LAKEWOOD - Stacy Raynor always thought she might want to become a foster mother. When opportunity knocked in 2009, she opened the door to her Lakewood home.
Raynor has two children of her own: Jessica, 16, and Michael, 14. She said she loves children and has been a baby-sitter for most of her life. She is also a daycare provider.
Although Raynor had planned to become a foster parent after her children grew up, she saw several GA Family Services ads in the newspaper for foster parents and picked up the phone.
Lakewood’s Stacy Raynor, second from right, sits on her living room couch with her daughter Jessica, far left, her son Michael, far right, and her foster daughter Ashley.
P-J photo by Scott Shelters
Before getting too far into the evaluation process, Raynor sat her children down for a talk. They were more than open to the idea.
Jessica told her mom it would be nice to have a sister. She then said, "Mom, there are kids out there who need our help."
Raynor had an 11-year-old foster daughter for a year and a half, followed by a 12-year-old girl. Then she fostered Ashley, who was 14 at the time.
Once her children have grown up and moved out, Raynor might consider adopting children. She plans to keep fostering for the time being.
"I don't need a piece of paper to love somebody," Raynor said. "I don't need their last name to be the same as mine."
Raynor still has visitation rights for her first foster child, who she sees once a month. One of her former foster children keeps in touch through Facebook.
"I'm looking forward to saying in the future, 'Look how big my family is,'" Raynor said. "I'm never going to be alone."
Keeping those relationships intact can be important, according to Beth Coughlin, family resource coordinator for the GA Family Services Therapeutic Foster Care Program.
"They can't have too many connections," she said. "Stacy has always been there for the kids."
BECOMING A FOSTER PARENT
The road to foster parenting is an involved process.
An interested person will call GA. Then, they begin a three-month process that includes pre-service training courses, background checks and a home study.
"That home study is a big piece," Coughlin said. "We've got to make sure we're doing what's best for the children."
A committee ultimately makes the decision on whether to certify a foster parent. At times, those who had wished to become foster parents re-think their decision during the evaluation process. They also determine which gender and age group would fit best in their home.
"It's a two-way street," Coughlin said. "We're making decisions. We're evaluating. They're doing the same thing."
A child is typically in need of foster care during times of crisis. A court process will help determine the need and the best interests of the child. Most of the time, the goal is to eventually return the child to his or her birth family.
"We're working with the children, we're working with the foster families, we're working with the birth families to make that happen," Coughlin said. "Each family has a certain skill set. As an agency, we determine what those strengths are so we can determine what's best for the child."
On average, the foster care process lasts 29 months. Nationally, more than 400,000 children and youth are in the foster care system, according to the website for Foster Care Month, which is observed each May.
Regardless of whether a birth family can welcome their child back into its home, GA strives for permanency. Adoption can provide that.
When looking at prospective foster families, geography is another factor.
"The goal is to keep the child as close to the birth family as possible because visitation takes place," Coughlin said. "Logistically, we don't want to place that child too far away."
Visitations are scheduled based on a case-by-case basis. Some are supervised by case workers in public places. Others take place unsupervised in a birth family's home.
Some foster parents, such as Raynor, have established routines. Each time she welcomes a new foster child into her home, Raynor and her family take the child on a trip to Friendly's. After eating, they travel to Wal-Mart to purchase a sheet set and comforter the child can keep forever if they so choose.
"They're coming into a strange home," Raynor said. "Nothing is theirs. Some kids don't even come with clothing or anything because it's lost during the transition. I sat there one night thinking, 'What can I do?' I thought, 'They need a comforter.' That's our ritual when we have placement."
A CRITICAL NEED
In Chautauqua County, there are approximately 150 children in foster care.
"There's a critical need for families," Coughlin said. "There are more children in foster care than there are certified families. We're trying to increase awareness. We're trying to prevent any child from having to go from placement to placement, from foster home to foster home, because that just creates more trauma."
When the area lacks foster families, children stay in residential children's homes or jump from foster family to foster family.
"We encourage them to give us a call and learn more about the process," Coughlin said. "When you have an adult who nurtures, loves and supports you, the children grow and develop from that. It's a positive, life-enriching, rewarding experience for so many."
One doesn't have to be married to become a foster parent. Coughlin describes Raynor as the "perfect example of how a single parent can make foster parenting work."
Raynor's husband, William, died on Christmas Eve in 2001.
Raynor has found her foster family experience enriching enough to become a foster-care recruiter. She promotes the benefits of becoming a foster parent.
"I'm so glad I finally (became a foster parent)," she said. "I know I had my heels in the dirt saying, 'Nope. I'm not doing it until my kids grow up.'(But) I love kids. There are artists who can paint, there are musicians who can play and I just have a connection with kids."
Her children are glad too. Jessica has enjoyed having foster siblings.
"I've been the oldest of all of the foster children we've had," she said. "It is kind of hard because I know they've been through a lot. At the same time, they are like sisters."
To this point, all of Raynor's foster children have been females. That has happened by chance, however. Michael may not always be the only boy in the house.
As for Raynor's current foster child, Ashley, the 15-year-old has enjoyed her first year in the Lakewood home.
"They love me; I love them," she said. "I get to talk to them when I'm upset or happy, and they listen."
To learn more about GA Family Services' foster care program, visit gafamilyservices.org.