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Broken Bonds: Longtime foster parents share their stories
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Foster mother Martha Coley has fostered many youths in her lifetime and continues today.

Average time children spend in foster care
Hall County: 14.5 months
Georgia: 15 months

Average number of homes a child is placed in (fiscal year 2014)
Georgia: 2.3
Hall County: 2.4

How to support foster parents and/or children

  • Sponsor a child’s music lessons or athletic team membership
  • Sponsor children for their birthday or Christmas
  • Become a volunteer baby sitter or transporter, which requires some paperwork and screening
  • Become a respite family, which requires all the same training and paperwork as becoming a foster parent but a much lesser time commitment. Respite families take occasional weekends to watch full-time foster parents’ children in order to give those parents a break.
  • Become a Court-Appointed Special Advocate. CASAs represent children in court and help find them safe and permanent homes. Call their office at 770-531-1964.
  • Get involved with Promise 686, which works with area churches to recruit, train and support DFCS foster families.

Call the local Division of Family and Children Services at 770-532-5233 for more information about other available opportunities.

How to become a foster parent
Basic requirements: Be age 25 or older, complete a medical exam, comply with a fingerprint check and pass a background check. Additional paperwork and training is required.
Contact: 1-877-210-KIDS
Training dates: No training is currently available in Hall County, but orientation classes are provided in some neighboring counties and full training will be available in January in Forsyth County. Call 770-532-5233 for more information.
Private agencies: A number of private agencies contract with DFCS to provide homes in Hall County; they train foster parents separately. Visit their websites for more information about their specific focuses and contact those agencies directly to become a foster parent through their organizations. Most also take monetary donations.

  • Bethany Christian Services: 770-455-7111
  • Creative Community Services: Therapeutic foster care agency focused on children with developmental disabilities and mental health needs. Contact it at 770-469-6226 and ask to talk with Reva Bowers in the recruitment and retention department or email info@ccsgeorgia.org. It’s also looking for donations of rocking chairs and socks, help building a ramp at a foster home in Lawrenceville and restaurant gift certificates for families to have a night out.
  • FaithBridge Foster Care: Agency focused on providing Christian foster homes. Call 678-690-7100. Two-hour orientation classes are offered regularly.
  • Georgia Agape: Call 770-452-9995 and ask for Joan Zahler.

When Wendy Boswell said goodbye to her foster daughter last month, she literally ached with grief.

“My arms hurt to hold her. Physically hurt,” said Boswell, who has fostered 45 children over the past 13 years. “I miss them. I wish I could just see that they were OK. It’s this huge void. You see a child every day — I’ve been 24/7 with these kids — and then they’re gone. ”

But reunifying children with their families is the ultimate goal of Georgia’s foster system. And as much as it hurts, it’s a goal foster parents have to embrace, Boswell said.

“The emotions are so opposite,” she said. “I always tell my (foster kids’) moms, ‘There is no one that will be happier for you than me.’ But it’s so happy for them and it’s so sad for me.”

Boswell has adopted five of her foster children, but even the joy of keeping the child you’ve grown to love has an undercurrent of sadness.

“Everything is so bittersweet,” she said. “Even signing adoption papers, I’m usually sad that day because all I can think about is the mom. There is nothing good about termination (of parental rights). You’re sitting in a courtroom and everybody’s saying these terrible things, and with the stroke of a pen, you no longer have kids.”

Foster parenting, she said, is about working toward the very thing you dread.

“When you see a family put back together, one that was so broken,” she said, “I call that the miracle of foster care.”

Hard goodbyes

Boswell fosters some of the hardest children to find homes for — those with special needs. Martha Coley, who has been a foster parent for 30 years, also fosters children who are hard to place — teenagers.

Coley said she can’t bring herself to take on small children because it’s just too hard to let them go. With teens, she’s often able to stay in touch.

