Monday, January 18, 2016

Book Review: Dr. John DeGarmo's Fostering Love- (Part 1)

I recently read Dr. John DeGarmo's book, Fostering Love: One Foster Parent's Journey, which is an autobiographical account of his first nine years as a foster parent.  The chronological sequel to Fostering Love is Love and Mayhem which I happened to review in a recent post.

Although I read and have reviewed each book out of chronological order, the good news is that it is very possible for readers to read Love and Mayhem without ever having previously read Fostering Love.

Here are some of the key points I read in Fostering Love which stood out to me personally:

1) John and his wife, Kelly, were not initially both "on the same page" when the topic of adoption or fostering was first brought up in their marriage.

2)  The DeGarmo's children were relatively young (ages 6, 5, and 3) when their family first started fostering.  Yet each of the children were all very excited about the prospect of welcoming additional children into their home and adjusted to such changes remarkably well.

3) There are some things that children shouldn't have to deal with or be led to believe- as the DeGarmo's foster children did.

4)  The only predictable part of fostering is unpredictability.

5)  Many people feel "called" to foster.

As a foster parent, reading about the DeGarmo's first fostering experiences reminded me that:

6)  Sometimes "the call" from DCFS doesn't necessarily come at the most convenient times.

7)  Welcoming another child into your home requires a lot of shuffling around and rearranging- not just of schedules and personal space but of sleeping (bedroom) arrangements.

8)  Although required visits between foster children and their birthparents and the relationships between a child's birthparents and their foster family are not always easy to navigate, it is imperative that birth parents and foster families put the needs of their children/foster children as a top priority and treat the child's "other" family with the respect accorded to them.

9)  It's not a foster parent's place to judge the birthparents and families of their foster children  

10)  Don't blame caseworkers for a judge's decision or ruling.

11)  Good legal representation and volunteer CASAs can make all the difference in speaking up  for a foster child's rights.

12) It's okay- even necessary- to take a break from fostering when needed.

 For an elaboration on each of these observations see below:

1) John and his wife, Kelly, were not initially both "on the same page" when the topic of adoption or fostering was first brought up in their marriage . 

 One night after John had a somewhat eye-opening experience at work he asked his wife:

"Sweetheart, what would you think if we adopted a baby?"

We both had come to the same conclusion after Brody was born, we were done, no more babies in the house. However, I had been thinking a lot about the foster program.  I mentioned this to Kelly, but she was not interested.  "Maybe," she said.  We'll have to find out more about it and pray about it."

After the DeGarmo's third child was born he and his wife had come to the conclusion that they were "done" with babies in the house.  Furthermore, John stated that Kelly was not interested in the idea of fostering. This was one of the most reassuring and hopeful passages of the book for me to read.  

"Wait a minute- Huh?" some of you are probably thinking.  "They weren't in agreement . . . and one of them wasn't even interested.  In what way is that hopeful or reassuring to someone who advocates for foster care and adoption?" 

Well, I'm glad you were wondering- and I'll tell you exactly why this was so reassuring to me: In my personal experiences with adoption and fostering it took a couple years for my husband to warm up to the idea, which, in turn, led me to doubt and second-guess any initial promptings and feelings I had about the matter.  In our marriage (as I would hope would be the case with most partnerships) such a major decision needs to be unanimous but often one spouse or partner is more ready or eager than the other.

Through reading Love and Mayhem and other articles that John DeGarmo has written I knew that the DeGarmos have fostered over 45 children.  But until I read Fostering Love I had no idea that his wife's initial reaction to John's proposition of fostering was a simple "maybe".  After much thought and prayer, and acting upon it, look how much that one "maybe" changed their lives, not to mention affecting the lives of many children and their families!

I know that many times the inception of a life changing experience all starts with a simple thought in our mind or a desire of our heart.  It's choosing to act upon those thoughts and desires that makes all the difference.

2)  The DeGarmos children were relatively young (ages 6, 5, and 3) when their family first started fostering.  Yet each child was very excited about the prospect of welcoming additional children into their home and handled the transitions of welcoming and saying goodbye to their foster siblings remarkably well.

When I reviewed Love and Mayhem I mentioned how impressed I was with the DeGarmo's children's welcoming attitude towards the foster siblings who shared their home and their parent's attention.  I think that these children possessed an above average amount of maturity to even make it possible for their parents to consider doing foster care in the first place.

The reason I mention this is because I think there are probably more than a few families out there who have the desire to foster or adopt which is very commendable- but because of the needs or personalities of the children already in these homes, perhaps fostering or adopting isn't a good fit for these families.  If any of the DeGarmo's children had special needs which required extra attention or if they weren't all on board with the idea of bringing more children into their home, the results of fostering could have been disastrous for their family.

