It's 4 o'clock on a sunny summer Wednesday and the anticipation at the Thompson household in Puyallup is thick enough to slice.
Not just one, but two babies – a 2-month-old boy and 8-month-old girl – are about to arrive for a seven-day "respite care" stay. While their full-time foster parents take a much-needed break, Erika and Brent Thompson and their daughters Baily, 11, and Esperanza (Essy), 10, will become family to these little ones.
When the knock comes, Baily and Essy dash toward the front door, eager to spring into baby care action.
"Ohhhh, they're so cute!" Esperanza gushes. "They're so little!"
While Erika picks up the baby girl and gets instructions from their foster mom, Brent carries the infant boy, sleepy in his car seat, over to the table, where Essy uses her best energetic and silly faces to engage him. Baily, the more reserved sister, talks gently, gazing down serenely at the boy and touching him on his foot.
"Essy's the more rough and tough one; she likes to wrestle and stuff. I am more of the nurturer," Baily explains. But in this instance, it's the girls' combined approach that eventually coaxes a drooly grin out of the tiny round face, a momentary reward before he slips back to sleep.
But baby won't nap for long; soon the Thompsons will be heading off to soccer games. While many families who have just taken two new babies into their home might lay low and change their routine, the Thompsons simply wrap their foster children into life as it is.
"Today, we'll just have to divide and conquer," Erika says. "I'll take one baby and one girl to a game and Brent will take the other baby to the other game. With all the moms that will be there, we may not get much of a chance to hold them ourselves!"
From One to Ten in a Year
While receiving two children on the same day is not the usual routine in the Thompson home, welcoming youngsters in need of love, positive parenting, serious sibling enthusiasm and stability is. The family took in its first foster child just over a year ago and, with the exception of few brief periods, has had one or more foster kids with them ever since.
Says Erika of her family's commitment to caring for displaced children: "The way we all look at it, we are only here for such a short time – why not help children who are right here, right now, in need of your help?"
By "we," she includes her entire family – kids, parents, grandparents, neighbors and sports friends.
"This was absolutely a family decision – we included the kids in the discussion from the get go," adds Brent.
In fact, the Thompsons don't just care for kids; the family has made foster care and adoption from the state's foster care system a community project. Within their network of soccer-loving families – both Baily and Essy play the sport year-round – the family's passion has inspired several other parents to seek foster care licensing. And, good friends on their daughter's soccer team have adopted the second child the Thompsons fostered, 4-year-old Cody.
Both Baily and Esperanza use three words to describe the feeling of knowing that one little boy – one of the nearly 10,000 children in foster care on any given day in Washington – will have a permanent home because of their love: "It's our victory!"
"And, he gets to go on a Disneyland cruise!" adds Essy.
"When we first started this, we thought that it would be great to inspire just one other family to do it, to take in children who need homes,'' says Brent, who is in commercial banking at Key Bank. "Now we're like, if we can get 10 families to do this, we're good."
Despite their enthusiasm, the Thompsons did not start out eager to become foster parents. Initially, their goal was to add a son to their family through adoption.
"We'd wanted to adopt out of foster care because we wanted a little boy maybe 5 to 8 years old – younger than our daughters but still old enough to keep up with our family," says Erika, who works two days a week at a law firm. "We were pretty specific about what we wanted, and we didn't want to take any risks."
But after months of waiting, no child legally available for adoption and fitting their criteria had arrived.
"We were getting frustrated – I mean, we are a great family, we do sports, we camp. Then at some point it hit me that even when you have your own birth children, you are taking chances. There is always risk, so we decided as a family to open ourselves up to foster care."
Within days the family got a call from their social worker. The call came at 4 p.m. and a little boy arrived at 6 p.m.
"I knew from the start that we weren't going to adopt him, he was just too young," says Erika. Soon that first little boy had an adoptive home, and a new child, Cody, arrived, and was also adopted.
"We discovered this is really our niche," Erika says. Since then, six children have come and gone and all four family members say they can't imagine life without fostering. Where other children might feel jealous about the time and attention needed to care for a child in crisis, Esperanza and Baily say they thought long and hard about this possibility before helping their parents make the decision:
"I thought ‘Cool! This is going to be so fun!' We love kids and they are going to be a part of our family," says Essy. "I was not worried about losing (my parents') attention because I have had attention my whole life, so I was prepared to give some of my attention up."
"I knew that they would still do a lot of things for me no matter what," adds Baily. "But to get used to it, I talked to my parents about what I thought were the pros of having new siblings to play with: helping kids, giving them a good home to learn and grow in, and making them feel just as important as any other child," she wrote, in response to an e-mail question..
The Squeaky Wheel
The Thompsons worked with Children's Home Society of Washington to get licensed, a task that included taking a 30-hour parenting foster kids class, taking CPR classes and going through a background check and a home study – where a social worker comes to ensure that your home is safe for children.
"It's really simple," says Erika. "Since we've been doing this, a lot of people have become interested and we tell them, ‘Hey, it doesn't hurt to take the class – it's free.' I am surprised so many people think it's hard, but when they hear that's all it takes, they are willing to really think about it."
Still, with thousands of kids in care throughout the state, there are bumps. More families are desperately needed to ensure that families and kids are well matched and to stop the burn-out from lack of respite care that many families experience.
"The truth is there are barely enough beds in homes for kids entering care on any given day, so social workers aren't always able to match families' strength to kids' issues," says Janis Avery, executive director of Seattle-based Treehouse for Kids. "When there is a poor match, it's hard. There are parents who are baby parents – they are really all over that age, they are great with babies. But they may take a 5-year-old because they care about children and this child has nowhere else to go, and it turns out to not be the best match for the parent or the child."
