foster child,” says Iris, “but I thought, ‘I can do this for a month.’” A month turned into six years, as the boy stayed with Iris until he was 19. It wasn’t until after he left that her question was answered.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so it turns out God was just preparing me for what I would go through myself,” she says. The week she was diagnosed, her foster son came to visit. “When he learned I had cancer, he said, ‘Oh, Momma, it will be okay.’ What an amazing journey this is.”
Iris has now been a foster parent for 22 years. In addition to her own children, Tracie, now 42, and Kevin, 38, she’s had 16 foster children of all races. Iris, an African American, has kept black, white and Hispanic children. A Panamanian boy stayed the longest – for eight years. Currently, she cares for a Caucasian teenage girl.
Iris is only one of many dedicated foster parents in and around the Columbia area. She was from a family of 12 children herself and says she just yearned to help children in need. When Kevin suggested that she foster because he wanted a “brother,” she realized she had the time and the space and felt it was the right thing to do. She knew someone who had fostered, so she got in touch with the Department of Social Services, went through training, became approved and began the journey of a foster parent.
The official description of a foster parent is someone who invests time, energy, love and guidance in a needy child’s life. The ultimate goal of foster care is to provide safe, temporary placements for children who are unable to stay with their parents until they can be returned to their parents’ care or permanently placed in another home.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a child is abused or neglected in South Carolina every 41 minutes. In 2010, 12,707 children were victims of abuse or neglect; of that number 4,938 were placed in foster homes, and 513 were adopted from foster care.
Pairing the right foster parents with the right children takes care, knowledge and commitment. Currently, there are a half dozen or so private foster placement and support organizations in Columbia. Those interested in becoming foster parents must first contact DSS or an agency like Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, which offers a wide range of services to assist children and families in several states, including South Carolina.
Beth Franco is the state recruiter for SAFY in South Carolina. She says that an important consideration for interested foster parents is the level of care they are able to provide. SAFY is a private, nonprofit organization that recruits, trains and supports families to provide care for children who are unable to remain in their home and who have unique needs — whether physical or emotional or both. Therapeutic foster youth are dealing with issues such as abuse, neglect, drug abuse, behavioral and emotional issues, mental delays and physical challenges. The majority of children are in therapeutic foster care. Although SAFY of South Carolina serves children from birth to 21, the average age is 8 to 18.
“SAFY prepares a family through training and on-going support to care for children who are in therapeutic foster care, so that their placement is successful. Many of our children have been traumatized and are in need of stable and loving homes,” says Beth.
Growing Home Southeast is another foster agency, directed regionally by Amy Cue. She worked within the foster care community for nine years before deciding to become a foster parent herself. Like Iris, she was motivated to foster because her 15-year-old son, Braylen, encouraged her to do it. As a single mom, she took in a toddler in 2012, and he was placed in a permanent home with a relative in North Carolina in January. Amy says that it was a wonderful experience and one she will repeat. “Through my work with the foster care system I saw the need for foster parents, and my son was supportive of my decision” she says.
The experience touched and affected both Amy and her son, as well as her family and friends. “It really was a ‘village’ coming together for this child,” she says.
While it may be difficult when the foster child leaves, that is part of the process that foster parents must face – unless the opportunity to adopt arises. Amy says that foster parents must accept that their hearts will suffer for a while when a child leaves. “But the impact they make on your life and that you make on theirs is worth it. You have to take a step back and remember why you are doing it.”
The impact that being a foster parent has made on Carl, 74, and Mary Brown, 69, has been life transforming. Thirty-eight years ago, Carl was just a salesman making a living for his family when a DSS caseworker acquaintance, with whom he was talking, received a call about an 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The child had to be placed in an emergency home.
“That just tore at our hearts,” he says. “We began to ask ourselves about foster care and what would be involved in taking in a child.” Thus began the almost four-decade path on which the Browns have traversed. To date, the Browns have had 156 children in their home; they have three biological children, six adopted children and currently care for a teenage foster child.
The Browns realized when they began their foster parenting journey in the 1970s that few resources existed for foster parents and foster children. Carl says one of the biggest obstacles is making sure foster parents have what they need in terms of resources to meet a child’s needs. So he, along with Mary, founded the South Carolina Foster Parent Association, whose mission is to bring together parents, agency representatives and members of the community to enhance the lives of children and their families.
A quote on the SCFPA website expresses the sentiment of the Browns and others involved in the organization: “One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much I had in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like. But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”
Through SCFPA, the Browns have been advocates for foster parenting on the local, state and national level. In April, they hosted the SCFPA Training Conference in Greenville, an annual training conference for those interested in and those involved in foster parenting.
Carl says that his family has been abundantly blessed due to fostering. “We remain in contact with some of the children we’ve fostered who have grown up and are now in their 30s and 40s. We keep up with them on Facebook, on the phone and when they visit. They call me ‘Pop Pop,’ and they call Mary ‘Mimi.’”
One of the Browns’ grown daughters, Lisa Franklin, works for SCFPA. Growing up in a home where caring for needy children was a way of life became a part of her own family culture, so when her own sons left for college, she decided it was the right time to foster herself. She initially wanted to foster teenagers instead of younger children, but her first foster care situation was an unusual one: the teenager had just had a baby. Lisa provided a home for the foster child and her baby, loving them both and teaching the teenager important life and mothering skills.
“It’s a blessing,” she says. “We will have a connection with her for the rest of her life. All these kids need is someone to love and work with them so it breaks the cycle.”
While foster parenting is not always smooth sailing, Iris and others point out that it is not always the scary situation of traumatized children running amok that the media sometimes conveys. “There can be a stigma attached to it. People see the bad, but there is so much good in it,” she says. Not every placement works out, but for the most part – with the right training, resources, expectations, attitude and commitment – the outcome is positive for all parties involved.
“My home has been a happy home,” says Iris. “I tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from; it matters where you’re going.’ When children come here, they become part of my family. They don’t care what race I am. They just want to be cared for in a home. They’ve all called me ‘Momma,’ and there is something to them coming back to visit and saying, ‘Here’s my wife,’ or ‘Here’s my child,’ or ‘I wanted so and so to meet the person who raised me.’ Every child who comes through my house touches me in some special way.”
- Foster parents are not paid to foster children. Monthly board payments are provided to help offset the cost of caring for the child’s needs, including food, clothing and shelter, while they are in the foster parent’s home.
- In order to be a licensed foster parent, several forms of documentation are required, including a driver’s license, a birth certificate, a copy of a driving record, high school diploma or GED. Other requirements include an application, references, fingerprinting, background checks, home visits and training.
- Agencies will help make sure the foster home has a disaster preparedness plan, an evacuation plan and a fire inspection.
- The amount of time it takes to become licensed varies with each case. For more information about fostering, contact Heartfelt Calling at (888) 828-3555 or the various foster care agencies in the area.