Artika Rangan Casini and Angie Gray
In Delaware, there are nearly 800 children in custody at the Division of Family Services, a number that is “trending up,” according to Trenee Parker, director of Delaware’s DFS division. “We’re seeing more kids coming into care,” she says. “We’re getting more calls. We have more need.”
The foster care system is a “necessary entity in the continuum of permanency for children,” says Mary Lou Edgar, LCSW, the retired executive director of A Better Chance for Our Children, who worked in the field of foster care and child services for 30 years. Many children entering foster care have endured a life most people could not fathom. They therefore need “security and emotional support as they continue to grow past the trauma in their lives,” Edgar explains. Foster care is not easy for anyone involved, and sometimes the outcomes aren’t perfect. But it gives these kids a fighting chance.
Chris and Kaci Rainey are one such couple providing that chance. While parenting their three biological children in 2016, they decided to become foster parents too. Since then, they’ve housed six foster children and are currently caring for three young siblings. As chair of the Mid-Atlantic Orphan Care Coalition, Chris is a tireless advocate for vulnerable youth.
“It is difficult,” he concedes. “It might be the hardest thing you ever do, but it’s not impossible. If you want to really make a difference in the world, you can help reverse generations of brokenness.”
The challenge, he explains, is that too few people realize problems exist in the foster care system, including lack of resources. Families who do realize it often don’t have the support systems they need to tackle the issues. To help, the Raineys established Andrew’s Closet, a subset of the Orphan Care Coalition. Named in honor of their first foster child, the nonprofit provides a range of essentials—from formula and clothing to car seats—to aid foster families in their earliest days.
The ultimate goal of foster care is to reunite a child with their birth parents, Edgar explains. A recent shift in services even keeps children with their biological families while they work on their challenges. Still, there’s a great need for foster families, especially for children age 6 and older, who, according to Parker, comprise more than half of all youth in foster care.
Linda Farrow understands that goal and need. Having fostered 15 children between the ages of 7 and 17 since 2008, she recognizes that her role is to help families reunite. When possible, she has made it a priority to “encourage the biological parents to build a healthy relationship with their child and do everything they can to get back on their feet,” she says.
When that isn’t possible, helping a child find another permanent home becomes the goal. For teenage sisters Sha’kira and Markyra Payne, that forever home ended up being with Linda and her husband, Ira. Adoption was never the couple’s plan, “But sometimes your path leads you on a different journey,” Linda points out.
Linda says her home and heart are open to children of all colors and experiences. Too often, she explains, “People make decisions based on fear of the unknown or a bias against someone different from themselves.…It doesn’t matter one bit [to us]. All children deserve to feel and be safe, secure, respected and protected.”
Over the past six years, the number of children in the state’s foster care system has grown from about 500 to 800. Meanwhile, there are some 400 foster families (all of whom have completed dozens of hours of training).
In Delaware, these families often work with private and contracted agencies that coordinate directly with DFS to help place children in safe homes. A Better Chance for Our Children is one such agency, designed to create success in these situations. “Our trainings prepare families for the realities—good and bad,” says Meg Garey, Edgar’s successor.
One of the biggest takeaways for foster families, she says, is understanding that grief and loss are inherent to foster care. Birth parents have lost custody of their children. Foster families might grieve the loss of a child who has returned to their birth home. All foster children have lost their family, neighborhood and entire way of life.
But Garey and Parker say this grief doesn’t have to prohibit a connection. “The most rewarding aspect of this work,” Parker says, her voice trembling with emotion, “is when you recognize a shift in the child and you see the difference from where things were to where things end up. …When you think about the number of people involved and know that you’re one of those who helped.
“It takes a special person to do this,” she continues. “We have a number of them. The challenge is that we don’t have enough.”
Becoming foster parents isn’t a typical choice for newlyweds in their 20s. However, Stacie and Andrew Smith felt called to sign up for training sessions—eight hours on Saturdays for two months—to do just that.
It would become a poetic nine-month process. Just weeks after being approved by the state, the couple had their first placement: a 2 1/2-week-old baby girl. At the suggestion of the care team and in an effort to help foster bonding, Stacie sat in a wheelchair, car seat on her lap, as they left the hospital and began their new, impermanent life.
