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Unsung Heroes

“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strengths, but by the strength of his heart.”
      Hercules

Have you ever started something assuming you knew what you would be doing and what you would get out of it, and then, to your surprise, you learned so much more, and took away more blessings than you ever could have imagined?  That is how I would describe my family’s journey as a foster family here in Northwest Arkansas. No one could have prepared me for what we would learn, the people we would meet, all the many services we would become aware of, and, most importantly, all the unseen heroes that we, unfortunately, had never given much thought to. You may not know it, but there are so many amazing men and women working with “at risk” families in our area. These men and women are the caseworkers working hand-in-hand with children and families through the Department of Human Services. Today, in Arkansas, there are 5,104 children in DHS custody, and every one of those children is assigned a caseworker that advocates and speaks on their behalf. Though often overlooked, no one can wear a superhero cape more deservedly than these men and women.

The first time I met our caseworker was the night we took our first kiddo. That night will always be one of my most endearing memories. I’m not sure what I expected, but the cute little blonde-headed boy with his honor roll ribbon pinned to his shirt wasn’t it. His little world had been completely shaken that day. He was scared, angry, and had no idea what was happening, where he was going, or what to expect. Thankfully, he had a great caseworker! She was there in that scary moment when he was taken from his family–she was a smiling face, and a warm hug. She reassured him that he was safe. She brought him to my home and walked alongside him, his siblings, his family, and our family for months and months until his case was complete and a safe resolve for his family was reached. That one case would keep a single caseworker busy, but this superhero had 15+ cases happening much like it at the same time.

When someone asks me who my heroes are, at the very top of my list are caseworkers. They fight on the frontlines for families. They are often hated, disrespected, and mistreated because, in their job, they have to do hard things daily.  They care deeply and are genuine. They believe in second chances and that people can change and rise up when they are given hope and support. They fight and advocate for the children who often have no voice. They start work early, leave work late and take frequent on-call hours at night and on the weekends. When a family needs them, someone is available.

I was curious what the best part of a caseworker’s job is, so I asked Benton County caseworkers Maria Taylor and Sarah Harper what they thought. Sarah said, “Getting to be part of helping families, working for reunification and seeing successful reunification.” Maria said, “Seeing a family reunified. Seeing parents successfully battle their demons, do HARD work and completely change their lives and become a better, happier, healthier family is THE BEST.” The kids they work with become their kids. They worry about them, they pray for them, they lose sleep thinking about their case and their families. These kids all have pieces of their heart and I’ve seen firsthand how hard they work to help these kids and families have healthy and happy lives. I’ve seen them rejoice when things turn out well and families are reunited, I’ve seen them be heartbroken when they don’t.

Maya Angelou said, “I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” This perfectly describes every caseworker I have ever met. Even though it often seems impossible, like there is no way to get it all done and complete everything that needs to be completed, they work hard day in and day out to see it through. They give families hope! Casework isn’t just a job–it’s about helping restore the broken, holding hands with those fighting the fight of their life, and being the person whose lifting them up, encouraging them, and cheering them on. Casework isn’t just a job–it’s a life changing career calling. If you happen to know one, give them a big hug and say THANK YOU! They are truly unsung heroes in our society and here in Northwest Arkansas we are blessed with some of the best!

Stephanie Laney, CALL Foster Parent

The CALL and Teachers

I want to share with you my journey being part of the foster care system as both foster parent and teacher.

Somewhere around our fifth year of marriage, Jacob and I heard a sermon that resounded with us. Our pastor, Charlie Loften, spoke on our Biblical obligation to care for children in foster care. I remember sneaking glances at my husband and thinking during that sermon, “Is this pulling at his heart strings like it is mine?” The moment we got into the car, Jacob looked at me and said, “This is something we need to do.” WHEW! Big sigh of relief!

Charlie’s sermon came at a time when the CALL, was being launched in Northwest Arkansas. The CALL’s focus is to address the foster care crisis in Arkansas. Children who come into care are often moved from their hometown, school, and the only world they know due to a shortage in open foster homes. Even within the few years I had taught, I had seen this happen at my elementary school. A student in my own classroom had been removed from her home during the school day. I recall hugging this tiny, clueless 2nd grader goodbye, unsure if I would ever see her again. Could I be part of the solution? Could I open my home as a foster home and keep our students close by?

After completing all of the requirements, it was a waiting game of which call from DCFS would be the perfect match for our family. You want only God’s plan, but you get anxious waiting on His timing. The excitement of the unknown even spread to our immediate family members.

In the spring of 2014, I was finishing up my fourth year of teaching in the Springdale schools. Those I worked with knew our intentions to foster. While a few of my fellow teachers were in my principal’s office one day, she mentioned a student at our school that had gone into care recently. The student’s 2nd grade teacher, who was in the room as well, was very worried about this child. I remember she asked me, “What can I do?” Being new to this, I didn’t know how one would go about even getting a specific child in their home. Was that even possible? Did you have to be an open home? Didn’t you have to get a call?

