My wife and I lost our first child to a brain condition. Years later, when we had three healthy kids of our own, we saw a lot of children around us who were suffering abuse and neglect as well as children who had been abandoned. We thought: “We lost our first child. How can we help other kids?”
For fifteen years now, we’ve had over 50 kids come into our home. We averaged nine children in our house at a time for a great long time but have had as many as 11, from as young as 27 hours old to 18 years of age — and everything in between. One year, we had seven kids in diapers on Christmas.
When I was a teacher, I saw the need for foster parents in my classroom every day. Fifty-five percent of kids in foster care will quit school before they age out of the system. Sixty-five percent will end up homeless, and 75 percent will end up in jail. The cycle will just repeat itself for the next generation. Two of the three kids I have adopted, their parents, and grandparents were all in foster care. That’s when I knew foster care could be the way we help.
The kids that come to our home have suffered tremendous abuse and are suffering from great anxieties. So it’s hard for them. They don’t want to be in our house. They want to go back to their own home. Our norm is not their norm. I’m not their daddy, my wife’s not their mommy.
We averaged nine children in our house at a time for a great long time but have had as many as 11, from as young as 27 hours old to 18 years of age — and everything in between.
We try to give these kids stability and security, but most importantly, we give them what they need the most, which is for someone to say, “I will love you unconditionally,” because we might be the very first people ever that loved them in a healthy fashion. Every child needs to hear “I love you,” once a day from their parents. If they don’t hear it, they’re going to go someplace else looking for it.
A lot of kids in foster care have never had a birthday. No one’s told them, “Happy Birthday,” or “Merry Christmas.” I’ve had kids come to my own home who were five years of age and couldn’t speak because no one taught them. We had a 10-year-old who had never celebrated their birthday before.
Because of this, birthdays are pretty big in our house. We just go way overboard on them. We wake up on birthday morning and everyone goes to the birthday kid’s room and brings them their favorite cereal, presents, and sings them happy birthday. Later on, after school, we have a big party, and they get to choose their favorite meal. Holidays are as big, too, because these kids may never experience that again. You’re sharing traditions and making memories.
It’s all about being a consistent thing in their life. They need me to continue to reassure them they’re going to be safe. That the pain they’ve gone through is over. And that we are there to protect them and to love them. That takes time for a child to understand that and then trust that.
I joke that I go to work to rest. When you come home you’ve got all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, homework, bathing, helping with everything else — taking kids to doctor’s appointments, to visitations with their birth parents, to court hearings.
When the foster relationship ends, it’s difficult for everybody. It’s difficult for the child, because here I am, telling the child, “I love you, I’ll love you forever. I’m here for you.” Then they go back to an environment where I’m not there for them.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a relationship with most of the kids after they leave our home. For some of the birth parents, I represent a part of their life that they don’t want to acknowledge, they don’t want to remember, they don’t want to think about. They want to forget.
When the foster relationship ends, it’s difficult for everybody. It’s difficult for the child because here I am, telling the child, “I love you, I’ll love you forever. I’m here for you.” Then they go back to an environment where I’m not there for them. My words may seem empty. It’s very hard for my wife and I. We’ve said so many times, when a child leaves our house, “We’re not going to do it anymore,” because it hurts so much. But then when that phone call comes and you hear the story of a child who is in such need, you have to say yes.
I’m on a national campaign called Foster 10k, where I’m trying to recruit 10,000 new foster parents by the year 2020. I’m opening up a residential home for boys in foster care called “Never Too Late,” for boys aged 10-18 who have no place to live. The system is just so crowded.
I never expected to be a foster parent. I never expected to get my doctorate, to write books, adopt kids, open up a group home. So many people say they don’t know how they could make a difference in the world. I tell them, “You can do it one child at a time.”
-As Told To Lizzy Francis
John DeGarmo is the author of several foster care books, including the new book Faith and Foster Care: How We Impact God’s Kingdom, the training book The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe, and Stable Home, as well as the foster care children’s book A Different Home: A New Foster Child’s Story. He is the director of the Foster Care Institute and acts as a consultant to foster care agencies and legal agencies across the USA.