As a child, Wendy Vucic would lay in her bed, close her eyes, and picture how many bunk beds she could fit in her room. She was willing to share her room with other children who did not have one of their own - it was the start of her captivation with helping children - a dream that followed her into adulthood. In 2012, Wendy and her husband, Ben, were at a place in their lives to start a family and welcome children into their home - so they began to look into fostering.
“We decided we wanted to make our home a safe place for children, whether it is for a week or a lifetime,” Wendy said. “From the beginning, we wanted the children to know what it feels like to have caregivers that will love them through the good and the bad, and we vowed to never give up (on them).”
Unsure of where to begin their journey, the couple came across an advertisement calling for foster parents, which led them to get in contact with their local DSS. Within months, the couple welcomed siblings Dominic, 4-years-old, and Rachel 3-years-old, into their homes in October 2012, a foster care placement that led to an unbreakable bond between the Vucic’s and their future children. Dominic and Rachel were adopted in April of 2015, a lasting commitment Wendy and Ben were eager to take on.
“We made the decision to foster our children before we ever met them,” Wendy said. “We knew nothing about them except that they needed help. They bring us so much joy and they are just a little more whole than when we met them.”
For the couple, the greatest reward of fostering is being a part of the lives of the children they care for.
“They have brought us so much joy from the moment we met them,” Wendy said. “When I first met my current foster son, I explained to him that I was going to take care of him and protect him. He thought about it for a minute then asked, ‘Am I allowed to call you “Mom”?’ My heart melted.”
From meeting therapy goals to hearing their children say “I love you,” -- the couple celebrate every tiny victory and every moment where they are able to see the reward of the patience and love they put into their children.
“This Thanksgiving one of Dominic’s projects at his new school was to make a poster about what he was thankful for,” Wendy said. “His poster said ‘I’m thankful for my new Mommy and Daddy.”
While many look at fostering as a pathway to adoption, the Vucic’s have long understood the importance of providing temporary safe homes to those in foster care. Even after the adoption of their children, the two continued to welcome foster children into their homes. The couple is now fostering their third child.
“We continued to foster even after we adopted, because we still had room in our home and our hearts for another,” Wendy said. “There’s always an extra seat at our dinner table, and it’s hard not to think ‘there is a kid out there somewhere that needs us’.”
The Vucic’s attribute their success as foster parents to the support they have received from their community and local DSS.
“As a foster parent, you’re not on your own to navigate health-related, behavioral and emotional obstacles of a child,” Wendy said. “We placed a huge amount of trust in the Department of Social Services to support us and that trust was not misplaced - they were always right beside us in getting our family the assistance we needed to help our children heal.”
The couple encourages those who want to learn more about foster care and adoption to speak with families in the community who have gone through the process, as community support was a major factor in the Vucic’s fostering and adoption experience. The couple is as willing to talk to families about the process as they are willing to let another child in need into their home.
“Sharing my experience is important,” Wendy said. “Foster care and adoption have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s been the most rewarding experience - you truly feel like a hero.”
It took only four days for Jennifer and Anthony Thompson to realize that their lives would forever be changed. In 2008, at only 4 days old, they fostered and then adopted a baby girl, Taylor. Taylor’s adoption inspired the Thompson family to become the foster parents of 24 children from all over the state over the course of eight years.
“Our family loved the idea of welcoming children into our home,” Jennifer said. “We have had children in our home for as few as a few hours to as long as a lifetime… I think that having children in your home is like having beautiful flowers -- there can never be too many.”
In efforts to build their family, the Thompsons called the Portsmouth Department of Social Services where they learned that over 400 children in Portsmouth alone were looking to be adopted. After completing the Parent Resources for Information Development and Education, or PRIDE program, the couple received a certification to legally foster and adopt a child in the state of Virginia. Within the past eight years, the couple has not only welcomed 24 children into their home, but also adopted three of the children; Taylor, Alexander and Carellynn.
