At a church women’s group program six years ago, an urgent plea for foster families zipped around the room and landed on Julie Lane, or so it seemed to her. Julie’s own children were 10, 13 and 16 at the time, and the idea of even one child without a loving family – well, the thought of it crushed her.
“I had to lay my head down on the table, I was crying so hard,” she says.
The next day, she was on the phone, ready to sign up, ready to sign up her family. Not that she hadn’t already known there were children separated from their biological families; that there was this huge need. New was her conviction to take action.
“We had an extra bedroom,” Julie says. “I knew right then that we had to use that bedroom for some kind of good.”
Something she didn’t know in the beginning: In the world of foster care placement, babies and toddlers rule. They’re cute and helpless. Their needs are mostly predictable. Desirable, too, are young grade-schoolers, who push limits, but gently.
At 11:20 one night recently, Teresa Johnston-Arndt answered her phone, knowing what it would be about. She’s a family services executive at Kids TLC, a children’s agency in Olathe, Kan.
“We need placement for a 16-year-old girl tonight.”
But Johnston-Arndt didn’t have a foster family available for a teen.
“I had to say no,” she says. “It was pretty hard to get back to sleep after that.”
Julie Lane remembers when L. first arrived.
It was before we moved into our bigger house. The walls were all white. She walked in and just blended into the white walls, she was so fair-skinned.
And there she stood, up against the wall. She didn’t want to sit down. She was very quiet. Age?
I told the kids to gather around. That’s what we do when someone new comes into the house, all sit around the kitchen table and chatter, chatter, chatter. She just waited for an opportunity to share in the conversation, to jump in. Finally she did, and to tell the truth, she hasn’t shut up since.
Later she got married at our house, in the backyard. My daughter made her a simple wedding dress, and my husband gave her away. Two years ago she called me when she was in labor at the hospital at KU. She insisted that I be there, so I was holding her right hand and her mom had come, too, and she was holding her left.
After about a year with the baby she decided she couldn’t take care of him. She gave the baby up for adoption.
There are ups and downs. Plenty of downs.
Julie recruited her husband, Jim, to the fostering idea, which wasn’t a tough sell. He knew his wife had always liked the idea of a big family, and he came from one, six brothers and sisters. The Lanes completed the training, the background checks and home visits and were licensed for foster care.
Their first placement was two young boys for “respite care.” They watched the brothers overnight for another foster family. Respite care is a good way for foster families to get started.
Since then, with placements lasting a few days to a few years, Julie and Jim have been foster parents – or “resource parents” as they’re sometimes called – to more than 80 children. Their first teenager was a 15-year-old, a new mother. The baby had been placed with another family.
“Kids don’t come into foster care because everything is fabulous and normal,” Julie says. “You have to think about where they’re coming from.”
The experience wasn’t pleasant – at one point the girl tried to escape Julie’s car on the way to school – but it led Julie to another epiphany: She would say yes to teenager placements and groups of siblings, a decision that sets the Lanes apart from many foster couples.
Bigger people need space, so a year into foster parenting, the Lanes moved to a larger house in Olathe, even converting the dining room to a bedroom.
Bigger people also have bigger problems.
“We’ve had to deal with drugs and drinking and law enforcement, with pregnancy and pregnancy prevention,” Julie says. Not to mention lies and manipulation.
Because their middle child is a girl, they decided they wouldn’t accept male teens. “The longer I’ve been doing this, the lower my B.S. meter has gotten.”
People told Julie that taking in teenagers was risky. Teenagers are scary, they said.
“I understand that reaction,” Julie says. “But teenagers are more scared than scary.”
The ultimate goal of foster parenting is to move children to permanent families as quickly as possible. Julie says their goals as foster parents are simple: to offer guidance and any resources they can muster and, just as important, to show the foster children how families are supposed to work.
Their foster children see how Julie and Jim relate to their own children. They can see that two of the Lane children are in college. They see what it means to have adults they can count on.
“They haven’t had that,” Julie says. “Can you imagine?”
They don’t always express their thanks, but more than a few times Julie has gone to bat for her foster kids with teachers and principals and judges.
What she says what she doesn’t expect is a payback or storybook successes.
“The successes are in the little things, the little moments, the same as with our birth children,” she says. “Nobody knows how everything is going to turn out
“So it’s that hug you weren’t expecting. It’s when you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, they really were listening.’”
