Paulding and Cobb Counties are experiencing a foster care crisis. Here’s how some area families have created an ingenious “community of care” to fill the gap.
BY ELIZABETH COSSICK
PHOTOS BY JD TYRE, JDTYRE.COM
Right now, there are 409 children in the foster care system in Cobb County and 120 in Paulding. But also right now, more than half of the foster kids in our community have to be placed in far-reaching counties, far from their homes. “Foster care in Paulding and Cobb is absolutely a crisis,” says Janine Leone, a home study specialist at FaithBridge Foster Care, a Christ-centered, licensed child placement agency in Georgia. “When the state receives a foster child, they call agencies like FaithBridge to help find a foster home, but there are not nearly enough approved families for the number of displaced children,” says Janine.
So what is the solution?
“To encourage more families to foster,” says Janine. “At FaithBridge, we partner with churches to form ‘communities of care’ around their families who decide to foster.” Her own church, Vintage 242 in Dallas, is a prime example. At Vintage, Janine says old and young alike have linked arms to welcome these children into their homes. Some foster, others sign up to make meals for the foster families, others offer to babysit or give swim lessons or tutor, and others have become official “Respite Care” providers, like the Davis family, below. Intrigued, we recently interviewed three such families to find out how it’s going, what compels them to help, and how fostering changes lives – including their own.
THE DAVIS FAMILY
Misty & Kelly, Hazel, 7, Penny, 5
ROLE | Respite care providers
HOW THEY HELP | Respite care providers go through the same training process as full-time foster parents, but with the goal of providing temporary care for children already placed with a foster family. “We support full-time foster parents by taking foster children for a weekend, a week or a night,” says Misty Davis, whose family has been providing respite care since 2015. “We give foster parents a night off or keep the foster children when a family goes out of town.”
WHERE THEY BEGAN | “We’re thankful we go to an amazing church, Vintage 242, that really put this crisis in front of us. We were clueless about the immense need right here in our community,” says Misty. “Vintage connected us with FaithBridge and helped us get all the tools we needed.”
WHY THEY DO IT | “Sometimes people ask, ‘Why in the world would you even want to do this?’ For us, we feel 100 percent certain that we want our girls to be part of this experience. It’s not the right season for us to foster, but respite care allows us to still be involved,” shares Misty. “It truly is a family thing. When we have kids for a weekend or a week, it impacts our girls. They have to learn flexibility and how to share our attention, but they absolutely love it! They totally get that we’re helping these children. They love taking care of the babies and, with the bigger kids, they love the playmates.”
THE HARD TRUTH | “It’s brought up some hard questions with our daughters about why these children are in foster care, and of course, they have a tough time understanding that,” Misty says. “But it’s enabled us to have some hard, but good, conversations. I would do it all over again. It’s become a huge part of our lives.”
THE HAMBRICK FAMILY
Steve & Randel, Anna Katherine, 14, Sara, 13
ROLE | Full-time foster care
WHY THEY DO IT | “For years, we read article after article recounting the horrors of child abuse and abandonment, and our hearts began breaking for these kids,” says Randel Hambrick, whose husband, Steve, is the lead pastor at Vintage 242 Church. “We had some friends who began fostering, and they gave us a vision for how we could help. We took in our first placement in 2014.”
WHO THEY’VE FOSTERED | The Hambricks have taken two placements, both pairs of elementary-age sisters.
THE KEY TO A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE | “I think what’s been crucial for us is being realistic about the type of placement that would be a good fit for our family. Because of the age and gender of our daughters, we have only taken elementary school girls at this point,” says Randel. “Also – and this is super important – you need to agree as a family that this is something you want to do together. Our girls have buy-in, which is vital so they don’t get resentful. Your kids need to see it as something they’re partnering in and not something that’s being done to them.”
THE MOST TOUCHING MOMENTS | “Definitely the best moments for me were praying for our foster kids every night at bedtime. They’d say, ‘Pray, really long prayers,’” says Randel. “So, I would speak truth over them concerning their identity, their purpose, their future and their worth. I want them to know they’re a treasure to us and the Lord.”
WHY IT’S WORTH IT | “Our foster kids are all reunited with their biological families, now, but we stay connected with both of the families. We invest in them and do holidays together and take the girls back-to-school shopping.
On Instagram the other day, one of my [foster] girls wrote, ‘I love you so much … You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me and my sister.’
That’s why we do it, because, for these kids, it absolutely changes things.”
THE WHALEN FAMILY
George & Gaetana Whalen
ROLE | Full-time foster care, with pending adoptions of their three foster daughters
WHERE THEY BEGAN | “We are empty-nesters, or were, anyway. Our boys are 32, 30 and 20,” says Gaetana Whalen, who, along with her husband, George, is currently fostering three little girls, ages 4, 5 and 5. “We always had a heart for foster care, but when we lived in New York and our boys were young, there wasn’t space. So, when we moved here [to Georgia] and our boys were grown, we thought, ‘Okay, this is something we want to do.’”
HOW THEY GOT STARTED | “I met a lady who was a foster mom, and she introduced me to FaithBridge,” says Gaetana, who also attends Vintage 242 Church. “We went through training, and shortly after that, we got a phone call for a placement of an 8-month-old baby and a 20-month-old toddler. George and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Okay, here we go!’ We had them for about 10 months before they went back home.”
HOW THEY GOT THE GIRLS | The day after their foster kids went home, Gaetana received a call about another placement – for a little girl whose story had been on the news. “I took the call and was like, ‘Can I at least finish cleaning up the Cheerios from my kids who just left?’ I was semi-joking, but your heart is tender when they transition back home, for sure. But then I heard this child’s story. Her mom was on meth, and the little girl had wandered out of a hotel room and ended up on the side of the highway. So, of course, we took her, and her little sister.” Then, shortly thereafter, they took a third little girl, as well.
THE HARD PART | “Our girls were all being raised by meth addicts, and two have special needs,” says Gaetana. “But they’ve made huge progress.” One of their girls came to them at age 4 unable to speak a word, “but now she is learning to communicate. She’s come a long way,” shares Gaetana.
WHY THEY DO IT | “It can be tiring, for sure. Our oldest son sometimes says, ‘Ma, you should be on a cruise!’ But I say, ‘I don’t want to be on a cruise. I want to be right here helping these girls.’” The Whalens had not set out with the intent to adopt, but when the parental rights of their girls’ parents were revoked, they knew they couldn’t let them stay in the foster system. At press time, the Whalens had begun the adoption process.
“You can’t change their point of origin, that pin drop on the map of where they started in life,” she says. “But you can change where they’re going. You can change their trajectory.”
SOURCE | For more information on foster care or respite care, call 678-690-7100 or visit faithbridgefostercare.org. Under Training & Events, you can sign up for an Encounter informational session. For information on Vintage 242 Church, visit vintage242.com.