Since then, the past eight years for the Thompsons have been filled with trips to Disney World, the beach and Gymboree. Jennifer has taken children on trips to the salon and to sporting events. Fostering two dozen children, Jennifer aspires to create a loving environment for every child who walks through her door.
“I want to create wonderful memories and relationships with these children that will last a lifetime,” she said. “Going into foster care, most children are initially so confused and frightened – we want to be their safe place. We’re able to give them (the children) the gift of love, and this is the most rewarding experience of foster parenting.”
Through the experience, the Thompsons have noted changes in nearly every child they welcomed through their door. “We can immediately notice the love in their eyes,” Jennifer said. “They just want to be cherished like you and me. I have watched these children become so confident, and it was love that did that.”
The Thompsons urge those with hesitations about fostering children to consider the importance of love and guidance in a child’s life. “There may be behaviors in some children that are less than desirable, but with the support of a foster family, those behaviors can change,” Jennifer said. “As foster parents, we have the unique opportunity to give them the gift of a loving family. They are not just foster children, they are our children.”
While the Thompsons have opened their home to many children, they believed the children have opened their hearts and their minds as parents.
“I am often told we are such a blessing to the children we foster. I often have to correct people – these precious children are the greatest blessing to us,” Jennifer said. “The most surprising thing about being a foster parent is you never knew you could love so much. We may have to set extra plates at the dinner table, but we adore these children and get so excited when we have another new child to cherish.”
The Thompsons proudly advocate for fostering and adoption, and often encourage members in the community to look into fostering or mentoring children in need.
“I grew up not really knowing anyone in foster care and not understanding the process at all,” Jennifer admits. “There are so many ways to get involved in these children’s lives. I hope our story at least inspires others to learn more about foster care and adoption -- I can guarantee you there are never enough advocates for children in the foster care system. Just remember – to the world you might be one person, but to one person you might just be the world”
“Bring her to us.”
With just those words, foster mother Bonna Williamson started her lifelong commitment to fostering. Ten years ago, Williamson was approached by a social worker who came to her with a heart-rending story of a premature newborn baby girl, Myah, in need of a temporary place to call home.
“Bring her to us,” Williamson told the social worker – and within months, she and her family underwent a mission to help children in need, a mission that has led her to foster over 50 children over a ten year span.
“Our family just stepped up and did what I believe anyone should do,” Williamson said. “It’s impossible to say ‘no’ when that call comes to you (from a social worker) and you know there is a child in need on the other end of the line.”
Williamson has fostered infants to teenagers, some for merely hours and some for years. She attributes her lengthy and successful role as a foster mother to what she considers a somewhat unconventional approach to fostering.
“I guess tough love is what my family has had to show,” Williamson said. She further explains, “many foster parents think that showering kids who may not have had ‘enough’ with plenty of premature “I love you's” and material things will make them feel loved, and that’s not necessarily true.”
Curfews and groundings, earning ‘privileges’, knowing how to say no -- as someone who considers herself more stringent than other foster parents, Williamson admits that the most rewarding part of fostering is having children later recognize her dedication to them.
“Sitting in as a ‘mom’ at the graduation of a teen who probably wouldn’t have graduated otherwise, dressing them up for prom – rewarding moments as a foster parents are sometimes not felt until later,” Williamson said. “The letter you get in the mail several years after they leave that says, ‘thanks, I didn’t realize what you were trying to do at the time,’ is worth it.”
While Williamson has fostered over 50 children, she has only adopted one; Myah. Some families struggle with the idea of providing only temporary support to children in foster care, but she explains, “We have to look at our homes as stepping stones in the life of a child sometimes. Our home might not be the ultimate placement for one reason or another but we can still play a part for that 'season' in their lives. That need for that child to move on does not mean failure on the part of the foster parents.”
While Williamson made what she calls “a very difficult, but necessary” decision to resign as a foster parent, last year, she wholeheartedly encourages those interested in the fostering process, even those with reservations, to reach out to their local DSS to learn more about how they can get involved.