The Smiths were fully aware that reunification was always the goal, but there can be a painful dissonance between the mind and heart. Only one week later, at the child’s initial court hearing, the newborn’s biological grandmother was awarded custody.
Just a few days later, the Smiths’ case worker called with another placement request, and baby Arianna arrived soon after. For Arianna, there was no possibility of a reunion with her biological family, and the Smiths adopted her one year later. Biological twin boys made them a family of five. The couple wanted to wait until their sons turned 2 before fostering again, but then the foster agency called with news of another newborn baby girl. They couldn’t say no.
Stacie initially thought, I’ll be so much better this time around and I won’t let myself bond, she says. But then she realized, “I don’t want to be like that. It’s always worth it to love them as if they’ll stay with you forever.”
This emotional learning curve is part and parcel of fostering a child.
Tiffany and Joseph Adams could be considered experts at the emotional balance of fostering kids. They’ve taken in more than 35 children over the past 13 years—some for a few days, others for a few years. Most stay between six months and a year.
“It’s always difficult when kids move on, but you’ve got to hope they’ve taken in the things they’ve learned from you,” Tiffany says. “These kids need a lot of love, support, consistency, understanding and acceptance.”
In return, they often give back the love they have received—and then some. Today, the Adamses are the proud parents of four adopted children.
Their son Kevin is 21 now, but he remembers the first night he came into the Adams’ lives in 2010, how he entered their home with no clothes, no toothbrush—“not anything, really.” That night, Tiffany did something he had never experienced. She took him shopping.
His then-foster parents provided structure and love. Kevin remembers how they would say, “Good night, sleep tight, I’ll see you in the morning,” and then greet him the next day with a smile. They gathered as a family for dinner each night. They made him go to school, which used to be optional for Kevin.
It was a vast departure from Kevin’s first 10 years, where his biological home was filled with drugs and violence. He would play with BB guns in the neighborhood, shooting through windows at random and skipping class to hang out on the corner.
Kevin would soon learn, as would all the foster children who entered the Adams’ home, that his circumstances were not his fault. “You’re just a child,” Kevin says. “You can’t control what adults do. But you don’t know that then.” This realization can be deeply healing.
A few years after he was adopted by his foster parents, Kevin’s birth mother passed away from a drug overdose. His biological father was starting another family. This could be a source of great pain, but Kevin instead focused on the good in his life.
“It takes strong people to foster other people’s children,” he says. “It takes a strong heart to do that.”
A heart like that of foster child-turned-foster parent Japhia Devone. In 2005, 8-year-old Japhia entered foster care with two older sisters and a baby sister, Genny. The siblings would move four times in five years, ultimately being separated from one another.
Still a child herself, Japhia was determined to keep a bond with her younger sister. She made sure to see her whenever possible at the local Boys & Girls Club. Although they lived in separate foster homes, they both felt safe and happy and cherished any time spent together. It wasn’t perfect, but it was working.
When their biological mother’s parental rights were terminated, their case worker informed them that adoption would now be the goal in order to provide them with a permanent home together. Japhia remembers her “talking it up and telling us this would be our happily ever after.”
At ages 13 and 7, the sisters met their adoptive parents. They were happy—until a year later, when tension arose between the adoptive parents, who ultimately divorced. It became so bad that Japhia had moved in with a friend. Once again, she made an effort to see Genny whenever she could, even returning home on weekends while studying at Howard University and then the University of Delaware, where she ultimately transferred to be closer to her sister.
Genny’s relationship with their adoptive parents also deteriorated over time, and Japhia couldn’t bear to see her sister in such a volatile situation. She learned of the Kinship Program, allowing the full-time care, protection and nurturing of a child to be done by a sibling or other adult relative. As the older sister, Japhia understood firsthand the hurdles that stemmed from their failed adoption. She decided to step up to the challenge of raising her teenage sister so that the pattern of trauma could end.
Today, the Devone sisters are reunited and working together to heal their past. Japhia hopes to attend graduate school and become a physician’s assistant. Genny excels in academics in high school, as well as in competitive cheerleading. Together, they enjoy typical sister activities— watching movies, DIY projects and chatting late into the night about what their “happily ever after” might look like.
Their story exemplifies the contradictions of the foster care system; many foster children experience a life that most people could never even imagine. Great loss and trauma are commonplace—but so are resilience, healing and even love.