Health & Family

Needed: Foster parents for Charlotte children in search of a home

James Stewart is a foster care director at Thompson,Thompson Child & Family Focus in Charlotte.
James Stewart is a foster care director at Thompson,Thompson Child & Family Focus in Charlotte. Courtesy of James Stewart

The right home and the right heart – that’s what James Stewart is looking for when he searches for families to foster children through Thompson Child & Family Focus in Charlotte. The Crosses have both.

Terry and Jerald Cross were married in 2001. Both have biological adult children from previous marriages. But Terry, 57, and Jerald, 67, love children and yearned to still have youngsters in their home.

The Crosses have fostered 21 children since 2002 when they were first licensed to be foster parents through Thompson, a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to help at-risk children.

They’re also a perfect example of the kind of couples Thompson desperately needs: mature, older adults with the life skills and experience necessary to help care for children in need of love, stability and guidance.

“We have an epidemic right now of abuse, neglect and trauma,” Stewart said.

Thompson receives between 50 and 75 referrals each month of children who need to be placed in foster care, but they have to turn away 75 percent to 80 percent of these referrals for lack of foster families. There are 25 foster children currently placed with foster families through Thompson.

Stewart, a foster care director at Thompson, wishes he had more families like the Crosses. He’s constantly doing presentations at churches and holding “Fosterware” parties to give potential foster families a chance to meet veteran foster families and learn about their experiences.

Like Thompson, a number of nonprofits in the Charlotte area offer foster care placement services. Children’s Home Society of North Carolina is a bigger, statewide nonprofit with 76 children in the Charlotte area placed in foster care.

In Mecklenburg County there are about 617 children in foster care. The Department of Social Services works with more than 20 foster and adoption agencies.

“We’re constantly looking for more families,” said Dennis Daugherty, area director at Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. “As a community here in Charlotte we need more foster parents looking to take placements for children in need.”

A different world

Each of the Crosses’ placements have been therapeutic placements, meaning they have fostered children diagnosed with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or bipolar disorder, which were caused or exacerbated by trauma in their biological homes.

Even children in basic family foster placements have suffered great emotional and psychological damage from abuse, domestic violence and exposure to substance abuse.

“How we parent now is very different from how I parented my biological children,” Terry said. Adds Jerald: “To me, you have to really change gears and understand where they come from, what they’ve been through, what they’re going through.”

Jerald spoke of one child who had an impulse to steal, because his mother taught him how to steal, often food and diapers from stores. The child didn’t need a lecture about ethics; he needed a different perspective. So Jerald and Terry turned it into a game, leaving $1 bills on the table.

“You think I’m gonna steal it,” the boy would say. Jerald and Terry shrugged, reminding him that when you steal or break something in the Cross household, it costs three times as much to replace it. The dollar would sit on the table for weeks. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. They boy continued to steal at school at first, and the Crosses helped him work that out, too.

The Crosses have had to come up with many techniques to help their foster children work through emotional and behavioral issues. A child who has been sexually abused is afraid of taking a shower? Put a bell on the door so they know if anyone comes into the bathroom they’ll hear it ring.

Stewart said Thompson also needs young single parents, parents with children or empty nesters. About half of the 35 foster families at Thompson are older couples with grown children.

“I never thought (my retirement) would be fostering, but that’s the best thing that’s probably ever happened to me,” Jerald said. “You can’t even put a price on it. The reward that you see in the kids – you don’t see it when they’re with you, you see it when they leave. Then you can understand what you’re doing,” he said.

The Crosses note that they have not given up their personal lives to help these children. In fact, Jerald explained, it’s good to preserve routines, hobbies and social events so the children can see what a stable life looks like.

Adults can also volunteer for a smaller commitment as respite foster parents who care for a child for a weekend to a few weeks if a medical issue or other emergency arises in their foster family.

Reunification is the goal

The primary goal when DSS removes a child from their biological home is reunification, meaning the child can return home once their parents have complied with court orders such as maintaining housing and income, passing drug screens, or removing domestic violence from the home, Stewart said.

When families don’t comply with orders, the state can petition to end parental rights – and find a family to adopt a child. In the Charlotte area, Thompson arranged 10 adoptions last year and Children’s Home Society did 40.

Uncharted territory

Caring for traumatized children can seem daunting to potential parents. “It’s not easy to get families to get past that stigma of, ‘Is this child going to burn my house down? Come at me with a knife?’ ” Stewart said.

He said Thompson offers extensive training to parents. In fact, the Crosses are experts now. Terry facilitates the 13-week training at Thompson that gives foster families the strategies they need to guide children through recovery.

“We tell our foster parents that we have their backs,” he said. Each family has monthly meetings with a Thompson team, and a case coordinator from Thompson is on call around the clock.

During their 14 years of fostering children, the Crosses have had three placements removed from their home for various reasons. The first time was the hardest for Terry – she felt like a failure and wanted to keep caring for the child, who was hearing voices and needed a higher level of psychiatric care.

It was the Thompson team that helped decide what to do and supported them through the transition. “You’re never alone in what you’re doing,” Terry said.

Thompson also uses extensive background information to match children with families. For example, a child who has been sexually abused by men may need to be placed with a one-parent foster mother. A child who has a history of harming animals would not be placed with the Crosses, who adore their Shih Tzu, Sir Bear.

A mom is a mom

Shelley Cross was 12 when she was placed with the Cross family. She had been in a group home for about a year and a half – the longest she had remained in one place since first being placed in foster care at age 6.

As a little girl, Shelley watched her mother’s boyfriend beat her almost daily. Shelley called the police 20 out of 28 days one February because that was the only way she knew how to stop him. Drug use was another problem in the family.

In foster care, Shelley was defiant because a structured household with rules was a new concept for her. She also used violence to cope with anger and frustration.

Shelley, now 23, recently reconnected with her biological family and found their struggles continue. It made her even more grateful for Jerald and Terry Cross.

“I wouldn’t take any of it back. I’m 100 percent happy growing up in foster care and finding the Crosses,” Shelley said. “They showed me how family is supposed to be.”

The details

Therapeutic foster care reimbursement rate is $54 a day. Basic foster care reimbursement rate is $27.50 a day.

The licensing process takes between three and five months and includes training classes and multiple evaluations.

For more information:

Thompson Child & Family Focus www.thompsoncff.org/ways-to-help/foster-a-child

Training is free and can help participants decide if fostering is right for them. For details, contact Natasha Holley at 704-376-7180 or at nholley@thompsoncff.org.

Children’s Home Society of North Carolina www.chsnc.org/ProgramsandServices/AdoptionFosterCare.aspx

NeighborCare www.therelatives.org/neighborcare

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