Jennifer McLaughlin, a licensing social worker for Douglas County Social Services, describes foster care parenting as one with many extremes.
Days of heartbreak and days of rejoicing. Feelings of isolation and feelings of overwhelming chaos. Times when parents feel like they’re going insane and times when other people think they’re crazy for doing it.
But through those highs and lows, McLaughlin has also heard stories of unexpected rewards. Finding drawings in the bottom of a backpack of the foster parents and child with hearts on it. Receiving a graduation invite to a former foster child’s commencement. Hearing an unexpected doorbell ring.
“Foster care is the hardest, most rewarding job you might ever have,” McLaughlin said. “You might ask, ‘Why should I do foster care?’ I would say, ‘If not you, who will?’”
Around 6,100 children and young adults entered out-of-home placement around the state in 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The most common reasons for removal of children from their homes are parental drug abuse, neglect or physical abuse. For children who left out-of-home placement in 2019, more than half were reunited with their birth parents or legal guardians, while 18% were adopted, according to MDH.
Before starting as the therapeutic foster care coordinator for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Martha Gutierrez worked as a social worker for the County of San Bernardino Department of Behavioral Health for more than 30 years.
She and her significant other, Roger Hiebert, moved to Douglas County in September after he was laid off because of COVID-19. When Hiebert found an opportunity to visit Alexandria and interview for a new job, Gutierrez told him she would send out applications there, too.
In the government agency setting, she worked alongside child protective services to remove children from their homes. Now, Gutierrez recruits foster families, provides specialized training, gives in-home support and opens doors to introduce foster children to their new placements.
“It has been such sheer joy to be on the other side,” Gutierrez said.
Tiffany and Chris Schmidt, Douglas County residents and owners of Smooth Finish in Alexandria, are one of those families "on the other side." The Schmidts have four biological children and always thought they would adopt.
They didn’t like the thought of welcoming foster care kids into their home temporarily only to put them right back into the system. But one day, the Schmidts felt prompted to do something in the waiting, so they started the process of getting licensed to be foster parents.
This preparation organized through Douglas County has included bi-weekly Zoom classes, home studies and paperwork about their family history and dynamics.
“It’s not like you walk in and go ‘Hey, I wanna foster kids,’” Tiffany said. “They want to get to know who they’re sending the kids with.”
The foster care orientation is meant to prepare future foster parents for the variety of circumstances they may face with children, from infants to teenagers, including their personal histories, identity issues, cultural backgrounds and stress factors.
“We’ve cried during the videos just seeing things kids have been subjected to,” Tiffany said. “Obviously you’re never fully prepared, but we’re better prepared for it because we have more ideas.”
One point that struck Tiffany was to focus on celebrating positive behaviors rather than disciplining negative ones. She said she plans to keep the handout sheets of notes from each Zoom session so she can look back at the tidbits she learned and apply them later.
Since each Zoom attendee brings a different perspective to the training, Tiffany said it’s helpful to engage in discussion with other families about what they’ve learned who are pursuing the same end goal of fostering.
“You get to meet the other people who are doing this,” Chris said. “You can kinda build a support system to be able to rely on each other and help each other out.”
After starting the foster care training process, the Schmidts said they had to work on reframing their hopes. Although their desire is to eventually adopt, the primary goal of the foster care system is to reunite children with their biological families whenever possible.
“It’s hard because you look forward to it, and yet you don’t want that to happen to any kid,” Tiffany said.
McLaughlin said she enjoys getting to know people through the foster care licensing and home study process and hearing their stories, whether those family histories include embracing courage and overcoming challenges or seeing a need and extending compassion.
“Tiffany and Chris strike me as those kind of people,” McLaughlin said. “They are warm, accepting and giving of their time and their talents. I love it when right away I can tell that a family gets it. They understand the bigger picture of foster care.”