“We have always presented our home as a “safe haven” for the children here,” Williamson said. “I put myself into every child, and while it takes a toll on you – it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Divorced, living alone and searching for her next career move, Teresa Carpentieri felt an overwhelming urge to give back to her hometown, Roanoke, Virginia. The idea was vague, but the will was there – and after brainstorming ways to get involved, Carpentieri decided to blend her love of children with her marketing experience to join a non-profit, Children’s Trust, which works towards the prevention of child abuse – a common cause of foster care placement in Virginia.
Working with Children’s Trust inspired her to host foster children of her own. In 2011, she cared for two girls, Zettiyanna and Symphony, a drastic change for Carpentieri who had two fully grown, adult sons.
Carpentieri fostered the girls for two years, during which she helped the two adjust to home life, and they helped her understand the multifaceted world of being a foster parent.
“Caring for them (foster children) is not a one size fits all,” Carpentieri said. “It’s important to understand and evaluate their individual needs.”
Carpentieri went from being a foster mother to an adoptive parent the day she had to tell Symphony, now her daughter, that her mother’s parental rights had been terminated.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a parent,” Carpentieri said. “She and I both cried – and in that moment, I asked her if she wanted to stay with me forever and let me be her second mom.”
The decision to adopt Symphony, Carpentieri said, was completely unexpected. “When I began fostering, my plan was not to adopt,” she said. “Little did I know at that time that Symphony would waltz into my life and become the daughter I had always wanted.”
As a child, Carpentieri explains, Symphony had faced severe neglect from her biological mother. At just 9 years old, Symphony was taking care of her three younger siblings – an experience that propelled her into a role as an adult long before necessary.
“She’s so mature but she reminds me that she does not want to be an adult before she has to be. This school year, she just wanted to focus on her studies,” Carpentieri said.
Carpentieri explains how when she first adopted Symphony, she was able to give her something as simple as her own bedroom, a luxury Symphony had never experienced before. Today, Carpentieri and her daughter have a typical mother-daughter relationship.
“She’s a teen after all,” Carpentieri explains, “But one of the most rewarding moments of being a foster parent was when my daughter thanked me for being there for her on Mother’s Day.”
Since adopting Symphony, Carpentieri and her daughter work together to advocate for fostering and adoption, as well as educate others about the realities of child abuse and neglect. Symphony has even gone on to publicly speak about her experience with neglect and foster care on WDBJ7 News in Roanoke.
“My daughter and I are always ready to help others in the same situation,” Carpentieri said. “She (Symphony) likes to give new foster parents advice. She tells them not to expect the kids to come into their home happy to be out of their previous circumstances – they are going to be angry, confused and scared – but they just want to feel secure.”
Carpentierii frequently speaks at Foster Parent Orientations, at which she attempts to dispel myths surrounding the foster care process, as well as provide new and potential foster parents with guidance on what to expect when hosting foster children.
“It’s crazy how when I got started, I just wanted to help kids and families,” Carpentierii said. “I believe so strongly in the need to foster and adopt. It’s been such an important part of my life.”
Unconditional love and second chances usually go hand-in-hand with parenting. It takes patience and compassion to forgive time and time again; but what if it’s the parent who needs the second chance?
When removed from their biological families and placed into foster care, many children are left feeling unloved and unsure about their next stages in life. Sometimes, the biological parents are left with feelings of failure and guilt. This can hinder both parties’ ability to understand that reunification is not only possible, but it is ideal. Reunification is made possible with the right social support, parenting skills, emotional counseling, and financial assistance.
Undoubtedly, reunification can be difficult for some to understand - after all, why would you send a child back to a situation they were removed from? This common misconception can be deceiving, as the process is much more complex than most believe.
In Virginia, over 30 percent of foster children are reunified with their biological parents. Over 54 percent are placed with a family member, parental or otherwise, making reunification the most common outcome of fostering. While the average adoption takes 31.5 months, it takes an average of 11.4 months for a child in foster care to be reunified with their birth families.