I called our CALL county coordinator, Ann Meythaler, to find out what we could do. Thankfully, Ann knew about a DCFS policy that provided an option for educators who have students go into care. If no family is available to provide an approved home, a child’s teacher can be considered as “fictive kin” and open their home for that child.

As a teacher that was willing to open her home, I was able to help this child, Kennedy, remain at the same school. I am so thankful that we were able to spare her from one more thing being taken from her. It has to be included that she also thought it was pretty awesome getting to live with a teacher!  Kennedy’s story is likely a familiar one for many in our profession: a student living in poverty who showed signs of neglect, abuse, little academic support from home, and an unknown future. I don’t want to share specific details, but her situation was discouraging. While we were very happy to provide a home for Kennedy while her biological family “did their homework that the judge gave them” (this was our way of explaining it to her), we did not anticipate that this would end in adoption. We hoped that she would be able to return to her family and prayed for them every night.

On April 8, 2015, we became Kennedy’s “forever family.” This is the official day that Kennedy was adopted. However, she has been a part of our family from day one. We all grew to love her and enjoy her silly humor.  We are so glad that we were able to be a part of her journey and continue our lives with her. Our family would not be the same.

Today, Kennedy is a healthy, smart, popular 12-year-old girl. She has received multiple awards for her leadership abilities. She engages and succeeds in anything new she tries. All who encounter her quickly notices her positive demeanor; whether it is those in her school, swim team, church groups, or extended family. I admire her for the way she treats others. No matter how different from her, she shows kindness to anyone she is around.

I will never take credit for all of these positive changes. Yes, we did ultimately change the future for her; however, the woman that she is becoming is due to those positive role models she has found along her journey. I give full credit to the teachers and staff that maintained high expectations, loved the whole child, and prayed for her.

I want to encourage those who work in schools to prayerfully consider if this is a journey you are willing to take with a child. I guarantee the idea of foster care is not as scary when you put a face to it. Yes, it was convenient that our family had already received the necessary clearance to receive foster children. However, it is possible to begin this process by contacting DCFS and opening as a “provisional home,” for a specific child in care. Let your principal and counselor know that if a child at your school goes into care, you are willing to open your home to them while they go through this difficult time.. You WILL be changing a life!

by Kathleen Barnes, Foster and adoptive mom and former CALL Board Member

Earning your trust

I’ve always told my children that trust is rarely granted. Instead it is earned. The next question they asked was “How do I earn your trust?” I told them that trust is earned with consistent behavior over time.

It is that simple and, unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

One of the things we are serious about at The CALL is earning your trust. As an organization that depends on the generosity of people like you, we believe a sacred trust is the foundation of each financial gift you give.

One way we are consistent in our behavior over time is to be members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The ECFA provides financial supporters assurance that members are accountable. They examine seven areas of The CALL’s ministry:

  1. Doctrine – Does the Bible inform our belief and practice as an organization?
  2. Governance – Is there appropriate, independent board oversight?
  3. Financial Oversight – Are our finances audited and managed to rigorous accounting standards?
  4. Use of Resources and Compliance with Laws – Are management controls in place?
  5. Transparency – Are we active and open with our financial reporting?
  6. Compensation-Setting – Do we follow ECFA’s Compensation policies and recommendations?
  7. Stewardship of Charitable Gifts – Do we act in the best interest of our donors?

The ECFA describes their standards as simple but not simplistic. Each standard has significant implications for its members. As an ECFA member, The CALL must follow all these standards. You can review the standards in detail at ecfa.org. We encourage any organization you support to join this ECFA as well. It’s a high bar that helps you know we strive for integrity, honesty and competency in handling the dollars you give.

Here at The CALL, we want you to feel confident when giving your financial support. Being members of the ECFA is one way to build trust as we fulfill the mission of no waiting children in foster care.

Thank you for trusting us to mobilize the Church in Arkansas to love foster children with the extravagant love of Christ!

Mike ClowersBy Mike Clowers, Development Coordinator, The CALL in Pulaski County

No such thing as “too attached”

When someone says they’re a foster parent, they’re often met with the response, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never foster because I’d get too attached.” This idea upsets many foster parents because the truth is foster parents are no different than anyone else. They fall in love with these children and care for them like their own children and then the children leave and go back home.

Many foster families experience a great sense of loss when a foster child goes home, but that’s a good thing. There’s no such thing as getting “too attached” to a foster child. These children are like all other children and they crave love and attention. Many of these children have been neglected or abused and have never experienced the love of a parent for a child.

Foster children have been removed from their home and sometimes their school and community. They are away from most of the people they’ve ever known because it was not safe for them for whatever reason. These children are often scared and feel alone in a new house with a new and unfamiliar family. Even though being in care is the best thing for the time being, they still experience a huge disruption to their development and need some sort of normalcy.

One Arkansas foster mom said, “I look into his precious eyes and wonder again, ‘How could anyone not fall in love with you? How could anyone hurt you? How could anyone abandon you?’ The questions haunt me as days pass and I find myself loving more than the day before, loving so much it hurts, holding tight to another day, treasuring each darling moment because I know tomorrow might bring the phone call that [takes] him from my home, but never from my heart.

