Shawn Russell and his foster daughter have “Daddy Daughter Days,” a special time when they hang out and talk or watch movies.
Russell doesn’t know what it is yet, but his 11-year-old foster daughter is planning something special for him on Father’s Day.
He and his wife, Monica, have two foster daughters, sisters who are 11 and 17 years old. They are adopting the 11-year-old, and the older girl will soon age out of the system.
The Russells started fostering children last summer and may be the only family that will accept teenagers in Hall County.
There many more children than homes in Hall County for those taken from unsafe family situations and placed in foster care. The county has about 130 children in foster care, but fewer than 30 foster homes. Local children are placed in other counties, possibly taking away everything that’s familiar to the child and diverting time and money from caseworkers in the county because they have to travel across the state to check on a child.
The division is part of Georgia Department of Human Services. Its goal is to return children safely back to their families or place them with relatives, but if that’s not possible, staff looks for the best permanent setting.
At the highest risk are children with special needs and teenagers. Those who age out of foster care can start adulthood without the life tools they need and are more likely to face harsh challenges, including homelessness, poverty, health problems and unemployment, a statement from the division said.
Lee Boswell said he learned to be a man from his father and he’s passing down those lessons to his sons. Boswell and his wife Wendy have four biological children, three former foster kids they have adopted and one foster child in the home.
One of the permanent options for kids in foster care is to be adopted. Boswell and his wife Wendy started fostering children in 2002 and have adopted three boys, a 7-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. They’re also in the process of adopting their current 18-month-old foster daughter.
The Boswells have cared for about 45 kids during their years of fostering. Only about five or fewer had a father figure in their lives, Lee said.
“In some of those cases it was the father who was the reason they were in care,” he said. “Because of abuse or other things.”
Ty and T.J., who both came to the Boswells as infants, suffer physical and behavioral consequences from being born addicted to drugs. Matthew, 5, was born more than three months early. He’s blind in one eye and has trouble speaking.
Lee Boswell said it was heartbreaking to hear the babies cry as they went through drug withdraw from cocaine and methamphetamine.
“You can tell the difference if he’s crying just because he’s unhappy versus if he’s hurt,” he said. “You can tell he’s miserable.”
He relies on his faith as he tries to be a role model as a father and husband to such a large brood.
“I connect with my sons probably a little different than Wendy does because I’m a man,” Lee said. “For my daughter, hopefully I’m connecting with her in a positive way.”
He said he hopes he’s shown his oldest daughter Caylyn qualities such as conviction, leadership and caring, that she’ll find in a husband.
“He adores (the 18-month-old),” Wendy said. “And she adores him. Oh my goodness, wrapped around the finger.”
The Boswells prefer to take children younger than school-age and they home-school them. Wendy stays home with the kids.
Though foster parents can’t think of a child as their own, it’s nonetheless easy to get attached, she said.
“I love being a mom,” Wendy said. “It makes me sad to think that there are kids who don’t have that. And in a lot of times, somebody’s got to show them for the first time what a mom really is.”
Georgia has about 7,800 children in state custody; the figure is about 424,000 nationwide, said the division statement said.
State workers remove a child from a troubled home and begin calling approved foster providers to find the child a place to stay. The kids can arrive day or night, often with just the clothes on their back, Wendy said. One boy cried all night the first night because he had never slept in a bed before.
“They’re scared,” she said. “The first night is always super bad. I’ve never had a child remotely sleep through the night the first night.”
Wendy said they desperately need more foster families in Hall County, but it’s not easy to find them. Prospective foster parents must go through extensive background checks and training. The state reimburses foster parents for some expenses, but parents must pay for other things up front. It takes a lot of time and energy.
Being a foster parent can be a very emotional experience because you put so much time and love in a child that you’ll probably never see again.
“I’d tell (prospective foster parents) it’s the best thing they’ll ever do,” Wendy said. “And I’ll warn them its hardest thing they’ll ever do, too.”