Six years ago, Grace Deneke was a 55-year-old empty-nester. She had recently retired from the military and moved back to Fairfax to be closer to her family and start a new job. Everyone expected her to travel the world, but Grace explained, “The desire to serve the community became my passion. I started attending different volunteer programs and learned about fostering which seemed like a great way to help a family.”
Grace attended an information meeting and learned more about the need for foster parents. Believing that every child deserves to grow up in a safe, nurturing, and stable environment, Grace, now 61, has fostered a total of 10 children in a series of different placements since she began.
Nationally, more than 400,000 youth have been removed from their biological families due to abuse or neglect and are in foster care on any given day. In Virginia, the number of children in foster care is greater than 5,000, and in Fairfax County, more than 200 children are in foster care.
It is important to remember that youth are in foster care through no fault of their own. The Department of Family Services Foster Care and Adoption program places these children in temporary foster homes, often while their parents work toward reunification.
According to Dr. Patricia Aviles-Cubillos, a foster parent recruiter with Fairfax County Department of Family Services, the greatest need right now is for foster homes for teenagers, children with special needs, and children in sibling groups.
“Being a foster parent requires love, patience, and commitment. It does not require you to own your own home, have children already, or be young, wealthy, married, or a stay-at-home parent,” urged Dr. Aviles-Cubillos.
“Anecdotally, we find that many older adults are a good fit for foster parenting due to their life experiences,” shared Dr. Aviles-Cubillos.
Sue Christenson is an excellent example. She became a foster parent in 2007. Sue was retired from her career as a psychiatric nurse, widowed, and her kids were all grown. She laughed aloud as she recalled, “I was bored out of my mind and was no longer convinced that retirement was so wonderful.”
Despite initially being afraid that the county would say she was too old to be a foster parent, Sue has discovered that it is an asset for her health. “I am 78 years old and I just saw the doctor. She told me that my numbers just get better and better. My blood pressure and cholesterol have improved. It’s wonderful. The children keep me young,” she emphasized.
Sue has found real joy in caring for children with special needs and even one sibling group. She takes great pride in watching children grow and develop, keeps in touch when they leave, and feels like they are her babies. Over the years, Sue has cared for 18 children including four teens. “I find it all very rewarding. I can’t think of anything else that I would rather do. I hope the county will let me hang on until I am 80 or so,” said Sue.
If this sounds like an interesting opportunity, start by attending one of Foster Care and Adoption’s monthly information meetings. Then if all parties feel like learning more, staff will help you walk through the next steps including background checks, training, and a home study.
“We really want to get to know you and make sure that your interests fit the needs of our youth, so we hope that you will take the first step in the process, “said Sheila Donaldson, Foster Care and Adoption Resource and Support supervisor.
Foster parents Scott and Marie Kokotajlo say that it is all worth it! “At this stage in your lives, you have so many relationship skills, life experiences and abilities to make some real lasting changes for children, who through no fault of their own, are in such great need.”
Scott and Marie’s biological and adopted children are mostly grown and flown, but they don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon.
“The smiles, hugs and laughter are gifts to us. Helping a child grow, discover, and learn in a healthy environment while their family works on getting well again; being able to help bring struggling families back together and help them overcome incredible obstacles is very affirming and reinforces our choice to be foster parents,” they shared.
You may be surprised to learn that foster parents:
- Can be any age 18 or older.
- May be single, divorced or married (including LGBTQ couples).
- May work outside the home.
- Don’t need to own their home. (Renting is okay.)
- Be stable, mature, dependable, caring and flexible.
- Provide a safe, loving home.
- Want to make a difference in children's lives and futures.
- Be an advocate for children.
- Be a team player with your family and child welfare worker.
If you are still not sure, Cheryl Cain offers her perspective, “For me, being 60 years old, a widow with grown children, who has since retired, being a foster parent has given my life a rewarding focus.” Cheryl’s daughter, Charlotte, age 32, has faced some medical issues, and yet they have worked together as a team during the last five years to foster 22 youth of all ages. Most of the placements were for respite care, which can be as short as a day or a few weeks, while other youth were placed with them for months at a time.
Cheryl continued, “We have certainly faced challenges with the children who have come into our home, but the love and compassion we have for these children greatly outweigh any issue we have had to-date. The children have given us far more than we have given them. They have enriched our lives so much. We are blessed that five of the children have become a permanent part of our family and we still see them regularly.”
For anyone that is truly interested in becoming a foster parent but who still has some doubts, be encouraged by the support available:
- A dedicated DFS Resource Support person who takes care of each foster family.
- Case workers, CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and GALs (Guardians Ad Litem), teachers and counselors are part of the team to help foster parents.
- Ongoing training, workshops, and social events.
- Respite care to provide a short-term break of a day up to a few weeks.
- Financial assistance, child care assistance, medical and dental support, etc.
- In addition, each foster family indicated that they had family, friends, and neighbors who have helped them in big and small ways, including babysitting, baby equipment and toys, translation assistance when English was not the child’s first language, mentoring, and much more.
Learn more by contacting Dr. Patricia Aviles-Cubillos by email or call 703-324-7639, or visit Foster Care. Even if you are not ready to become a foster parent, there are other ways to provide support to this community.
This article posting is part of the Foster Family News monthly newsletter designed to keep foster parents informed about all the new and notable happenings in Fairfax County.
Learn about what the Foster Care & Adoption program has planned for foster families - stay on top of trends, participate in trainings and learn about policy changes.