It is no secret that most people looking to foster or adopt want to care for little ones, usually those under the age of 6. Of course, these children need a home, but what about the growing number of older children in the system? In Ohio alone there were over 4,500 children aged 11-20 in the foster care system in 2013* and the number is only growing. Many families shy away from taking teenagers citing reasons such as “they are scary,” “they may make allegations,” or “they are aggressive.” With less homes willing to take teens, some face life without a family or a place to call home. We spoke to three foster parents who have fostered adolescents to see what it has been really like!
Delois Yates and her husband Charlie Yates have been fostering for about 13 years and estimate fostering around twenty teenagers. Initially the family was called to foster through their church and thought about offering a home to a young child in need. They were soon approached by one of their children’s psychiatrist who thought the family would be good at caring for teenagers. Mr. and Mrs. Yates decided to give it a try and have not turned back, sometimes having up to five teens in their home at once!
Terri Gabriel and her husband, Walter Gabriel also did not think they wanted to foster teens in the beginning, but after about 25 years of fostering and caring for around 100 adolescents, they realized all kids become teenagers at some point even if you start fostering them at a younger age. Like the Yates, their house is also always full of five or more kids.
Foster Parent, Phillis McDonald, on the other hand knew she wanted to foster teens from the beginning as she previously worked in case management with this population and enjoyed the work greatly. Ms. McDonald has been a foster parent for about six years and has maintained a house full of five teenage boys all on her own.
All three families shared that fostering teenagers is not always easy, but what they need most is a place to call home before they emancipate from the system. Foster children emancipating from the system face dire outcomes such as homelessness and incarceration, but if they have a family willing to offer them support and teach them how to be successful adults, these statistics can change. Mrs. Gabriel shared, “They need structure and to be taught daily living skills to be able to move on.” Mrs. McDonald agreed and also added, “They just need your time; hands on time. I like to eat dinner as a family and talk with them.” All three families also agreed that getting their youth to graduate high school were some of their biggest success stories and something that kept them going through the tougher times. Some of these youth may be the first to graduate in their families and a lot of them, with the proper support want to go on to higher education such as college or a vocational school. Mrs. Yates also shared that she often hears from former youth who call back after being in the “real world” and share how much it meant to them to have she and her husband’s support. To Mrs. Yates, this has made it worth it and made it feel like they must have done something right.
All three families hope to see a better outcome for the teenagers in the system and hope that more families can step up to the challenge. So what advice do they have to offer? Mrs. Yates stated, “It is not always easy, but just know that you are making a difference even if you don’t see it right away.” Ms. McDonald added, “Be patient and devote as much time as you can to them.” Mrs. Gabriel offered, “Don’t take stuff personally and know your Achilles’ heel.” If you are considering fostering teenagers, talk to someone who has done it, or try a respite first to get your feet wet. And remember, unlike younger children, you won’t need to change diapers with teens and you may even get to sleep in!
Through our conversations an overarching theme presented itself, although you may not be able to help them all, changing the outcome for one child; stopping the cycle of abuse, helping them graduate or get a job, or teaching them life skills made it all worth it. Mrs. Gabriel shared the story of the jellyfish. She said, “One day a man found a beach littered with thousands of jellyfish that had washed up on the shore. He began picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. Someone walking by asked him what he was doing and he replied he was throwing the jellyfish back in the ocean so they did not die. The individual then said to the man, “There must be thousands of jellyfish on this beach; you won’t really be able to make a difference.” The man then picked up yet another jellyfish and threw it into the ocean. Then he said, “It made a difference to that one!”
If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent, please call 614-559-2800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also checkout our website at: www.umchohio.org
*Statistics were collected from The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Database