For most children who enter foster care, the ultimate goal is to reunite them with their families. But getting to that point takes a lot of work. Parents have to follow case plans set up by the Office of Children’s Services and meet requirements like getting substance abuse treatment.
Parents also need to maintain relationships with their kids. And sometimes, that requires a little community support.
Princess Taala entered the foster care system two and a half years ago. The 14-year-old says she was upset about it, but she understands why it happened.
“There was some neglecting issues and physical abuse and emotional and verbal abuse. And I understood it wasn’t healthy for anyone to be in those kind of situations,” she recalls. “When I was little my dad abused my mom, so it was kind of a chain reaction.”
Princess lounges on the couch of a large playroom filled with a mock stage, toys, books, food — anything that helps families interact. It’s a space run by a local Christian non-profit Beacon Hill to give foster kids a place to visit with their parents. Six other kids zip around Princess, asking her questions and some jumping on her lap. She keeps talking about a pretty rough topic, completely un-phased. No one in her first four foster homes would probably guess she could be so forthright.
“In my other foster homes, I would never utter a word other than ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘thank you.’ Just those simple answers.”
Now she chats with her mom and her siblings and her new extended family, the Stones.
“I would say there was an instant connection between the kids. It was really fun,” says Crystal Stone. She first met Princess when she started volunteering with Beacon Hill.
Here’s the idea behind the organization: many families that get involved with OCS don’t have healthy support networks. No one intervenes when there is a crisis, and so the situation becomes unsafe for the kids. At Beacon Hill, they want to help parents build those networks so when they are reunited with their kids, they’re more likely to stay together. The Stones decided to volunteer with Beacon Hill just to befriend Princess and her family, but the relationship grew quickly because they had so much in common.
“Music, our faith,” she lists. “Birthdays. Ages of the kids. Interests that the kids enjoy. Dance. I mean, a lot of it.”
After about a year, Princess’s two youngest siblings were also taken away from their mom. Instead of them going to an unfamiliar foster family, they went to live with the Stones.
Madison, the Stone’s oldest daughter, says the transition wasn’t always easy. “You don’t get a lot of attention. That’s for sure. Sometimes you like it cause they’re not always on you. But other times when you want help with things or you wanna talk, you kinda have to wait your turn.”
But Crystal says they make it work by showing all of the kids love and making them feel like a giant family. But they also ensure that Princess’s siblings remember their mom. They put up photos of her and the older siblings. They sing songs about weekly visiting days.
“You don’t want to talk bad about the other parent because that doesn’t help that child,” Crystal says. “That doesn’t build them up or help them feel secure. You want to be as fair as possible.”
She’s interrupted by her son, Prince, Princess’s little brother. The five-year-old grabs onto Crystal for a kiss before running off to see his biological mom and plays with his two sets of siblings.
The families are going through a transition. Princess and her 10-year-old sister are back with their mom, and Princess says she’s thrilled to be home.
“It was fun,” she says of her first night back. “The first thing I did was grab all my stuff and put it in her room and spend the night with her because I haven’t cuddled with her in a long time.”
The younger two, who live with the Stones, may have overnight visits with their mom and siblings soon. Crystal says she’s happy they’ll be reunited, but after more than a year together, it’s an emotional change for all of them.
“So we just talk about it. ‘This is hard. This is good. These are the pros and the cons and this is how we’re gonna get through this.'”
Both families say this will not be the end of their relationship because, as Princess says, they rely on each other.
The Stones “help us in a lot of ways. They give my mom advice and they talk to her when she has no one to talk to. They’re like our second family.”
Princess says during her time in foster care, she needed a strong, solid connection with her mother. But through her bond with the Stones and other caring adults, now she realizes that family extends beyond blood. It includes those who support and encourage you when you feel like no one else will.
Fostering our Future is a five-part series. Listen to the other stories here:
Part One – Number of foster kids at record high, case workers overloaded
Part Two – Changing what it means to be a foster parent
Part Four – Preventing child abuse through social networks
Part Five – Protecting a village