Imagine being a child and being taken from your parents.
Imagine you’re taken from them because they abused or neglected you.
Imagine living most of your life with strangers, uncertain if you’ll ever see your family again.
Sadly, that’s a way of life for some 513,000 children in the United States, 26,961 in New York state. These children live in foster care, most because of parental abuse or neglect. Nearly half are over the age of 10 — old enough to remember the trauma. In the United States, there are 12 million foster care alumni; 20,000 age out of the system every year, many without the necessary skills and resources they will need to live independently. Research has shown that young people in foster care are far more likely than the general population to experience homelessness, poverty, compromised health, unemployment, incarceration and other adversity after they leave their foster homes.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Fortunately, the number of caring foster homes is growing, allowing America’s most needy children to experience love and caring and to go into the world with everything they’ll need to succeed.
For that reason, the nation celebrates National Foster Parent Appreciation Month every May. The month honors people who serve as foster parents, relative caregivers, mentors, advocates, social workers and volunteers.
Opening a home
Patty and John Hudgins of Central Square are one such couple. The husband and wife currently have a total of 10 kids — three biological, three adopted (all of whom started out as fosters) and four fosters. They range in age from 21 down to six months. Their first foster daughter, who has since been adopted, came to them 12 years ago this week.
“We were on active duty in the military in other states and we decided it was something we wanted to do,” Patty Hudgins said. “Originally, we brought newborns home from the hospital to give the birth mom some time to think about her decision without sending the baby home with adoptive parents in case it didn’t work out.”
While living in Arkansas, the Hudginses received a newborn whose mother had released her parental rights. Because the baby had special needs — “very small, in our opinion,” Hudgins said — the state was having trouble finding a placement for her.
“We had three healthy children, and we decided to take a chance,” Hudgins said. “We ended up adopting her, and we have no regrets.”
The girl will celebrate her 12th birthday this week.
The Hudginses have since taken in several more fosters and adopted two more. Patty Hudgins said the kids can’t even remember which ones are the biological ones anymore.
“They have to stop and think about it,” she said. “In fact, our six-year-old was saying something to his sister last week about her being adopted, and she said, ‘But you’re adopted, too!’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not!'”
Crossing the ocean for love
Not all children end up in foster care because of parental abuse or neglect. The nation accepts unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) children and puts them in foster care, as well.
Hymie and Brandy Witthoft of Jordan are the proud foster parents of 19-year-old Bawi, a refugee from Myanmar (formerly Burma).
“He comes from a very loving family,” Brandy Witthoft said. “He had a strong family unit. But the situation in Burma was such that he couldn’t stay there.”
Brandy Witthoft said that she always knew that she wanted to take in a foster child.
“I have always felt and still feel that there are so many kids who need a good home,” she said. “It’s a real shame that our society lets these kids flounder. I wanted to do what I could to help.”
Her husband agreed.
“I had a desire to help a kid,” Hymie Witthoft said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Brandy Witthoft said she wanted to take in a refugee foster child.
“I used to work for a refugee organization in Syracuse,” she said. “I wanted to take in one of the refugees that came through.”
Bawi has lived with the Witthofts for two and a half years. The couple also has a 2-year-old son, Carter, who, they said, “adores Bawi.”
Taking in a URM child, however, has not been without challenges.
“When we picked him up at the airport, he had never been to the U.S.,” Brandy Witthoft said. “He spoke no English.”
“That was the biggest challenge for him,” Hymie Witthoft said. “That and the big cultural differences.”
For the first several months, Hymie Witthoft would spend hours at a time with Bawi, working with him on his English skills. He also had to deal with the pressures of having grown up so quickly. Eventually, the teen picked up the language as well as the cultural habits of being an American teenager.
Though the transition was sometimes a rocky one, Bawi now has a number of friends, a car and a job he loves.
“We have seen such a transformation in him,” Brandy Witthoft said. “When he got off the airplane, he was 16, but he looked much younger. He was in shock. But now he’s a typical American teenager with a car, a job and a cell phone. To see him come out of his shell has been wonderful.”
Want to be a foster parent?
There is always a great need for foster parents, and Hudgins and the Witthofts highly recommend it.
“Absolutely, do it,” Brandy Witthoft said. “But, especially if you’re taking in a refugee, do it with an open mind. You have to be willing to stumble through conversations at first. You have to have an openness to learn about what he’s gone through.”
Hymie Witthoft suggested visiting a local refugee center.
“Pick their brains, ask them questions, find out everything you can about the culture,” he said. “Learn as much as you can about the kid before they come.”
Though her experience was different, Hudgins had much the same advice.
“We got a lot of guidance by talking to people who’d been there,” she said. “And take the certification classes — they’re very helpful, even if [foster care] is just something you’re thinking about.”
Hudgins said that she and her husband had been leaning towards foster care, but taking the certification classes made the decision for them.
“They’re not marketed that way, but the classes the county has you take to become a foster parent are very educational,” she said. “The classes really nailed it down for us and answered a lot of our questions. I’d recommend them to anyone.”
Neither couple had any regrets about their decision.
“I’d absolutely do it again,” Brandy Witthoft said. “The experience you have is worth any hurdles you have to jump in terms of the paperwork and the bureaucracy. It’s been an amazing experience.”
And it’s not just the experience — it’s what you gain.
“He’s part of our family,” Hymie Witthoft said of his foster son. “He’s one of us.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.