A decision to love: 2 foster moms’ stories

Photo by Gajus, iStock Getty Images Plus, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — Two women, one in St. George and the other in Cedar City, were selected to receive the “Foster Care Mom of the Year” award for their efforts with some of society’s most vulnerable children.

Being removed from one’s family and placed into foster care can result in life-changing trauma for a child, making the role of foster parents critically important to help the child recover through nurturing, guidance and the love that foster families provide.

May is National Foster Care Month, a time set aside to focus attention on the needs of children in foster care as many of them are faced with unimaginable obstacles.

“Foster parents are the child welfare system’s primary intervention for helping children,” researchers at the Brookings Institute said in a 2017 report.

St. George Foster Care Mom of the Year Marisa Barnson 

In St. George, Marisa Barnson has been involved in the foster care program since 2015 and currently has three foster children that she and her husband are caring for.

Marisa Barnson at her home in St. George, Utah, May 11, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Marisa Barnson, St. George News

The idea to become foster parents came from her husband, she said, as his grandmother and mother were foster parents, which made an impact on him.

She began checking into the program and once she realized the magnitude of the need, she and her husband began the process of training and registering with the state.

Since then the couple has had multiple placements that included children of varying ages. They have had as many as five teenagers in their home at the same time.

“We just fall in love with the kids that come through our home, “Barnson said, “and at the end of the day that’s what they needed, and to belong.”

Some of the children arrive “pretty broken,” she said, adding that it’s fulfilling to see them grow and flourish from “building them up and loving them, and we see the change.”

“We just love that,” Barnson said.

Barnson is now caring for younger children, she said, but regardless of their age she wants them all.

One of the challenges is that she gets very close to the children, so there is a sense of sadness when they leave.

Barnson has had the opportunity to get to know families, which helps when the children are returned to their parents. It has also provided an opportunity to establish relationships that have added to their lives.

“We still keep in touch with some of the kids and we have the opportunity to get to know the family, and it’s the relationships that we’ve formed out there that are important.”

Photo by Ulkas, iStock Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The couple has also taken advantage of the “foster to adopt” program, which enabled them to adopt a teen they had provided foster care for.

Some children who are eligible for adoption remain in foster care while they wait to be adopted until they transition out of foster care when they turn 18.

Those young adults can face significant challenges if they lack a family bond or have been placed in multiple homes while waiting, Barnson said, and when those bonds or connections are not given the chance to form “the effects can last a lifetime.”

Research has shown that those who leave care without being linked to forever families have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults.

Armed with that information, the couple decided to adopt one of the teens in their care after the teen turned 18, giving that young adult a family,

“Once they belong to a family,” Barnson said, “they aren’t out there alone anymore.”

Division of Child and Family Services caseworker Jerry James said, “Marisa has been willing to learn, grow and be flexible with the placements she has had in her home, which we have admired immensely.”

“If we hear of a child that needs a home, we bring them home,” Barnson said.

Cedar City Foster Care Mom of the Year Sam Christopher

Sam Christopher became involved in the foster parent program two years ago. The decision was motivated by multiple factors, she said, one being that she has always wanted to become a foster parent but wasn’t in a position to do so until then. The other is a reflection of her and her husband’s drive to provide a home to children in need.

With two empty bedrooms in the house, the Christophers decided, “let’s fill them,” she said.

Sam Christopher with two of her grandchildren, Cedar City, Utah, photo retrieved May 11, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Sam Christopher, St. George News

Christopher’s husband also grew up with foster children in his home, so he was “totally open to the idea,” she said.

Being “empty nesters,” the couple wanted to open their home to youth who needed stability and a temporary family while their own families were getting the help they needed.

The first placement included two teenage siblings who ended up staying with the Christopher family for a year, and with them came challenges.

“For these kids, their entire life changed when they were taken out of their home and that can be traumatic.”

Through those challenges, the teens began to thrive and, Christopher said, it was well worth the effort.

As a foster parent, she said, the focus is on making sure the teens feel safe and secure, which happens when they are being well cared for. Part of that process also involves helping the teens prepare for the time when they return to their families.

It is so important to “make a difference, even a small one, in their lives and having these kids take something away from the experience of living in our home,” she said. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Photo by Kardd, iStock, Getty Images Plus, St. George News

For those who are older and considering becoming a foster parent, age may not be as critical a factor as some may think. Christopher and her husband are in their 50s and believe that anyone with energy, a safe home and a good heart can do it.

“No one is too old,” she said, “if you have the energy and the desire – there is no age limit.”

And for them, it all came down to one question:

“Why not help these kids? We have plenty of room and we love them.”

Amy Bates with Utah Foster Care has worked with the Christophers for some time and said the couple “goes above and beyond to meet the needs of their foster kids” and “makes it a priority to learn about trauma and any specific needs which the children may have.”

The foster care shortage

In the United States, more then 400,000 children – nearly five times the population of St. George – are living in foster care homes on any given day, according to the National Foster Care Coalition.

Roughly 2,800 children are cared for by 1,450 foster care providers in Utah and substance abuse is a contributing factor in two out of three foster care cases, according to updated information provided by Ben Ashcraft, southwest region representative for Utah Foster Care.

Two-thirds of children placed in foster care are returned to their parents or relatives after spending an average of 12 months in foster care.

Last year 603 children were adopted – most by their foster parents.

Utah Foster Care

Utah Foster Care is a private, nonprofit organization that teams with state and private agencies to serve the needs of children and families in crisis. The coalition forms a powerful front in the effort to find permanent homes for foster children who cannot be reunited with their original families.

For more information call 877 505-5437 or visit the Utah Foster Care website. 

Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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