Foster parent Angela Barber shares her experience with reunification, as three of her foster children were reunified with their original families.
“We always plan for reunification,” Barber said. “Children deserve permanence - if there is a birth family that is capable and willing, they should be given the chance.”
Children are removed from their homes for a variety of reasons, with the number one reason being neglect. The reality is that, at the time, many parents are unable to care for their children because they lack the emotional/mental or physical resources to properly care for their children. In some cases, those same parents become ready and willing to retry their lifelong commitment to their children.
While some find it difficult to empathize with these parents, many, such as Jennifer Thompson, a foster parent of over 24 children, understand the positive outcomes of reunification. “They (biological families) may not have had the support system others have been blessed with,” said Thompson. “I have seen a family be restored through reunification because they were equipped with the knowledge and support of (foster parents) believing in them and their children. Foster parents who build relationships with biological parents can do just that!”
In Barber’s case, her family extends contact with biological families in an effort to provide mentoring support and help ease the transition from foster care to reunification.
In one instance, “She (birth parent) would come to our house and interact with her child, then join us on family outings, then she would get to keep her child at her house for a few hours, then overnights until she was granted placement,” Barber said. “The truth is; everybody makes mistakes. If it were me, I would want a chance to make it right, too.”
Reunification goes beyond simply giving parents a second chance. Research indicates that achieving timely reunification while preventing reentry into foster care has many benefits - not only for children and families, but also for communities and human services systems. While many factors impact if and when a child can be successfully reunified with his or her family, the preference for reunification is rooted in the idea that children do best when raised in safe, stable families and with their own biological parents whenever possible. The longer children spend in out-of-home care, the more challenging it can be to achieve permanency. Children who do not receive permanency and “age out” of foster care are more likely to experience homelessness, incarceration, economic instability, substance misuse, or poor educational outcomes.
As a foster mother, Thompson views reunification as a way to “We have the privilege of loving someone else’s child, so we have to remember that their parents love them too,” Thompson said. “I believe in second chances and am excited when I see a family be reunited again. It’s important to not only love the child, but love the family as well.”
Of the nearly 5000 foster children in Virginia, over half will inevitably return to their biological families, a victory for not only the state of Virginia, but for parents and children looking for a second chance to build the bond that makes strong families, and in turn, strong communities.
“Encouraging reunification helps families and communities know that the child welfare is not just concerned about the safety of children but that we also believe in helping families staying together,” Chauncey Strong, Foster Care and Adoption Supervisor for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services said. “When families come back together after coming apart, their efforts are worthy of recognition and celebration,” Strong said. “Stronger families make stronger communities and a better society.”
“Are we ready to do this?”
This is the question that Cassie Huskey asked her husband, Bart, as they looked at a newspaper advertisement calling for foster parents. It was 2009, and the Huskeys had little knowledge of foster care and the steps needed to become foster parents. In that moment, all they had was an advertisement in their hands, calling them to help children in need.
Already a family with two biological children, Cassie and Bart were well aware that taking in foster children would change their lives forever - and as with any life-changing decision, they were hesitant.
“We were worried about others expectations of what a household should look like,” Cassie admits. “But we also wondered “what if the foster children don’t get along with our biological children? Or if we don’t eat the same foods? Or have the same interests? What if (the foster children) don’t like us?”
Despite their initial hesitation, the couple went forward with their research on foster care, and learned more about the experiences of seasoned foster parents. Their research led them to get in contact with their local DSS, which provided them with an open communication with the DSS workers who could answer all their questions, and gave the two an understanding of the expectations of foster parents.
“We were unsure at first, but being able to have the opportunity to ask questions and talk about concerns really made the difference,” Cassie said. “We really felt that we could make a difference by providing a home for these children - so we did.”