“I can work with them, talk with them, get them started on maybe a new way of life,” Coley said. She’s also fostered special needs children, but those needs are sometimes more than she can handle.

Coley’s hardest goodbye was with a foster child who suffered from severe seizures.

“One day we were just riding around and she wanted to go the cemetery to see her grandmother’s and her uncle’s graves,” Coley said. “We looked at them, and we turned around and started to leave, and she just hit the ground. She was beating her head. Finally she started turning blue and there was blood. I saw some men working and I ran over there and yelled for help.”

The men were able to get her breathing again, but Coley was worried. The girl was home alone for a couple of hours a day while Coley worked. There would be no one to help her if she seized again.

Coley decided she could not stay and she was moved to an institution.

“She was crying and I was crying,” Coley said. “She said, ‘No, I promise I will not have another seizure.’”

It took a long time but eventually, Coley said, “I stopped beating myself up for not keeping her.”

A personal touch

Boswell, who stays at home full time, doesn’t foster teens, but she handles special needs children with apparent ease.

Her adopted son Keeton, 2,  was born prematurely to a mother who heavily used drugs. He was one of a set of triplets, and he suffered a brain bleed that left him physically impaired. From birth, he lived in institutions. The Boswells are the first family he’s ever had.

Now , Keeton moves with the energy of any toddler but he has not begun to walk, and there’s no guarantee he ever will. He makes do by pulling himself across the floor with his hands.

He’s just learned a new skill, standing up while holding onto furniture, and he uses it to cling close to his mom, holding on to her armchair and putting his head in her lap.

Boswell never misses a beat. She gathers him into her lap and administers some water though his feeding tube while keeping an eye on her 6-year-old son Mathew, who has a knack for getting into things.

She chats easily as she attaches the tube.

“I have to give him 2 ounces of water at a time,” she said. “It’s every hour.”

Meanwhile, Mathew shows off his Christmas board. It’s a piece of foam board decorated with a collage of Christmas pictures that he uses to stay calm. Plenty of children say they wish Christmas would never end, but Mathew really means it. Every April for his birthday, the family decorates its home for the holidays, complete with inflatables in the yard.

You have to really get to know foster children to understand their quirks,and this can be hard when they only stay with you for a little while, Boswell said

“We tried a million things before we came up with that,” she said of the Christmas board.

Ty, a 9-year-old who also has special needs, has impressive skill with Legos.

“He can’t follow the directions,” Boswell said. But he doesn’t seem to need them. He’s made a recreational vehicle complete with a working pop-out room, lifting the roof to show the tiny furniture inside.

Haven, 2, loves baby dolls. She’s named all of hers after foster children who have come and gone from the Boswell home.

There is a constant flurry of activity in the home. Mathew wants to snack on a pickle. Keeton wants to be picked up. Haven is upset because Kaylyn, 24, just went out. TJ, 9, needs help with his homework. Ty wants to know if he can get on the computer. But Boswell and her husband, Lee, take it all in stride.

“We’re pretty laid back around here,” she said.

Finding what fits

One of the things that makes placing foster children difficult is finding a home that’s the right fit for a child, according to Georgia Division of Family and Children Services officials tasked with that job.

Maybe there’s a home where the child would fit in well, but it’s 200 miles away from their parents. There may be available foster homes nearby, but none ideal for the child’s specific needs.

Foster parents like the Boswells, who welcome special needs children as they would any other child, and Coley, a veteran at taking care of teenagers in need, are some of the hardest to find.

But it’s not just teens and children with special needs who are difficult to place. With 9,489 Georgia kids in DFCS custody and only 3,295 foster homes, it’s a challenge to find a foster family for any child. There are 183 group homes that also take children, sometimes for specific reasons like special needs, medical or otherwise.

In Hall County, there are only 25 foster homes for 180 kids, and there are no group homes. The county makes up about a quarter of the statewide bed deficit.

“It’s an astronomical shortage,” Boswell said. “We really need them. We are desperate.”

