Though their roles are often misunderstood, local foster families like Mike and Starla Jenkins provide a critical link between children and their parents during times of crisis
Things got off to an inauspicious start when Mike and Starla Jenkins first took a foster child into their Oviedo home. The 11-month-old girl’s mother was hostile and confrontational. She regularly filed complaints: she was being denied visitation rights, her daughter got a bad haircut, her clothes were dirty, and so on.
Instead of being resentful, Mike and Starla continued to care for the girl and patiently bided their time.
“Someone took away her kid,” Mike says. “She was just lashing out.”
Before long, the mom, as much as the daughter, was very much in the Jenkins’ lives. Mike and Starla were her cheerleaders as the mother tried to get her life back on track. They made sure, for example, that she was making it to work and to counseling sessions.
“She was very, very young and in a tough situation,” Starla says. “She needed to know there was someone on her side.”
If this might seem like an unusual situation, it’s not, according to those in the foster-care system.
For those unfamiliar with foster care, the stereotype is of parents who have lost custody of their children for good because they did something terribly wrong. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, the goal of foster care is to address a temporary challenge – like addiction or job loss – and reunite foster children with their biological parents, says Sharon Shoemaker, licensing specialist with Children’s Home Society of Florida. In the meantime, foster parents are encouraged to keep biological parents involved in a child’s life.
When the kids are back home, the goal turns to keeping the foster parents in touch.
“It can be a very beautiful thing for the child,” Sharon says. “They don’t have to say goodbye to anyone.”
It is a delicate process, of course, that might start with a phone call between the child and their biological parents, then supervised visitation. Eventually, the foster providers may take the child to see their parents in a neutral public place, such as a park.
Another way biological parents keep contact is through video conferencing. They can see their kids getting tender care in real time. This has been especially valuable during the coronavirus crisis.
“It humanizes everyone,” Sharon says.
In most cases, children spend no more than a year or two in a foster home. If reunification with their biological parents is impossible, then the next best thing is a permanent adoption, Sharon says.
It is important that foster parents do not begin the process with an agenda to eventually adopt a child. That is what makes Mike and Starla so perfect for their roles.
“They are very joyful people,” Sharon says. “upbeat, positive, and child-focused. It’s not about them.”
Love, and Then Some
Mike and Starla have two girls of their own, nine-year-old Zoey and four-year-old Addie. After Addie’s birth, while they were living in North Carolina, the couple decided they had enough room in their home, and in their hearts, for more children.
They applied for a foster-care license, and the very day they received it they got a call. A pair of two-year-old twins needed emergency housing. Could they help?
“They stayed with us for one week,” Starla says.
After moving to Oviedo in 2018, the family wasted no time getting involved in foster care. Their first placement after securing their Florida license was the 11-month-old girl with the initially-combative mother who stayed with them for about five months.
Last year came their second placement, a three-year-old boy with special needs. He was in the Jenkins home for 15 months and provided plenty of challenges. The happy ending in this case is that the child recently found an adoptive home.
“I have become very close with the adoptive mom and continue to support them as they have become first-time parents with our little guy,” Starla says.
Mike and Starla have made great efforts to keep their own girls involved in discussions about a possible foster situation. They determined early on to take in only young children so that Zoey’s status as the elder sister is never challenged.
Once a foster child leaves, the Jenkins family takes a temporary break to focus their attention on their own girls, and on each other.
The key word being temporary.
“We don’t want to give up our adventure,” says Starla.
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