I take my anxious thoughts to the throne of the Great I Am, feel peace flood my body, and rest in this knowledge: While this energetic, fun, sweet, and precious child dwells in my home, whether just today, tomorrow, or forever, I will pour all the love I can into him, believing that God knows best and will work all for good, for I know I am called according to His purpose. Yes, oh my, yes, foster parents love their foster children.”

Whether it’s a few days, weeks, or longer, the love a foster family shows a child will last a lifetime. Many former foster children can recall the names of those families that loved them while their parents were getting the help they needed. Foster families often think back to the children they’ve had in their home and still feel concern about their well-being.

When the day comes that a foster child leaves the foster home and gets to return home, it is a joyous occasion for the child. For many foster families it is a very sad day filled with many tears because have grown to deeply love a child that was not their own. They have put the child’s need for love of their fear of loss. A foster family that grieves when a child goes home has loved that child the way they deserve to be loved. That sadness, though, is often quickly replaced with the joy of knowing that a child has been reunited with their family.

If you’re worried about getting too attached, then you would make an excellent foster parent. The foster children in Arkansas need families that have a heart so big it hurts when they’re gone. To find out more about fostering, attend an Info Meeting in your county.

I could never be a foster parent

“I could never be a foster parent. I could never love a child and then give them back. I’d get too attached…”

This has got to be the most common statement spoken to foster parents and it’s hard to know how to appropriately respond. There’s a good chance that many of you reading this have said those same words at some point.

While I know it’s not what you mean, when you say that what foster parents hear is that you somehow think we’re robots without hearts who are able to dive in to care for hurting children without putting our hearts on the line. I’m going to let you in on a little secret- we’re not heartless robots or able to magically guard our hearts from the pain of loving and letting go. Sometimes it hurts. A lot.

In saying yes to the calling of foster care, foster parents are saying yes to a rollercoaster of highs and lows and unexpected turns. They’re also saying yes to attaching to children they didn’t give birth to and who will likely leave their home to be reunified with their birth family in the future.

When a child comes into foster care and is placed in a foster home, the goal of the case is to reunify that child with their family of origin. From the very beginning foster parents know that if their goal is reached successfully, they will eventually say goodbye to the children they’ve been entrusted with.

The children who are placed in foster homes by caseworkers have all of the same needs as the children we’ve given birth to- they need to be fed, protected, loved, corrected, and nurtured. This is how bonds are formed and attachment starts. They have needs that we can meet. As we repeatedly show up and meet their needs they begin to attach to us…and as they look at us with those precious eyes, give us big squeezy hugs, or ask us for extra snuggles because they’re scared or having a hard time dealing with their emotions, we get attached too.

Attachment is fascinating and most people don’t realize how much of who they are and how they interact with the world around them is actually rooted in their ability to form healthy attachments. This isn’t some man made phenomenon or fad, it was designed by God. Humans were created by a relational God and were meant to live and thrive inside the context of relationships. Children were designed to be nurtured and mentored by safe and loving adults who can care for them, mentor them, and slowly teach them over the course of 18 years how to become responsible adults themselves.

We live in a fallen world and because of that sometimes people are so hurt that they cannot see past their own pain and problems in order to care for their children. The biological parents of the children in care aren’t bad people … more often than not they’re hurting adults who were once hurting kids. This is where foster parents come in to break that cycle. We step in to temporarily love on the children in our community who need us while a team wraps around the biological family to offer services they need to establish the safety and stability they need to be able to successfully parent their children.

While the parents are working on improving their lives, the foster parents go about the work of meeting the children where they are, feeding their little tummies, kissing their scraped knees, and assuring them that they’re safe. Getting attached is a GOOD thing! When adults tear down their emotional barriers and allow themselves to fully attach, that creates a safe place for the children in their care to learn to fully attach and be vulnerable with their little hurting hearts. This is where trust starts to grow. And where healing begins.

Several years ago when I was preparing our very first foster placement to go home, I was discussing the internal struggle that I was feeling with a friend at church. Then he looked at me and said something that forever changed the way I saw my role as a foster parent. “It’s like putting Baby Moses in a basket, placing that basket in the river, and taking a step back. These children are God’s children first, just like your biological children are. His plans for their little lives are good and He can be trusted to care for them. You’ve done the job you were called to do here.” Those words impacted my life in a huge way and I’ve never forgotten them.

This doesn’t mean that reunifying the children who have come through my home became easier over time. It simply means I understand that in this mission I’m called to a certain level of brokenness. My hurting heart (and the hurting hearts of my children) are a worthy sacrifice if it means that a child was shown complete unconditional love while they shared our home. Every tear we’ve cried as we said goodbye is counted and measured by a God who sees it all.

Caring for someone else’s children and working to support reunifying a family is an incredible honor and not something I take lightly. Attaching to sweet little hurting hearts so they can learn that adults can be trusted is an incredibly important lesson that plants seeds in their lives that we may never see the fruit from….but it doesn’t stop us from knowing that someone’s got to take on the pain and plant the seeds. That’s the only way cycles get broken.

Ann MeythalerBy Ann Meythaler, Foster and adoptive parent, The CALL County Coordinator in Northwest Arkansas