About 140 foster children live with families throughout Mahoning County.
By KANTELE FRANKO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Tim and Lynn Gretsinger had plenty of parenting experience by the time they hit their 50s.
From previous relationships, the Homestead Street couple have a total of five grown children -- each with a spouse or fianc & eacute; -- and 11 grandchildren.
But when the Gretsingers decided three years ago to consider foster parenting as a way to share the love of their family, their countless hours of parenting did not exempt them from the mandatory training required of all potential foster parents in Mahoning County.
The county's Children Services Board requires all foster parents to complete 36 hours of training, 24 of which are mandated by the state, before beginning the process of evaluation and placement.
The extra time helps the board to better prepare parents and address topics that otherwise might not be covered, said Emily Wetherill, a CSB training officer.
The Gretsingers said they approached the training as a requirement but learned more than they bargained for.
They agreed that their first shock was the circumstances from which many foster children come.
There are about 140 foster children in the county, many of whom are taken from situations involving abuse, neglect or drug use, and they are passed between family members before they enter the Children Services system, training specialist Cindy Pachner said.
Pachner leads weekly training classes and instructs adults on the guidelines of foster parenting. The training teaches potential parents, who must be 21 or older, about some of the challenges they will face and how to address behaviors children might have that stem from their past circumstances.
The training also reminded the Gretsingers that if the option to adopt became available, they needed to have a backup person to care for the children if something happened to them.
When couples or individuals pass the class, they must receive an assessment that includes a home inspection, background checks, financial analysis, medical examinations and family discussion about parenting methods and the feelings of any other children in the family.
If they pass the assessment, they become certified as foster parents for two years and can renew the certification with additional training.
Tim said the most challenging point in the process was realizing what some children go through before they reach foster care.
"I thought if I can help one kid from turning out bad and ending up on the streets, then I've done something," he said.
The long lists of rules and guidelines for foster parents, which might seem overwhelming at first, are mostly common sense and should not be a deterrent to people interested in foster care, Lynn said.
Pachner said becoming a foster parent takes levels of commitment and flexibility that some adults might not be able to balance with their personal lives or work schedules.
"It's a huge commitment," she said. "The folks who do this are absolutely amazing people."
The Gretsingers say the commitment was well worth the reward. They began foster parenting a brother and sister -- Andy and Daisy, now ages 6 and 5 -- in November 2003. Eventually, the Gretsingers also fostered 11-year-old Anson, Andy and Daisy's older brother.
Although the couple never had intentions of adopting, they admit it was hard to deal with the idea that the three could be given back to their birth mother pending a decision by the court.
But such a time never came. The Gretsingers officially adopted their three youngest children July 5.
"They kind of come in and grab your heart," Tim said.
The increase in family size hasn't fazed the Gretsingers. The couple said they may be willing to help another foster child if they can.
Wetherill said she'd start checking her lists.
More information about foster parenting is available through the CSB at (330) 941-8888.