Another related scenario comes to mind: Maybe foster care or adoption is a credible prospect for a family's future but it's the timing that isn't right.  And do you know what?  That's okay.  I don't think families in either of these circumstances should feel guilty or discouraged about not being able to bring more children into their home.  Rather, I would hope these families focus their attention and love on the children already in their care.  Every child is a gift and parenting isn't a contest to see how many children one can "collect."

[Please note that the above mentioned advice is directed primarily towards myself!  I, for one, am in awe when I observe heads of large households who keep their families running like well-oiled and synchronized machinery.  Because I'm aware of the number of children in need of good foster and adoptive homes I tend to vacillate between feelings of GUILT for having room for one more child in our home and, therefore, an obligation to call up my RFC right away and tell him, "We're ready for another placement- Bring it on!"- to feelings of HESITANCY and CAUTION when I worry that because of the developmentally crucial and impressionable ages of our youngest children I should just focus all my efforts on meeting their needs before helping any other children or bringing any additional children into our home.

I think our oldest daughter would adjust well to having another foster sibling as she has many times in the past, but we've only had one foster placement since our two youngest children were adopted from foster care and it seemed to be particularly hard on our youngest child (perhaps because she was so close in age, the same gender, and similar in personality to the foster child we suddenly welcomed into our home without our youngest being able to prepare for or even process such a sudden change to our home life at her young age.  After all, she's only two years old and very comfortable in her role as "baby" of the family!]

3)   There are some things that children just shouldn't have to deal with or be led to believe- as the DeGarmo's foster children did.

Examples from the lives of some of the children the DeGarmos fostered which were related in Fostering Love include:

-Believing that police are the "bad guys".  One of the DeGarmo's first placements was a 4 year old girl who became overcome with terror when there was a siren approaching.  When John and Kelly tried to comfort their foster daughter they learned that the little girl's mother had trained her to fear and hide from police authorities even going so far as to give her a knife and hide for protection.

Unfortunately, fearing law enforcement or viewing them as the "bad guys" is not an uncommon belief among many foster youth- especially if their parents are involved in drugs, gang, or simply negligent behaviors.

-Being "returned" to the state by your adoptive parents- not just once but three times by three different adoptive parents.  Such was the tragic case of a teenage foster daughter of the DeGarmos who was originally from Romania and raised in an orphanage until she was adopted by a family in New York. After living with her first adoptive family for a year she was returned to the state only to be adopted by another family who "returned" her again.  The third family who adopted her returned her to foster care (is that even legal?) after she was in their care for six years.

I am not naive enough to assume that children who have been raised in orphanages or who come from neglected and abusive backgrounds will have no potential emotional or behavioral problems.  That is why adoption is a process that should not be entered into lightly and why caseworkers and effective adoption professionals not only stress education and training for prospective adoptive parents but should be required to give full disclosure on a child's background including, if possible, the child's birthparent's background and health history so that the adoptive family can be prepared to meet any special needs of a new child joining their family.

Adoption is not just picking out a cute puppy from a pet store and then selling the dog after it grows out of it's cute stage or when you're sick of cleaning up poop.  Like marriage, it is a commitment to stick with someone through good times and bad times.  The purpose of adopting or fostering a child is not to "add" to your family but to give your family to a child.

-Being left to fend for yourself and eat microwaveable hot dogs for every meal.

When giving the DeGarmos some background about a new placement, the caseworker reported that this particular little girl had "fed herself hot dogs from the microwave for pretty much every meal" as her alcoholic grandmother who was her caregiver was usually too hungover to meet her granddaughter's needs.

-Suffering from cigarette burns not just on your arms and scalp but on your tongue as well.

What's most disturbing about those injuries inflicted upon one of the DeGarmo's four year old foster sons is that he believed it was a normal result for him "getting into trouble" with this mommy.

4)  The only predictable part of fostering is unpredictability.

When the DeGarmos got the call for one of their first foster placements they were told that it would "probably just be for the weekend" until relatives could take the child.  That particular foster child ended up staying with them for nearly a year and a half.  Enough said.
5)  Many people feel "called" to foster.

In the last couple of paragraphs of Fostering Love John DeGarmo beautifully sums up  how he feels that fostering is a call from God for his family:

". . . At times, I don't want to foster.  There are moments when I want to hide from the added responsibilities of having more children in the house;needy children, hurt children, sad children. There are mornings where I wish I could just get a bit more rest, sleepwalking through the days.  I was tired of having my heart broken again and again as I watched a child leave my home only to be returned to an environment that was unpleasant, unhealthy, and even hostile.

     Yet, there are so many children who need a foster home and so few homes willing to embrace them.  Fostering is a call, and God's call on our family is clear.  He wants Kelly and I to take up this cross of His and look after His children."

I have heard many other foster families express similar sentiments about fostering:  No, it's not an easy thing to do, but God is using such families to be His hands.

Part 2 of this book review to be continued . . . 

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