But, she warns, “It’s not for everybody. … You’ve got to understand the big picture of fostering.”

Part of that is working with the parents toward reunification, she said

Often, as with Keeton’s and Ty’s parents, the problems start with drug abuse. Boswell said she tries not to judge the parents harshly, and often sees them go to great lengths to be with their children.

“I have had moms walk in the rain for a visit,” she said. “They love their kids. They really do. They just can’t get out. I can’t imagine what it’s like. Had I made a few different choices as a teen, had I not had a mom who was, well, the world’s greatest mom, I could be there.”

She said many of the parents were in the foster system themselves as children, some of whom have told her about bad experiences there.

She can’t understand why they continue the cycle, but she can see something similar in foster children who come from violent homes. They will be violent, too.

“They absolutely think it’s normal,” she said.

Toughest situations

Boswell said it’s hard to give children back when they came from a situation that was terrible.

“You get that mother bear, grizzly bear protection going,” she said. “The first child we had was shaken blind. I was going to protect! And then he was gone.”

Coley said the greatest emotional toll for her is seeing what adults have done to children.

“The saddest thing, the very, very saddest thing is to see a 13-year-old pregnant,” she said. “And they are so in love with that person. So in love. That is sad.”

Coley said she once fostered a child who had run away from home with her uncle. Her parents reported him for sexual abuse, and the two of them fled together. 

“He had abused her,” Coley said. “There were bite marks all over her. She hated her mother and daddy.”

It’s harder when children go back home after being removed because of abuse or neglect, and the foster parent never knows what happened to them.

A wall in Boswell’s kitchen is covered with photos of former foster kids, and her voice shakes a little as she gestures toward it.

The mothers often say they’ll let her visit the kids after they return home, she said, “but they never do.”

By fostering teenagers, who are sometimes able to keep in touch, Coley has learned maintaining connections is not always prudent.

She remembers one girl, a runaway, who wrote to her after returning to her parents in Texas.

“She kept writing and writing and writing and wanting to come back to my house,” Coley said. “I was so afraid that she was going to run away again just to come back to my house that I stopped writing to her.”

The blow came when another of Coley’s foster children got a letter from the girl. She had pleaded with them to find out why Coley wouldn’t write her back.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s always hard. But you’ve got to do what’s best for the child.”

Making a difference

As challenging as fostering can be, both Coley and Boswell said it’s among the most rewarding things they’ve ever done.

Each has a different reason for doing it. For Boswell, it’s a spiritual calling.

“Lee and I truly believe the Lord has called us to do this,” she said. “Pretty much everyone who knows us thinks that, too. Either that or they think we’re absolutely crazy.”

Coley, on the other hand, said she fosters for “selfish” reasons.

She’d fostered a neighbor’s child who she already knew when her own children still lived at home, but didn’t plan to foster any more children later. Then one day, the child she’d fostered stopped by for a visit.

“After my son grew up, he joined the Army. I was kind of lonely and she said, ‘Why don’t you go back to fostering?’”

Since then, Coley said she’s fostered more than 90 children. She keeps in touch with only a fraction of them, but it’s rewarding to see them grow into their own happy lives. She said she will continue to foster “as long as I am physically and mentally able.”

Boswell isn’t able to stay in touch with the younger children she fosters, but she can see positive change in the children she’s adopted.

Keeton is eating without the feeding tube more and more often, and his vocabulary is growing. It’s not clear if he’ll walk, but it’s clear he’s trying. He grabs the arm of her chair and lifts his feet one at a time saying, “Walk! Walk!” His feet don’t take him anywhere, but it’s a start.

As for the children who have gone back to their parents, Boswell said she tries to focus on what they had together, not what she’s lost.

“It’s just something you’ve got to let go,” she said. “What you’ve got to hold onto is that time they were with you, you knew they were loved and safe. You made a difference.”

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