Thursday, November 18, 2010

Giving of Ourselves Interview: Jennifer Jo

I am loving this series.  I will admit, I am interviewing women who have given of themselves in ways I have personally considered/am considering.  The first interviewee was Michelle who went to Belgium on a short-term mission trip.

Jennifer Jo is a dear friend of mine.  She's the one whose blog inspired me to start my own a couple years ago.  She's the dear friend who introduced me to roasted tomatoes, pesto torte and Indian Chicken.  Clearly, a dear friend.

This same Jennifer Jo consented to answering my questions about having been a foster parent.  All fostering stories are unique.  Her answers are honest and real.  Fostering is an incredible gift we can give to children who need a safe place during a trying time in their life.  As she alludes to below, folks considering fostering need to remember who they will be doing the fostering for- the child, of course.  This is important to remember because fostering is hard work.  Very hard work.

Thank you, dear, for taking time to answer my questions.

Tell us a little about yourself, your family, and how you spend your time.

Since it’s nearly impossible for me to compose a brief Who Do I Say That I Am statement, I’ll toss out a handful of adjectives and let you paint your own picture. I am—deep breath—energetic, creative, easily bored, busy, selfish, generous, loud, talkative, un-picky, opinionated, honest, high-strung, high-maintenance, fun, bossy, organized, discerning, irritable, and loyal. Though that anyone would want me stuck to their side after such a conflicted list, is beyond me.         

I’ve been married for 14 years, not to the man of my dreams (a rather ill thought-out and anemic man that phantom was) but to a hunk of a dreamboat who is just as riddled with imperfections as I am. Together, we dream of all sorts of things, none of which turns out perfectly. Bummer. 

We live in a renovated (thanks to the aforementioned dreamboat) house on five acres and rule over a small kingdom of chickens, a dog, a cat, and four children: Yo-Yo is 11, Miss Beccaboo is 9, Sweetsie is 6 and The Baby Nickel is 4. I (kinda, sorta, maybe) homeschool my subjects (er, kids), and while I claim to love doing it, and I’m not lying when I say that, most days you wouldn’t be able to tell.                                

I spend my days craving solitude and silence and rarely getting any.

A few more stats: I love coffee—it’s the reason I get up in the morning. I blog. I bake and cook. I’m learning to belly dance. I’m a Mennonite.  

How did you decide to open your home to a foster child?

I always wanted to be a foster parent—when I was in high school, I cut out newspaper ads for foster families and stuck them to the fridge in hopes of piquing Mom and Dad’s interest. (Which piqued a little too late—they became foster parents after I left home.)  If some kids needed a home and I had a good one, I figured we ought to share. Plus, there was an element of intrigue.   What could be more fascinating than taking hurting, needy children and helping them to heal and blossom? What a rush!   

Despite my dream of fostering, my husband and I didn’t sign on with an agency until I was pregnant with our fourth (and final) child, the first time in a decade of marriage that we felt grounded enough to finally open our home to foster children. At that point, fostering seemed a perfect outlet for my energies while still allowing me to stay at home with my kids. Seeing that I was already cooking and cleaning for a household of six, it would be fairly easy to incorporate another child into our lives. And the business side of fostering—meeting with social workers and therapists—could easily get done with my kids underfoot. 

What were your concerns about fostering and how did you move past them?

I was concerned that the foster child would dominate our lives, demand all my attention, and usurp my children’s position. I was worried that my children would be physically harmed by this venture—even though the agency assured us that they did not put sexual predators in homes with small children, my fear of sexual abuse still loomed large.

My husband and I tried to assuage our concerns by careful planning. We intentionally choose teenage girls so that there would be a large age difference between the foster girls and our oldest child (our then six-year-old son). This way the needs of the foster children wouldn’t be in direct competition with the needs of our young children. And as we were homeschooling and the foster child would attend public school, we hoped that the daytime separation would provide us with sufficient daily respite.

But no matter how much planning we did, we knew we were taking a risk.  We had to accept that risk in order to move forward. 

How did your faith contribute to your decision to foster?

To me, faithfulness means responding to the needs I see in the ways that I can. I was drawn to fostering because I knew it would challenge me to use my gifts and that I would grow through the experience.

How did you prepare yourselves and your family to welcome a foster child?

My husband and I went through extensive trainings, background checks, and home visits, but we were not prepared.

Please briefly describe the experience of fostering.

Fostering involved a lot of meetings. The red tape was a mile long. There were meetings with social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, and doctors. There were court dates, birth family appointments, police reports, parent teacher conferences, and continuing education classes. There were gas mileage logs and medication logs. 

We had two longer-term placements: the first girl lived with us for nearly a year and another for about six months. (There were also a couple short-term/respite kids sprinkled throughout.) While it’s a huge adjustment for any family to take in a foster child, I think our situation was a bit of an exception. Our first daughter came to us, via a social worker, directly from a highspeed car chase. She had a wicked attitude and the ability to manipulate any situation. Our agency told us later that she was the most difficult child they had ever had. And she was our first. Our home was rocked.