While the Thompsons have not experienced a difficult placement such as the one Avery describes, they know it can happen.
"Trying to learn all the parts of the system is difficult," says Erika. "There is a lot of red tape and it can be very frustrating when you are trying to help a child. For us, we've had to remind ourselves a couple of times that this is one place where we are going to have to give up some control – which is hard because Brent and I are very organized!"
Being clear about what your family can and cannot handle in terms of the needs of the foster child and your parenting skills is critical to success, Avery stresses. "You have to be assertive and say no if it doesn't feel right. Once that child is in your home, it will be very emotionally challenging for everyone if you haven't been clear about what you want and need."
Erika agrees. "You simply can't let yourself give in to pressure. You are in control of who comes into your home, so if you have that feeling in the pit of your stomach, you really need to say no." The Thompson family has, in fact, said no to fostering children they felt they might not be able to integrate into their family dynamic or whose needs would overwhelm the balance among all their kids.
Erika says she's also already experienced frustrating moments in "the system," including trying to advocate for a toddler girl named Harmony that her family cared for earlier this year.
"I found out that I really had to be a squeaky wheel and advocate for her,'' she says. "I didn't feel her (state) caseworker was being accountable or doing enough. Six months in foster care for a baby is a long time and I felt like I really had to push to be heard."
"There are often conflicts between the child welfare social worker and the family that is caring for a child day in and day out about what's just plain best for the child. That's a challenge for the foster parents,'' says Avery. "There is quite a bit of conversation about this going on in the department. The system is starting to ask how can the foster parent have a voice that is meaningful and valued."
The bottom line for foster parents in working with the state is this, Avery says: "You have to hold an absolute belief that what you are doing is powerfully helpful for the child and advocate for that."
Eventually a newborn baby brother joined Harmony in the Thompson home. The arrival of this baby at the home is indicative of the family's (particularly Erika's) passion for the work. On her way to the hospital to pick him up, she called Brent:
"I called him and I said ‘Um, honey? You might get a little mad…but I'm on my way to pick up Harmony's little brother!'"
The Thompsons were not able to be the permanent home for both kids, so the siblings were moved together to a foster-to-adoption home in May.
Saying good-bye to Harmony was particularly hard on the family. Unlike Cody, their other lengthy placement, they are unsure how often or even if they will see Harmony or her baby brother again.
"We see ourselves doing this forever," says Erika. "But I cried and cried when she was leaving and I remember saying to the girls, ‘What we just did was so amazing. We know we will see Cody all the time, see him grow, but this was different."
"When we have a child and we get really attached to the child, it is really hard to let go," adds Essy. "The kids feel a part of our family because we include them in everything we do and I feel sad and excited when they go; sad because we don't get to see them grow into their own little person and get their own personality, and excited because they are going to a good family."
And that's the goal, says Avery. Finding permanent loving homes for children whose parents cannot care for them.
"Foster care was always meant to be temporary," Avery says. Half of the children in Washington's foster care system are back home with their parents or a relative caregiver within 90 days of entering the system. The other half are in care for an average of two years.
On any given day in King County, 1,800 children are in a foster care setting and nearly 900 of those are between the ages of 2 and 18. The system is disproportionately filled with African-American and Native American children in this state, and families from these backgrounds are needed to provide cultural context for the children.
What is Needed to Foster a Child?
"Good humor, flexibility, an ability to not take any behavior personally," says Avery. "Folks who are strong in these ways can be more relaxed about what kids say or do.
Kids in foster care tend to be harder on their personal belongings and parents' belongings. So fostering might not be a good match for family where everything needs to be perfect. You are not going to get that.
"You need to be a seeker for solutions," she adds. "Some of the kids have difficult behavior, and you may have to have patience and persistence in trying to find people to help. You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit and not take no for an answer."
It goes without saying that you need to love children, both Avery and Erika stress. And, they both speak emphatically about the importance of having a network of family, friends, respite providers and others who provide emotional and financial support and are willing to give you an occasional break.
"You have to share your experience, talk to people. When we first thought of doing this, I sent out an e-mail to friends asking who would be willing to help. People feel good helping, so you have to ask them and let them." Soon friends were sending clothes, toys and diapers. In fact the outpouring of support has resulted in more than 50 boxes of clothes for children age birth to 18 – all of which have been given to state Child Protective Services for kids in foster care. Erika discovered the local YMCA lets foster kids participate in activities for free, and a local consignment shop offered 10 percent off for foster children.
Says Erika: "Two things: You have to ask for help and you have to take care of yourself as well. The truth is, it's a balancing act, just like with your own children. Sometimes you need a break."
What Goes Around
By being a foster family, the Thompsons say they now live in a world driven by paying it forward. When a child comes to their home and takes up residence in the baby blue and green room the family decorated, they are the recipient of remarkable, possibly life-saving, generosity from this family. Yet the spirit of giving seems to consistently flow back to the Thompsons as friends and family and even strangers pitch in to help the kids – birth and foster – to thrive. In the end, they recognize the far broader value and implications of this system.
"It's about caring for kids in the community and really helping to create a legacy of hope for the whole community," says Avery. "The fact is when children don't get good care, they often become an increasing burden on society."
In their own way, Essy and Baily understand this.
"The most important thing I have learned about the kids is that no matter what they have gone through, they can still be strong, smart and loving," says Baily. "If a kid goes to a family with love and patience, they still have a chance for a better life."
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle-based freelance writer and owner of NestingInstincts.org