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Nontraditional foster homes

March 29, 1999
By: Jennifer Lutz
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 252

It was just one of those days for Tammy Atherton--caring for seven foster children, a child of her own and being pregnant with another.

She remembers cooking dinner one recent night, thinking, "If I have to fix one more meal, I'm just going to scream."

Atherton wondered if she could go on any longer, taking care of so many children.

"Then this little girl who was about seven came up to me in the doorway of the kitchen and said `When I grow up I want to be a mom just like you,'" she recalled.

"That's it. That is why I'm a foster parent. You wouldn't believe how fast I had to get out of that room. Nothing compares to knowing that you can influence someone's life."

Atherton, along with her husband Bill, have been foster parents for three years at Coyote Hill Christian Children's Home in Harrisburg, a not-for-profit corporation which provides professional, emergency and behavioral foster care. Coyote Hill houses foster children from toddlers to teens.

"We always have a shortage of these parents," said Larry McDaniel, executive director for Coyote Hill. "We need quality people willing to do the work."

In October 1998, the Division of Family Services recorded 11,472 children in statewide foster care. During the same month, only 3,881 foster parents were available.

"Depending on the license the parent has, foster parents can only care for six children at a time unless they are in a group home," said Lynn Cole, child services program director for the Columbia Division of Family Services.

In Boone County, 422 children needed out-of-home care, while only 119 foster homes were available. The foster care program places children from infancy to 17 years of age in homes. In times of emergency, DFS calls to neighboring counties looking for foster care for children.

Due to the low number of foster parents around the state, social workers in Boone County have made various attempts to recruit more parents.

"Every year for the past 10 years, there has been a foster care giving tree at the mall," Cole said.

Other recruiting efforts include answering questions, teaching people about parenting in the 1990s, providing information at career fairs, various advertisement campaigns and awareness of the Foster Care Appreciation Month in May.

"We get lots of foster parents through word-of-mouth," Cole said. "Information through other people seems to work the best."

To become a foster parent at Coyote Hill, couples must be 21 and undergo a child abuse and neglect background check. However, the main quality McDaniel looks for in foster parents is "lots of heart".

"I want people who will play catch with a boy and really care for him," he said.

At the Atherton home, the children follow a point system which outlines basic life skills useful even after they leave the foster care. The points can be spent on privileges such as playing outside, competing in video games or watching TV.

"This works very well to make them responsible for their behavior," Atherton said. "It isn't me saying they can't watch TV, instead they didn't earn enough points to do it."

An average day for the family begins at 6 a.m. with simple chores, such as vacuuming, cleaning rooms and putting the dishes away after breakfast. Then the morning devotions are read in the living room before heading off to school at Harrisburg Elementary or Harrisburg High School.

Once the children return, the family meets to see how the school day went, and then heads outside for some free time before sitting down for homework hour.

Having a big family and working with children always has been something the Athertons knew they wanted.

"I used to tease my mom that I was going to have 10 kids and leave them at her place," Atherton joked. "I'm getting close to that number."

Coyote Hill plans to complete a second house by July 1. McDaniel currently is looking for a family to live there and care for foster children.

"Seeing the children learn something, and the sparkle in their eye when they figure it out is the best part," Atherton said. "There is such a transition from being a kid who is withdrawn and sulks in a corner to a kid who plays, smiles and laughs."

Another similar foster home exists a short distance away in Sturgeon. Children's Ranch Inc. currently is raising money to build homes for children.

"I wanted to do something that would help children even after I'm gone," said Norma Bradley, director of Children's Ranch Inc. Bradley and her husband Bobby started the not-for-profit organization after being foster parents for 19 years.

People placing donations, attending auctions and even playing in a couple of golf games have contributed toward the home's fund. Children's Ranch has collected $36,000, still short of the $130,000 goal mark.

"We are a long way from reaching the goal," Bradley said. "We are eventually going to get there."

Part of the money raised is placed in a scholarship fund for students who will attend college, have a financial need and maintain adequate academic grades. Two foster children have received scholarships to help with costs of attending MU and Moberly Community College.

The majority of those placed in foster care have been abused or neglected. When DFS receives a child abuse or neglect call, the case quickly is investigated. If a child is found to be in immediate danger, a caseworker will recommend to a law enforcement official or a juvenile officer to remove the child from the home.

"The child spends on average 18 months in foster care," Cole said.

Individual foster parents receive $216 per month for children up to five years of age, $264 per month for children six to 12 years, and $292 for children 13 and above. If a child has special needs, DFS can award parents up to $626 per child for one month.

"The hardest part of it all is letting the children go," Atherton said. "Foster parenting is by far the most rewarding thing you can do. It taxes you emotionally, physically and mentally in every way possible, but the rewards are immeasurable."