I loved puzzling out the best methods and approaches for parenting, but the daily demands of living with street-savvy children was exhausting. We were constantly on high alert, making sure the girls weren’t smoking in the house, swearing at our children under their breath, actually taking the ear/nose/belly stud out of the ear/nose/belly before going to school, etc. It was hard to have children in our home that we sometimes could not stand to be around. Many times I could not rustle up even one spark of goodwill to toss in their direction and simply got through by “minding my manners.” I eventually got so rundown that I hired my own therapist and went on antidepressants for a short time. 

What were some of the greatest challenges and rewards?

By far, the greatest challenge was the foster care system itself. The system is so concerned with liability issues that they are not fully able to trust the foster parents. There are good reasons for this, of course: the basic concept of fostering—putting difficult kids into the homes of strangers who may not, despite the trainings and home checks, have the capacity to parent in a healthy way—puts the foster children in a vulnerable position. However! When foster parents are in the throes of living with a very difficult child, it is imperative they have not only have the backing, but also the trust, of the broader system. Otherwise, the foster children are able to sense a disparity and play it to their advantage (and boy, can they every play!), thus weakening the entire system and, ultimately, hurting themselves.

The greatest reward of fostering was intrinsic. I knew I was doing good work. When you are handed a child who has been riddled with deficits and hurts, progress is easy to see. Just providing a nutritious diet and enforcing bedtimes makes a world of difference!

What would you say to someone who is considering giving of themselves through fostering?

*You and your spouse must have a unified front. Your relationship will be taxed, so it better be a strong one from the get-go.

*Self-awareness, creativity, perseverance, quick thinking, and a sense of humor are required.

*Take the needs of your children into consideration and re-evaluate them on a regular basis. Common wisdom says that the biological children should be older than the foster kids, but we bucked the system. While there were no long-term ill effects (that we’re yet aware of), it was undoubtedly hard for our children. Part of the reason we decided to close our file with the agency was because our children needed a relaxed and stress-free home. (The irony of this was not lost on us—providing safety for the foster children created an element chaos for our own, a lose-lose situation all around.) We may decide to foster again, but I’m fairly sure we won’t do it until our youngest is old enough to be older than the foster children. 

*Do not be ashamed to receive a monthly stipend.  In the beginning, I somehow felt that our monthly allowance cheapened our motives, but once we were in the throes of fostering, my paradigm rapidly shifted. Being a foster parent was a huge job. Thank goodness there was some financial compensation! The extra money allowed us to meet the girls’ physical needs without resentment, to pay for extra childcare so that I could get a break, and for my husband to take off work to watch our kids when there were daytime appointments and minor catastrophes.

*When picking a foster care agency to work with, choose carefully. We’ve heard better reports of private foster care agencies (as opposed to state-run). Private agencies tend to provide more financial and emotional support for foster families, and their social workers often have lighter case loads. The private agency that we worked for was full of good people who were trying to do their best in the midst of a flawed system.

*Be prepared to teach. You will need to educate not only your children, your friends, and the foster child, but also the social workers and therapists. While this is energizing, it is also exasperating. Much time was spent listening to young, childless social workers advise me, a mother of four, on the fine art of parenting. 

*Plan to resign your position and/or take breaks as needed. Fostering is not a very sustainable activity—the average length of time that families foster is two years. Even though we tried to do better, we found we were depressingly average, burning out right at the two-year mark. Be gentle with yourself.  

And there you have it, a brief summary of our foster care experience. I neither recommend it nor advise against it—too much depends on a person’s interests and abilities. I will say, however, that these past few days of rumination and writing have awoken my foster care bug. Heaven help us!  

All photos courtesy of Jennifer Jo.
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  1. Jennifer Jo...thank you SO MUCH for your honest and raw look at the realities of being a foster parent. My husband and I have talked about it over the years...and were going to do it when the boys were smaller, but didn't because of your same concerns, mainly sexual abuse. It's still something we talk about now and then...and would do in a heartbeat if God asked us to. Thank you for sharing.

    ...and TH, thank you for this series! Good on you for being obedient..xox

  2. Fostering is something in the back of my mind, but it'll have to stay there till my kiddos are older. I barely have the energy to take care of them right now.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. We've been foster parents for almost 17 years and agreed with everything Jennifer Jo had to say! Good job.

  4. Many thanks to both of you for this post, and your efforts to live to serve others.

  5. When I started reading the 'tell us a little about yourself' part I thought "Wow! This sounds just like Mama's Minutia". Um, I guess that's because it is her...I didn't recognize her by her name, Jennifer Jo.

    I had no idea that their family had been involved in fostering. It's something that's been on the backburner of my mind and heart. So, this interview was extremely informative and helpful to anyone considering fostering.
    Thanks guys!

  6. what a wonderful, candid interview! Thank you to you both.

  7. It was great to hear from Jennifer & about fostering from someone who has done it.
    Thank you


  8. I loved reading every word of this! I sort of "know" (ha) Jennifer, but really had no idea about this chapter of her life. It's inspiring! (We think about this sort of thing often, ourselves.) Thanks for sharing!

  9. Just found this, enjoyed reading it also because of knowing Jennifer mainly through blogging. Everyone who fosters should read this. Most of us think about it from time to time. God bless one and all!


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