Local foster parents say caring for foster children can seem like a daunting undertaking, but it can change lives. And that, they say, makes fostering more than worth it.
The South Carolina Youth Advocacy Program has worked alongside the S.C. Department of Social Services for the past 30 years to recruit and support therapeutic foster families throughout the state. The Youth Advocacy Program, which has a Lowcountry office in North Charleston, needs about 150 families in the Charleston area to open their homes, officials say. In particular, there is a shortage of families for teenagers who need foster care.
“I think there’s just sort of a natural reluctance around taking on teenagers because they can be a lot more to handle,” said John Connery of Columbia, special projects director for S.C. Youth Advocacy Program. “There are not many families that are willing to take teenagers — so they’re really golden when we do find them.”
He said there is a continuing challenge to find families to keep up with demand. To help build strong relationships when recruiting and training, the program walks prospective foster parents through certification step-by-step and provides on-call support service.
“Every state child welfare system does not have enough families,” Connery said.
Connery has been with the S.C. Youth Advocacy Program for about 12 years after retiring from a 33-year career with the state Department of Mental Health. He also helped found the Berkeley Community Mental Health Center in 1980.
“To me, the most rewarding thing is to hear those stories that occur with the kids and the difference that foster families can make in these children’s lives when they’re in a very vulnerable situation,” Connery said.
Most rewarding thing
Rose Bankston of North Charleston has been a foster parent for 27 years. While she worked in newspaper delivery and collection
when she first became a single foster mom, these days she’s a married homemaker. She adopted two of her first foster children.
“It is the most rewarding thing you will ever do with your life,” Bankston told the City Paper. “Not only have I helped the children, they have helped me become a better person and [grow] in understanding and gratitude for what I have.”
She’s cared for teenage girls in the foster care system for almost 10 years. And while there were times when it was tough to deal with the emotions that they were feeling, she realized that with gentle communication and strong boundaries, she could earn their respect and help them feel secure.
Bankston recalled taking care of one high school aged girl who had been told she would never amount to anything and never graduate from high school.
“She ended up graduating high school and it was the most emotional moment for me standing there with her real mom when she walked down that aisle,” Bankston said. “It was just awesome.”
She emphasized that fostering was challenging. “But just give it a try, because it will keep you grounded. One thing you say to a child may change their whole life, because they’re going to remember that somebody loved them and took time for them — and that’s all that these children want.”
Sharing family time
Amanda and Jason Dolinski of West Ashley, both 43, became licensed foster parents through the Youth Advocacy Program two years ago. They have six children of their own and currently foster two children, including a teenager. They’ve had some teenagers come into their homes for a few months at a time. Currently, they’ve been caring for their foster daughter for 18 months.
“It’s always surprising to me how mature a 14-year-old kid can be that’s coming into foster care, and [from] the life experiences that they’ve been through, there’s a real beautiful friendship that can happen,” Jason said.
Amanda said she really appreciates how the Youth Advocacy Program’s staff is communicative and attentive during the certification process and beyond.
“There’s no timeframe as far as when you have to be licensed,” she said, “but I would suggest if you have any desire at all that you get the packet, start the process and even just look through what you have to have done to get licensed. You learn a lot through it all.”
For Amanda, some of the most impactful experiences she’s had is sharing family time with the foster kids she’s made a home for.
“Sharing a tradition of carving a pumpkin or decorating a Christmas tree or going apple picking or going camping — these kids probably have never experienced that in their life.”
The Dolinskis said they hoped potential foster parents understood that fostering a child is not a stepping-stone to adoption — although it can be. Fostering a child can be a temporary situation and help struggling parents get back on their feet to eventually care for their own children again.
“It doesn’t have to be that you’re going to take a kid in forever,” Amanda said. “It might be that you’re just giving a family an opportunity to have a restart or reset.”
Jonathan Dugan, who is interning to become an assistant principal of Knightsville Elementary School in Summerville, has been a single foster parent for about four years and currently fosters three boys in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“These kids are wonderful,” Dugan told the City Paper. “They just need an opportunity to be allowed to be who they are, to make a few mistakes and to know that they’re genuinely loved. My children will tell you that I am the most predictable person in the world. Everything’s the same routine.
“Whenever you do something, my response is usually the same. They know what to expect. And that gives them some stability.”
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