On May 16, an awards banquet was held where no one really cared who won.
That was the day the Arkansas Foster Family of the Year and 10 regional winners were honored by the state Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). They were honored for doing what foster families do: giving loving homes to children removed from their biological families, giving those biological families a helping hand during difficult times, and giving the taxpayers a heck of a good deal.
Foster families temporarily take care of many of the 5,200 children whom the state has removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect and other reasons. The arrangements can last from days to years. Sometimes the foster child is ultimately adopted by the foster parents, and sometimes the child is adopted by another family, but in most cases that’s not the goal. The goal is to provide support services to the children’s biological families so they can be reunited.
Here are some of the ones who “only” won regional awards. Ben and Lora Yother from Greenwood, two nurses, have cared for 13 foster children, including medically fragile ones. Steve and Ruth Hale from Conway started fostering in 2012 after they already had eight grandchildren. They’ve fostered 53 children and adopted their first one, seeing her through a teenage pregnancy that produced their ninth grandchild. Charles and Ginger Blue of Nashville have opened their home to 75 foster children in seven years. Terra Cobb of Texarkana, a single mother, has fostered 66 children since 2012. Meanwhile, she’s adopted three children ages 3,4 and 5 and cares for her 80-year-old grandmother in her home. Shantel Moore of Sherwood, another single mother, specializes in fostering teens and teen girls. Tate and Tammy Pfaffenberger of DeWitt have fostered 20 children since 2014. Last year, Tammy continued to care for two foster children – along with her own – despite undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer. Then, while still undergoing the treatments, she accepted a third foster child.
As someone wrote about her, “Through chemo, losing her hair, staying up all night with babies, going to sporting events, you name it, she never complained.”
That’s some tough competition.
That said, somebody had to “win,” so the Foster Family of the Year was Andrew and Amy Baker of Searcy. He’s a leadership in ministry professor at Harding University, while she’s a speech pathology professor there. They were selected not because of the number of children they’ve fostered (nine long-term over three years) but because of their efforts to reunify the children with their biological parents or other relatives.
The Bakers learned to care about these kids during their own upbringings. When Amy was a child, her parents hosted weekend visits for young people living at the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children in Monticello. Andrew’s parents in the state of New York opened their home to what he called “pretty hard core” teenage detainees, some barely avoiding prison and some being loved for the first time in their lives.
Like all foster parents, the Bakers experience grief when the foster children they’ve grown to love leave their home and return to their families. As Andrew explained, “If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t do it right.”
But reunification is still their goal, as it is the system’s, and so they work with those families throughout the process and stay close to them afterwards. No one wants to be a bad parent, they say, and if circumstances had been reversed, maybe they would have made the same mistakes. If for whatever reason their children were removed from their home, they would want the foster parents to be striving for reunification, too.
“Mercy triumphs over judgment, and I think that’s our role is to be a voice of mercy in a very complicated system,” he said.
Want to try to beat out Terra Cobb or Tammy Pfaffenberger for next year’s title? Contact DCFS at http://www.fosterarkansas.org or 501.682.8770. Another avenue is The CALL in Arkansas (thecallinarkansas.org, 501.907.1048), a ministry focused on recruiting and training foster and adoptive families. Project Zero (theprojectzero.org) helps foster children who are eligible for adoption find permanent homes.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.