Foster Parents Wanted to Open Their Homes, Hearts
need for foster parents in Eau Claire County is great, but so are the rewards
There is a critical need for foster parents in Eau Claire County, but beyond the statistics there are human stories.
“I’ve always had a heart for the underdog, trying to help families heal and reconnect,” explains Kristy Paulson, who fosters a 16-year-old.
“Ultimately, you’re trying to foster growth and development, not just with the child, but in the family,” says Nic Ashman, who has been a foster parent for seven years.
“The kids I am caring for – there’s such a love in my heart for them,” adds Kevin Kline, an Eau Claire County foster parent.
These foster parents – as well as some foster kids – are speaking up during May, which is National Foster Care Month. It’s a time set aside to celebrate foster families and highlight issues surrounding foster care.
I’ve always had a heart for the underdog, trying to help families heal and reconnect.
Right now, 110 Eau Claire County children are in out-of-home foster care – including foster homes, group homes, residential homes, and with extended family. At the beginning of May, 110 pinwheels were placed outside the Department of Human Services office at the Eau Claire County Government Center. They’re an eye-catching reminder of the critical needs of many children in our community.
Because there is a significant shortage of foster homes, many kids end up placed in group homes – sometimes even out of state – because there aren’t enough willing foster parents in the Chippewa Valley. Those who work with foster families say this shortage means kids are being pushed out of the community.
LOVING THE CHALLENGE
“We need people who love the challenge of parenting,” says Melissa Christopherson, Resource Unit Manager for the Family Services Division of the Eau Claire County DHS.
There is a need for foster parents for children of all ages – from birth to age 18 – with a particular need for parents of school-aged kids and teens.
“With teenagers, you do know what you’re getting most of the time,” Christopherson says, noting that by that age, the behaviors and life experiences of teenagers in the foster care system are well-documented.
That’s the case for 16-year-old “Jacob” (not his real name), who has lived with his foster mom, Kristy Paulson, for a year and a half. Previously, Jacob had 14 foster placements over six years.
“I feel like I actually matter,” says a teen in foster care. “My voice matters, what I do matters.”
“We just kind of connected right away,”says Kristy, who is certified as providing a treatment-level foster home.
“Our experience, I feel, has been pretty unique,” she adds. “It just felt right from the beginning.”
Jacob says he feels listened to and supported by his foster mom. “I feel like I actually matter,” he says of his current environment. “My voice matters, what I do matters.”
So what makes a good foster parent? “Tenacity and compassion,” says Kristy. “Humor,” adds Jacob.
“He has, in a year and a half, grown so much and worked through a lot of his previous trauma,” Kristy says.
While Jacob previously communicated through behaviors like running away, now he’s able to use coping skills to work through what’s bothering him, Kristy says. “He’s willing to try, to love, connect, and to care,” she adds.
Another fostered teen, 15-year-old “Madison,” is now making plans for getting a driver’s license and considering where she’ll go to college. She credits her foster family with providing stability and patience. “I have a really great provider, and that’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” she says.
Madison has her own advice for would-be foster parents: “Trying to commit to that child. Listening to them. Treating them like a normal kid.”
PARENTING AND MENTORING
Nic Ashman’s journey as a foster parent began unexpectedly seven years ago when she received a letter asking if she was interested in providing kinship care for a relative’s children. Since then, she’s been licensed as a foster provider, and has provided foster and respite care for a number of children with a range of ages.
Ashman herself was placed outside of her home as a teen. “It’s helped me unpack my own trauma history,” she says of foster parenting.
Part of being a foster parent, Ashman says, is helping children realize they are not alone, and helping them maintain connections with their own culture and family. She offers this message to potential foster parents: “You’re going to have to be able to shift your perspective,” she says. “The ultimate goal is reunification, so (foster parents are) going to have to be willing to co-parent.”
Elyse Harvey has experienced the other side of such co-parenting: Her own child was in foster care for four years while she was incarcerated. She’s grateful to the woman who fostered him, and credits the foster mother with helping her maintain a relationship with her son, who is now back in her custody.
“She’s older, so he calls her grandma,” Elyse says. “She wanted me with my son, and she didn’t put any barriers in my way.”
Christopherson, with the Family Services Division, says the entire goal of the foster system is supporting children and their families. “We always strive for what happened in Elyse’s situation,” she says.
“We encourage Eau Claire County citizens to consider opening their hearts and homes to become a foster parent to help a child in need and assist in keeping a child in their local community.”
Today, Elyse works in the Department of Human Services as a parent partner, providing support for other birth parents.
“It’s helping out some kiddos that need help,” Elyse says of the foster system. “It can be heartbreaking work,” she acknowledges. However, she adds, “It prevented me from losing my son.”
Kevin Kline, who also works for DHS, became a foster parent almost by accident after becoming certified as a respite provider. Since then, he’s become both a foster parent and a legal guardian for a 13-year-old who loves hockey. In fact, Kline says, the skills needed in hockey are good examples for both foster kids and parents – namely not letting your emotions get the better of you and being a team player.
“It continues to be a journey,” says Kevin, adding he’s proud to see foster kids “working on things that would be hard to process for an adult.”
While people may have preconceived notions about foster kids, Kevin says, “They have struggles, but they do fine. We’re just trying to give them that chance.”
And there are always kids – and families – out there who need these chances. As one local child living in a distant, out-of-county foster home because of a shortage of local foster families told Christopherson recently, “Do you ever feel like you just want to go home, but you don’t have a home to go to?”
Christopherson added, “We encourage Eau Claire County citizens to consider opening their hearts and homes to become a foster parent to help a child in need and assist in keeping a child in their local community.”
Interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent? Contact Christa Dutter at (715) 839-6923 or Christa.Dutter@eauclairecounty.gov. You can also find more information and resources online at tinyurl.com/FosterCareEC.
This article was produced in partnership with the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services.