Since 2009, the Huskey’s have opened their doors to eight children, who they have fostered anywhere between eight months to two years old. Prior to her first placement, Cassie admits she may have had a slightly warped idea of what it meant to be a foster parent.
“I thought I would be almost some kind of hero helping the children, providing them with a home and structure. We’ve done that for the children we’ve had in our home, however; we got so much more in return than be we bargained for. Watching the kids change, grow and become well-adjusted has been a great reward and that feeling is inexplicable - you’re rewarded over and over again when they meet milestones and overcome challenges.
With every unique child that comes through their door, the Huskey’s have come to realize how different each child’s experience with foster care is. The two have become versatile “super-parents” who are quick to recognize the needs of each child and adjust their own routines and daily lifestyle to support the needs of the children.
“With every child, there is change and adaptation that has to happen,” Cassie said. “When you bring a child into your home, they are not used to the same food, or schedule - it's a process of compromise that has taught me a lot. Each placement is different and often has a different process or outcome. Just like with regular parenting, I don’t think anyone can be totally prepared.”
With an evident passion for helping children, the two are often asked why they do not adopt the children that stay in their home for an extended period of time.
“We just say that we enjoy having them in our home, but we know that we’re not their forever home,” Cassie said. “Our goal from the beginning was not to adopt. We enjoy taking care of children, providing for them, giving them love and support, then either returning them to their family or supporting them in finding their true forever home.”
The two have come a long way since their initial hesitation, as seventh-year foster parents. The Huskey’s are happy to talk with and encourage those looking into fostering.
“It’s important to talk with someone about what to expect, especially if you have doubts - trust me, lots of foster parents do,” Cassie said. “The trust that you build with them (the children), the celebrating of little accomplishments, the smiling and laughing in your home… it makes it all worth it.”
Meg and David* became foster parents in 2014 when they welcomed a brother-sister duo, David, two at the time, and Lexi, who was one years old. Previously childless, the couple looked into traditional adoption before realizing what they considered “their calling” to become foster parents and provide a home for children.
“I really connected with caring for families in need,” Meg said. “We felt a strong “calling” to foster. We had no idea that we would adopt them (David and Lexi). They came into our homes, then into our lives.”
After opening their doors to David and Lexi, the couple was excited to start their new role as foster parents and provide love and support to the children, who were hesitant at first, to reciprocate a relationship with Meg and David.
“Hurt children will do everything in their power to push you away,” Meg said. “They do not want to get close and lose another relationship, and I wasn’t prepared for that.”
“I didn’t understand why a one year old baby was trying to feed herself, trying to dress herself, not letting me hold her,” she said. “It made me doubt if my love would be enough for them.”
Meg explains that when first coming into her home, David would call any woman he met “Mama” and would seek affection from complete strangers. Taken back at first, Meg attributes the behavior to his lack of a stable caregiver prior to his adoption. “He was running to anyone and everyone for love- it took a while to realize this was because of their upbringing” she said. “I had to learn this through our unique experiences.”
After learning more about some of the resources available in their community for foster parents, such as Trailblazers, a support group for foster, adoptive, and kinship parents in Virginia, Meg and David were better equipped with the knowledge and support needed to understand the behavior and needs of their foster children.
“I wish I had known about it before,” Meg said. “The best advice I have to foster parents is to connect with others who have fostered. It makes it so much easier to understand your own experience and bond with people who relate.”
The couple adopted the two children in August of 2015. Almost a year after their adoption, Meg is astounded by their improved behavior and overall happiness.
“(When David and Lexi first came into care) they were angry and hurt, even though they were so young you could tell,” Meg said. “Now they sing and play and have a sense of safety and peace that lets them just be kids. They don’t feel like they have to protect themselves anymore.”
Seeing the improvement in the behavior and attitudes of her children is even more rewarding as Meg recently announced to her children that she is expecting a baby, due in September - making David and Lexi the older brother and sister to a baby girl.
