All I Want for Christmas Is a Home - Mountain News : Mountain Living

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All I Want for Christmas Is a Home

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Posted: Thursday, December 25, 2014 12:00 am

Eight children on the mountain may find toys, games, books and new clothes under the Christmas tree this year but the real gift for them is a new, permanent home.

Their adoptive parents may argue that they have gotten the bigger gift in these win-win situations.

When San Bernardino County celebrated National Adoption Day on Nov. 20, five of those children—who had been in foster care through the Arrowhead Foster Family Agency—were adopted. The other three—also in foster care through the same agency—were adopted the next day in a private ceremony.

Since placing the first child in foster care in 2002, Russell and Jill Neumen, founders of the Arrowhead Foster Family Agency, have placed more than 700 children. That first child ended up being adopted; a total of 99 have permanent homes, either through adoption or guardianships. Close to a dozen more children are in the process of being adopted.

Russ Neumen stresses, however, that they are not an adoption agency. But it is possible, he tells foster parents, that “adoption could come your way.”

There may be that “magical moment,” he said, “when the natural mother says, ‘I want you to raise my child.’”

“What greater honor is there?” asked Jill Neumen.

The number of foster children adopted at one time this year was remarkable, but it’s bittersweet.

While Russ and Jill are delighted for both the children and the parents, it means they now have to replace those four foster homes.

So what is the fostering experience like? And how did these four families come to adopt their children?

Here is one family’s story.

THE CALKINS FAMILY

Ellie Calkins always knew she would have children; three was her magic number. But she and her husband, Nolan, faced some fertility challenges.

“We decided to take in kids who already existed,” Ellie said.

While they had high hopes of adopting, “we were prepared to take in kids and say goodbye to them, take in more and say goodbye again. We were willing to fall in love and say goodbye,” Ellie said.

Initially the couple wanted just one baby but a different scenario was in store for them.

The Calkins got a call one day, not long after completing their training with the Arrowhead Foster Family Agency, asking if they would take 3-year-old twin girls.

And within three weeks, they got a second call about a 4-month-old boy.

“The girls woke up one morning and there was a baby in the house,” Ellie said. Because her sister has also adopted a child, the Calkins twins “think babies just appear because they didn’t see either of us pregnant,” Ellie said.

Jill Neumen had told Ellie and Nolan that being a parent is the hardest job in the world but being a foster parent is even harder.

However, Ellie said she would strongly urge people struggling with fertility or looking to start a family to consider “there are kids out there who want and need a home, a stable, loving, safe home.”

It was weird for the twins, she said, to bathe and have someone brush their hair, to prepare a homecooked meal. “It was life changing for them,” Ellie said.

Before long, all three children had a firm place in her hearts. If they leave your foster care, “they take that piece of your heart with them,” she said. “You have to be willing to take that loss for their gain. You’ve given them something, even if small. You show them there’s potential in life, that this sort of home exists.”

Being in foster care opened up her children’s eyes to what a more normal functioning family does—like the father going out to work and earn money to buy gas for the car.

“As a foster parent you don’t do anything special. I keep telling everyone you just do normal basic stuff,” Ellie said. “You read to them, play with them—those are luxuries they’ve never experienced.”

The hardest part for Ellie now that she and Nolan have adopted the three children—now 6 and 2-1/2—is saying no to more foster children. “You have to know when you’ll be stretched too thin. You have to be there for the kids you already have,” Ellie said. “It’s heartbreaking to think that there are that many kids out there that frequently who need homes.”

Ellie noted that many people she speaks with are unaware of how many children from the mountain communities are in foster care. “They are unaware of the dark, shadowy corners. Everyone thinks of foster kids as a minority and ‘not in my town,’ but that’s not necessarily the way it is.”

When Ellie was out with her three foster children prior to their adoption and people would comment on her having three such young children, she would say they were her foster children. The response often was, “but they’re so cute.” They are, Ellie’s point is, children just like any others.

The day one of the twins said to Ellie, “I’ve been waiting for you,” she knew she had made the right decision.

Ellie worries about the children in foster care who age out of the system with no permanent home. “I would like to see more care and more support for them,” she said. “Some special training on life skills and personal finance.”

HOW TO BECOME A FOSTER PARENT

Russ and Jill Neumen are in desperate need of more foster homes on the mountain. The alternative is to send mountain children down the hill; not only do they lose their parents, but they lose their community. Many of the foster parents in San Bernardino and Fontana are Spanish speaking, making the transition that much more difficult for mountain children.

Partially for that reason, the Neumens have extended their agency into the High Desert, where mountain children are more comfortable.

They typically have about 50 children in foster care in 20 homes. Currently, from Cedarpines Park to the Running Springs area, they only have one opening for a child because the homes are full. The limit in one house is six children, including the foster parents’ biological children. And there can only be two children to a bedroom.

The county, Russ said, is “clamping down so people are not warehousing kids. The general trend has been to recruit more foster families with fewer children per house.”

Currently the Arrowhead Foster Family Agency’s oldest foster parent in 69, the youngest in her late 20s. The Neumens have couples who foster children and single parents. The only requirements are that the parent be at least 10 years older than the child, be physically capable, and be financially stable and able to support the household without foster care stipends.

Foster parents do receive a monthly stipend, the amount of which depends on the age of the child. A portion of those stipends continues following adoption, as does the child’s Medi-Cal insurance, until the child is 18.

The first step to becoming a foster parent, Jill said, is to have the desire. Interested adults come to a two-hour orientation, which is followed by 15 hours of free training, right on the mountain.

“We give the potential foster parents some of the worst scenarios,” Jill said. “We want them to know what they’re in for. If we don’t scare them off, then we do a home study.”

That study is comprehensive, taking the better part of a day. The county has stringent regulations—like every window must have a screen—which are to protect not only the children but also the foster parents.

“It’s all about liability,” Jill said.

At the time of the home study, the house is “supposed to be ready as though we have a child waiting in the car,” she added.

The home study also includes extensive interviews. “I tell potential foster parents I need to know everything about them,” Russ said. “I need to know your background, if you’ve ever been in therapy, if you’ve been abused or neglected. If you haven’t reached closure on your issues, you may not be able to help a foster child.”

He added they have had foster parents who have been foster kids themselves. “That could be a benefit, because they can relate, or it could be a red flag.”

Some people are scared away by the thought of the home study, thinking they have to have “home beautiful,” Russ said. “That’s not true. It has to be child friendly, nurturing, well maintained and safe.”

Once foster parents complete their training and paperwork, which is then approved by the county, they wait for that placement call. And when the children arrive, there is financial support and support from an agency social worker.

Russ sees the increase in the foster care system as being tied to the breakdown of the American family. The root of the problem, as he sees it, is an increased abuse of alcohol and drugs.

“We see the natural parents try but they can’t get their lives together,” he said. A huge part of being a foster parent is visitation, ordered by the court.

The goal of foster care, Jill noted, “is to reunite children with biological family members. But that doesn’t always happen.”

Another foster mother on the mountain has said that you just don’t know what you’re doing for these children when they are in your home. Years later she has heard from her kids, who remember going grocery shopping with her.

“It’s the normal things we take for granted that they appreciate,” she said.

Anyone who thinks being a foster parent may be something they can commit to is urged to call the Neumens at (909) 336-1416. Their agency is located in Blue Jay Village.

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