Changing what it means to be a foster parent

foster parent
Laura Ingham poses with portraits of her kids. (Hillman/KSKA)

Slade Martin was in foster care for 14 years. He said it wasn’t easy because people make a lot of negative assumptions about foster kids.

“They’re gonna steal, they’re gonna be a bad influence on the younger kids, they’re gonna get pregnant or get someone pregnant. They’re gonna be on drugs. They’re not gonna go to school.”

Sometimes he and other kids misbehaved because they felt like they didn’t belong with their foster families or anywhere else, he explained. They couldn’t express themselves through their own clothes, music, or culture.

But now, foster parents are trying to change that, so the kids are more successful.

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“And after your done typing it get the colored pencils from Latavia,” Laura Ingham yells up to her daughter. “So you color it.”

Ingham gives the homework instructions as she heads to the basement to show off multiple years’ worth of family portraits.

“This is my oldest son, D’Angelo,” she says, pointing to a photo of a young man. “And these, these are my boys.”

Right now she has six kids, though two have moved into their own apartments.

“The best times is when they’re all here cause this house is popping, and I just sit and watch the ‘lalalala’ and the oldest two are so animated.”

Ingham knows what it’s like to be in foster homes. She and her older brother spent most of their childhood in them.

“I got put with a lot of white families that didn’t know how to take care of black kids,” she reflects. “And so that made it difficult.”

She says they bounced from placement to placement because 20 years ago, what was then known as the Division of Family and Youth Services, didn’t value permanency. She shut down. Learned not to attach and not to love.

“I was in foster care….. you didn’t really feel much.”

Then, 12 years ago, she took in her younger siblings and everything had to change. She had to learn to open up. When her sister left the house, Ingham started taking in teenagers and has up to five kids living with her at a time.

Ingham says she and other foster parents are approaching foster care differently than when she was in the system.

“They weren’t really trying to incorporate you into what they really had going on. It was actually a temporary thing. And now they’re advocating more for permanency in actual homes. That wasn’t happening back then.”

Ingham cares for teenagers who most likely cannot be reunited with their biological families, which is different from younger kids who will likely go back. According to Office of Children’s Services data, the median length of time spent in foster care in Alaska in 2015 was only one and half years.

But some ideas for making kids feel less stigmatized apply in all situations. Now foster families are trained to learn about the kids’ cultural backgrounds and cook foods from their homes. They learn about the impacts of trauma, how it can affect a child’s behavior, and how to react to it.

Aileen Mcinnis, the director of Alaska Center for Resource Families, which trains foster parents, says foster families may only be together for a short time, but the parents’ attitude can make any interactions impactful.

Parents needs to show the children in foster care “that there’s hope in this world, there’s people that love, there’s people that care for each other, and that being in a family doesn’t have to hurt.”

Ingham says she builds her family by getting the kids to try new things together, at least once. She remembers dragging her youngest son, Evan, to climb Flattop Mountain in Anchorage.

“But he was like, ‘Oh I don’t want to go. I just wanna play basketball.’ It was the summer. But he was the first one up Flattop. He was up there waiting for us and ready to take pictures and selfies and all this crazy stuff.”

She glances back at the row of portraits and points to a picture of Evan from when he first arrived at her house and then a new picture from three years later.

“You can just look at his face. How his face is changing from when I first got him. There’s a smile, when there was nothing when I first got him.”

Ingham says making kids feel like they are part of a family doesn’t always work. Some kids have left her home because they were violent. She’s had fights and holes punched in her walls. She says it’s not easy, and foster parents need patience.

But her trick for helping kids heal from trauma and abuse?

Love.

Fostering our Future is a five-part series. Listen to the rest here:
Part One – Number of foster kids at record high, case workers overloaded
Part Three – Reuniting families with community support
Part Four – Preventing child abuse through social networks
Part Five – Protecting a village