Foster parents describe benefits of helping

Foster parents, especially blacks, are desperately needed, children services workers say.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Gloria Henderson, at 53, has been "mom" to nearly 70 kids in the last decade at her East Side home.
Henderson has given birth to two sons, but 10 years ago, she entered the Mahoning County Children Services foster-care program and has been caring for teen-age girls ever since -- something children services workers say more black families are needed to do.
"We have always had a problem with placement in African-American families," said Lynn Slaina of children services. "Right now the [placement] problem goes across the board, but getting black families involved has always been an issue."
During 2001, the Children Services Board provided services for 4,383 children of which 1,849 were black. There are about 70 black foster families in the Youngstown area who take in children on a regular basis.
Slaina said CSB workers deal with such limited placement space that they often do not know where they can place a child who needs immediate out-of-home care. She said the bureau relies heavily on families and individuals like Henderson.
What got her started: Henderson started foster care after a relative who already was involved in the program told her about how it works and the benefits of working with and helping the children.
She said after rearing two boys, she had always wanted a girl and decided to open up her doors to teen-age girls.
She now has three teens in her home -- two foster kids, Desiree Benton and Tiffany Artist, both 15, and Erica Randolph, who, at 19, is officially out of CSB control but continues to live in the home she has shared for nearly nine years.
Henderson is quick to point out that many of her "other babies" such as a 21-year-old who is now married and a 22-year-old who lives alone, both of which shared her home for nine years, still visit regularly and share in family events.
"You have to love kids. You have to want to love kids in order to keep foster kids because if you don't, it's not going to work," she said. "These are all my kids because they all come back and my door is open -- wide open."
Slaina said constant continued contact with a child, even after the child has left the foster home, is one of the main benefits to fostering children.
She said foster families often become greatly involved with their foster child's birth family and relationships often develop that last for years.
Single mom: In 1996, Dawn McGee, a single woman and mother of two, decided there was enough room in her home, time on her hands and love for children in her heart to enter the foster-care program.
She took her first foster child home that year, but after caring for the child for two years, decided she "couldn't give her back" and adopted the now 5-year-old girl in 1998.
McGee, 31, of Campbell, now has a total of five children from 3 months to age 12 in her home. She has not ruled out future adoptions and says her doors are open to children as long as there is a need for good homes.
"I love kids and always told myself that I would adopt should I find there was a need," she said. "My ministry is kids and this is what was needed."
McGee has cared for up to seven children at a time. She says it can be challenging and certainly makes for long days.
She usually starts the day between 5 and 5:30 a.m. by getting the girls' hair and clothes together for school and preparing breakfast. From that point on, she said, it is virtually nonstop activity with meal preparation, personal work, homework, computer time and, what all children want, time to play with other neighborhood children.
McGee and Henderson do not deny that being foster parents is hard work, but they say the hard work is countered by the love and affection given by each of the children in their charge.
What keeps them going: They also say it is fulfilling knowing that they are doing all they can to help children in need of good homes.
"Loving a child and having that child love you back, that is the best thing you could have," Henderson added.
Slaina suspects there are several reasons why more black families do not open up their homes to foster children or adopt children.
She said many people may not understand the requirements and think they are ineligible because their home is too small, income too low or they are not married.
She suggested that interested individuals at least check the requirements, adding that they might be surprised at who is eligible.
Foster parents do receive a stipend for each child in their care, but McGee and Henderson warn those bad-intentioned individuals who think a career can be made out of foster care to eliminate the thought.
Those funds, they say, are just enough to cover the kids' expenses.
Slaina said other barriers for many people are finding the time to take of additional children and concerns over what emotional and mental conditions the children may be bringing into the home.
Henderson said CSB, however, does inform foster and adoptive parents of the child's history.
Both foster parents and Slaina encourage black families and individuals to make their homes available. In the long run, the children will be the only reward potential families will need, they said.

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