Usually the kids are brought to you, but my daughter and I went to pick up R. It was the day before Thanksgiving. She was 14 and was deaf. I had graduated from a deaf interpretation program, but that was several years before, and I hadn’t signed for a while.
But she was told I knew sign language, so she just started signing away like crazy. A lot of it went right over my head. I started to pick it up again over the next few weeks. She helped me through it.
R. never wanted to be left out of anything. If she saw my lips moving, having a conversation with someone, she wanted to know what was going on. Of course, everything wasn’t about her. So we had to work through that, making sure she not only felt included but was included.
She was here from about age 14 to 16 and then tried moving back with her mom. It didn’t work out, and she was back here at 17. R. was very patient with people, and you could tell she was trying to do the right things.
At her graduation ceremony at the Kansas School for the Deaf, she accepted her diploma and signed her thanks from the stage to Jim and me and to our family. She was grateful and very loyal. She would do anything for anybody in our house.
On a recent chilly, sunny Monday morning, in the parking lot of a big-box store, Julie’s friend and fellow foster parent Denise Bozinos held open the lid of a newspaper recycling bin, and Julie, dressed in sweat pants and a hoodie, climbed up and jumped in. Bozinos lowered the lid.
“Here you go,” came Julie’s voice from inside, as she handed Bozinos bundles of Sunday coupons through the square opening on the side.
“Sometimes we get hundreds of coupons,” Bozinos said. “Sometimes not.”
Extreme couponing is one of their defenses against the high cost of children. Bozinos currently has 10 children at her house: four birth children; three former foster children, siblings adopted by the Bozinoses; and three foster children, who are siblings. The Lanes have six: two of their three birth children – their oldest is at Kansas State – and four foster children. They also use the coupons to help stock the resource room at Kids TLC.
“We use coupons for toothpaste and toothbrushes, soft soap, tuna, pickles, you name it,” Bozinos says. “Every week is completely different.”
Bozinos has chosen not to take in teen foster children, preferring kids under the age of 10. She thinks younger children present fewer conflicts with her family. Not that she’s on easy street.
“I’ve got bed-wetters,” she says with a laugh. “Every single kid comes with issues. If you put yourself in their shoes, you’d have issues, too.”
Bozinos and Lane are support for each other, as moms, as navigators of the foster care system, as friends. Getting advice and commiserating with another foster parent is a lifesaver, they say.
“Especially when you’re losing your mind that day and no one else understands,” Bozinos says.
Being a foster parent can nurture new friendships, but it also strains other relationships, sometimes to the breaking point. Julie saw her relationship with her sister and a good friend spiral downward.
Foster parenting was exacting too high a price on Julie’s family, they told her.
Jim, however, was always on board. A longtime faculty member in the theater department at Johnson County Community College, he recently became dean of arts, humanities and social sciences.
“I’m from a large family, so numbers didn’t bother me,” he says. “And if you’ve met my wife, you know she’s kind of a force of nature.”
He’s comfortable with being a fatherly role model and the guy who keeps the cars and toilets running.
No doubt, he says, the Lane children have felt the strain. But sharing their parents is a lesson in selflessness that they’ll eventually appreciate, he says.
“Some of the foster children, truthfully, demand more attention than your own kids,” he says. “It’s something they’ve had to deal with. But this is a way Julie and I ultimately decided we would contribute to society.”
Returning A. to her mother was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. She was 13 when she came to us, getting ready to turn 14.
If even 25 percent of what she told us was true, I didn’t think she should be going home. She said there were drugs in the house and no heat. There was a lot of emotional abuse. She was being locked in her room.
Reintegration with the birth family is a goal of foster care, although I didn’t support it in this case. I met A.’s mom in a Target parking lot and gave her back her daughter.
It felt like the blood had just drained from my body.
The Lanes’ only daughter, 19-year-old Jessica, was in junior high when their family started to grow. She remembers the first 15-year-old, the new mother, who came to live with them.
“Nobody I knew had a baby when they were 14 or 15,” she says. “It was different, but I always liked helping people. I was open to it.”
But her outlook took a dive not long after. It was around the time her grandmother died and the family was taking in a group of four siblings – a girl her age, two younger brothers and a younger sister.
