Summit County residents Kirsten and Josh Smith always thought they would adopt when they first got married.
What the couple didn’t expect, 16 years later, was that they would have nine children ranging in ages from 16 years to 20-month-old twins.
“We knew we could be a family to more kids and wanted to help more kids instead of them growing up in the system,” she says about adopting the two sibling groups and fostering the twins.
Fostering or adoption is a rewarding experience, however, it isn’t without some challenges.
Kirsten Smith says from infancy to foster care, what foster children are exposed to contributes to some of the behavioral issues and special needs they might have. In the Smith household, some of the children experience anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and learning challenges.
This is common among many children who have been in foster care.
Lori O’Brien, administrator for child and adult services at Lake County Department of Job and Family Services, explains, “Most children that come into the custody of our agency have special needs. Children who enter our custody often have a mental health diagnosis, medical issue or some form of delay. These can be a result of environmental factors or biological factors. Simply being removed from a parent or family causes trauma to the child.”
Parents such as the Smiths, who have experienced challenges, also have seen progress from their children.
Kirsten Smith adds the family has learned a lot through therapists, continuing training, counseling, books and videos.
She and her husband do tag-team parenting and have a support system, including a babysitter, which enables them to have date nights.
Also, she adds, there are lots of ways to connect with other families through support groups.
Kirsten Smith says the family can feel isolated at times, such as during outings when it seems like people don’t understand the family dynamic. However, to the Smiths, it is worth it to be part of their children’s stories.
“You get to watch them grow, trust, go to school and come into an environment where they (can) thrive,” Kirsten Smith says.
Life Through a Different Lens
Robert and Nicole McCallion, who we featured in our November 2014 issue, recently were named the 2017 Lake County Foster Parent of the Year from Lake County Department of Job and Family Services.
They adopted both Jay, who has mosaic Down syndrome, and recently his 3-year-old sister.
“Jay has grown so much,” Nicole McCallion says. “My husband and I have learned a ton (from Jay). We learned to be patient and to see life through a different lens.”
The McCallions, who always knew they wanted to adopt, say during the year before adopting Jay, they prepared their household and their three children.
“My kids have a really wonderful heart and are open, accepting of different people and circumstances,” Nicole McCallion says.
She adds that they also have a supportive church and family.
“One of the biggest ways (they) support us is by accepting us and that our family is evolving,” she says, adding that her husband has always been supportive and they make a great team.
“There are a lot of days that are difficult, but this is what I am supposed to be doing and there is enough evidence that this is what God wants us to do in life,” she says. “It’s really not too hard to have the door open and let more kids come though. It seems second nature and I feel like it’s part of our lives.”
She advises new foster parents, “The best thing to do is search out support and to try to predict what kind of support you will need.”
Kids in Need
The number of children who are being placed in foster care is growing.
An Ohio Department of Job and Family Services report titled, “The Child and Family Service Reviews, Ohio Statewide Assessment,” states that about 22,000 children in 2016 were in temporary or permanent placement with public children’s service agencies.
O’Brien says that in Lake County, there has been a 38 percent increase from 2010 to 2016.
“We have infants born addicted to opiates or other illegal substances, which results in them being hospitalized for weeks due to the addiction,” she says. “We have children who are developmentally delayed (behind in meeting their childhood milestones) due to neglectful parents not seeking services that the child needs at a very early age. We have teens who have addiction issues.
“One important thing the community can do is step up to help children who enter the custody of the agency,” O’Brien adds. “Oftentimes community members know the child was removed from their parents but don’t maybe realize that they might be a key person in the child’s life. I see this in teachers, daycare providers, neighbors, coaches, relatives and others who have in some way impacted that child’s life.”
Area agencies and other organizations are working to make the transition easier for children and their foster or adoptive parents.
Summit County Children Services’ process for adoption includes home study, parent training and background checks. In addition, it has support services, family, educational events and awareness activities for foster and adoptive parents.
Adoption Network Cleveland provides advocacy, education and support to anyone with a connection to adoption or foster care for the lifelong journey. It has programming for adoptive and kinship families, including: monthly groups for parents and youth, an education liaison and social gatherings for transracial adoptive families.
“Having a connection to a community of caring individuals and families who are navigating the same journey can be powerful.” says Jennifer Zisk-Vitron, director of programs at Adoption Network Cleveland.
O’Brien says about Lake County Department of Job and Family Services, “We strive to make sure someone approved to be a foster or adoptive parent has a safe home as well as the skills and supports to be successful. We do not want to fail the child by placing them in a home where the person cannot handle the child and gives up on the child, adding to their trauma.
“Every child deserves to be raised in a family setting,” she adds. “A forever family meets so many important needs. The child can grow up in a safe environment, have support throughout their life — beyond age 18 — and have a place to call home and go for holidays. It is vital for these children to not feel alone in the world.”
Lori O’Brien, administrator for child and adult services at Lake County Department of Job and Family Services, provides some extra tips on how to get ready for adoption or fostering a child:
- Mental preparedness. An adoptive parent needs to understand and accept that the child will probably be scared coming into a strange environment.
- Be calm, patient and kind. Loving a child coming into your home is not enough to make that child flourish, even though most people probably believe love fixes all.
- Be open to suggestions on parenting and learning new skills. Each child needs to be parented differently based upon their history. Foster/adoptive parents who excel are very open minded and receptive to guidance and advice.
Aging Out of Foster Care
The Clifton House, part of Welcome House in Westlake, is working with youth ages 18-24 to provide transitional services to those who have aged out of foster care and are victims of crime.
“Welcome House was able to start Clifton House because the need is so great for this group,” says Kristi Miller, who acts as the director of community and transitional services. “We are able to assist during the year after being discharged from the system and help with things such as cooking and cleaning skills, money management, job search and retention, community mental health and other services. We provide that for them. It is incredibly important for any and all kids within the system to find a loving forever home.”
Miller advises parents who are looking to foster or adopt, “Find as many resources as possible in the area that they can use as a support, not only for the family but the child, as well. Be trauma-informed, which means understanding where the child has come from and what their history looks like. If life was great, they wouldn’t have been in foster care. Understand that behaviors are oftentimes a direct result of trauma, and be able to provide a loving, caring and structured home on a consistent basis with a lot of patience. Remember that they’ve never had that, either.”