“It was the first time I ever had to share my room with anybody,” she says. “I felt like I was competing for my mother’s attention. And we’re very, very close.”
When Jessica was a sophomore and an “A” student, some kids at school accused her of cheating. It wasn’t true, but she was devastated by the talk. She rushed home to get advice from Julie, who was gone all afternoon with one of the foster children.
“It gets me choked up now just thinking about it,” she says. “I guess everything comes with more drama when you’re 16, but she had always been there before.”
Jessica was so distraught at the time she wouldn’t speak to her mother. But it’s interesting, she says, how her attitude has changed. She has grown close to one of their foster family members, Claire. Claire has “aged out” of the foster care system but has lived with them from time to time.
Jessica remembers a car ride to Topeka for Thanksgiving with relatives. She could tell Claire was sad, that she wished she had her own family to be with on the holiday.
“I remember grabbing her hand, and I held it,” she says. “I would call Claire my sister.”
Jessica says she often is asked if she would consider becoming a foster parent.
“Absolutely – 100 percent,” she says. “I’d have such a good perspective. I grew up with it.”
She would even consider teenagers.
Johnson-Arndt of Kids TLC says that there are other families in Johnson County and nearby in Kansas who accept teenagers, of course. In fact, Kansas has a relatively low percentage of youth in group homes and other residential facilities, which is where young people can go if no foster families are available.
But finding teen-friendly families is a struggle regionally and across the country.
“There is a huge shortage of families able and willing to open their homes to older kids,” says Lori Ross, president of Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association in Independence. “It’s tough to find folks willing to tackle that.”
Anyone considering foster parenting should be aware of the challenges in becoming licensed, Ross says, and of the costs. Training typically takes about 30 hours, plus there are criminal background checks and home inspections and visits by the state. The state provides medical cards and stipends for expenses such as food and clothing, but the stipend falls short of actual expenses, she says.
Tracey Feild of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization for disadvantaged children, says the key to solving the shortage is targeted recruitment – finding families who have a connection to the teen in need or who have a proven interest in teens, such as teachers and coaches.
Feild was reminded of Antwone Fisher of the autobiographical book and movie that told about his brutal path through foster care.
“It turned out that he had extended family within blocks, but they didn’t know he existed,” Feild says. “They would have loved to have him.”
In fact, Ross says, her agency and others have begun an approach, “Extreme Recruitment,” that employs private investigators to find extended family members and others connected to the teen who are unknown to the state.
“It’s a neat new thing,” Ross says. “They go out and beat the bushes.”
I remember the first time we met N., she was just a very nice girl. She had been living with her brother, but he was married with kids, and for whatever reason they couldn’t have her there anymore.
We had another girl at the time who I suspected was using drugs, so at her physical I asked for a drug screening. It came out positive for marijuana. I called a family meeting to talk about drugs and alcohol. Then I had a friend in drug enforcement come to the house with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog found cocaine in N.’s room. She had to go to juvenile court.
She bounced around after that. Her grandmother couldn’t handle her. Her mom was in no position to take her. N. had a sister, and her dad told her, “I only have one daughter and it’s not you.”
I thought that had to be the hardest thing for her to deal with. I can’t even imagine how hard that would be to hear.
Sitting at her kitchen table on a recent afternoon, a brief respite in another day of school runs and doctor appointments and heart-to-hearts and meal preparation, Julie considered her 80 foster kids and counting. She’s proud of her family’s work and their sacrifices to help others.
But as she’s watched these foster teens get older, she has become acutely aware of another enormous issue. When the teens age-out of foster care, often at 18, they rarely have the skills and wherewithal to make it on their own. Sometimes they still don’t have families who can take them in.
Sometimes they come back, Julie says, like 20-year-old Claire Wright, who almost on cue walked into the kitchen that recent afternoon. She had called Julie. She had been with a boyfriend, both homeless, sleeping in a truck in North Dakota.
“I got hard-core into some bad stuff,” Claire says, “and I wouldn’t be out of it without Julie.”
Julie would like to set up a facility, a halfway house of sorts, for aged-out foster “children” in their late teens and early 20s – not to baby them, but to provide a place to stay with strict rules and just enough hand-holding to make that final transition to adulthood.
“That’s something I really, really want to do,” she says.
With Julie, this force of nature, it could happen. And a foster parent can dream, can’t she?
By EDWARD M. EVELD