“They are so excited to be older siblings, and they’re going to be great at it,” Meg said. “It is so reassuring to see them grow into their own individual people with their own individual personalities. Even though it’s only been two years (since initially fostering David and Lexi), it’s been such an improvement since when they first came into our homes. It’s exciting to know the best days of our lives together are yet to come.”
*Meg and David have opted not to use their last names
"Where would I go?"
That was the question Symphony Jackson thought to herself when she found out her parents' rights had been terminated. She never imagined being placed in foster care would lead to her being adopted.
Symphony entered foster care when she was nine years old. She pictured foster care as going from home to home without really knowing where she would end up. "It was really different than I expected," she said. "You see all the movies about kids in foster care and think 'wow, that's awful and scary,' but I'm blessed to say that my experience was great."
In April 2015, after fostering Symphony for 3 years, Teresa Carpentieri asked to adopt her.
"I can't even begin to think about what would've happened had she not adopted me. It's very nerve-wracking to think about who would care for me if she wasn't there," Symphony said.
Despite not knowing what to expect going into foster care, the whole experience became very rewarding for Symphony. To her, it's a comfort to know that people love her and wish her only the best.
"The most rewarding thing about this whole experience is knowing I'm happy and having the support system I need. It's comforting to know that you're finally safe and you can just act like a kid again."
“We had our world turned upside down - in the best way possible.”
Kitzi and Michael Manuel had talked about becoming foster parents for several years before finally committing. As a child, Kitzi knew she wanted to adopt and possibly foster. After working for a community mental health agency with kids that had been in foster care for several years, Kitzi felt like she was being led to pursue what she knew could be a long and trying journey. Hearing many foster stories, full of hurdles and triumphs, from some of the local social workers she worked with inspired their decision to move forward and become foster parents.
In July 2014, Jackson and Elijah were placed in the Manuel’s care. “Somehow I knew, even before I laid eyes on them, if these boys weren't meant to be with us forever, they would forever be in our hearts and lives,” Kitzi said.
In the beginning, they mostly helped to influence the boys’ behavioral growth, such as setting boundaries for discipline. The boys had little vocabulary and it was difficult to understand them, and time-outs were challenging at first. But with patience and consistency, the boys quickly learned.
Identifying fears and learning age appropriate coping skills were also important to Michael and Kitzi. “Being in a new place is scary for anyone, especially when you’ve been taken from your family,” Kitzi said. “I spent months sleeping on the floor between the two of them with a hand on each bed so they could reach over and know someone was there. We worked on identifying all emotions, how to communicate those appropriately and deal with them accordingly.”
The uncertainty of whether or not the boys would be removed from their care was challenging for the Manuel’s. Eventually, Jackson and Elijah’s birth mother willingly terminated her rights. Throughout the termination process, Kitzi kept an open line of communication with the birth mother and even became a source of support for her.
By September 2015, the boys were officially adopted by the Manuel’s.
“Without question we were ready and willing to adopt the boys shortly after they were placed with us,” Kitzi said. “We were blessed beyond our wildest dreams with amazing DSS workers and able to adopt our little guys in an amazingly short period of time.”
For Kitzi, the most rewarding part of this journey has been seeing the emotional, physical and behavioral growth the boys have had. “They are truly the most giving and sweet children,” she said. “They still have their rough days, but even then there are still moments when you can see the kind hearts behind the bad behavior.”
"Seeing how complete strangers could grow to love each other as a family amazes me."
When Barry Farmer was 20 years old, he decided to become a foster parent to help foster kids adjust to the changes that come with foster care. He felt like foster youth were misunderstood because a lot of people can't relate to what they go through. Having been raised by his aunt and grandfather while his sisters were placed in foster care, he felt he could relate to foster care youth and wanted to help.
Barry fostered four children, and three of them eventually became his forever family. His adoptive sons, Darrell, Xavier and Jeremiah, came from three separate families and situations.
"Each one arrived very scared because of the unknown. Some acted out at home and at school, but eventually with a lot of structure and reassurance, they all adjusted really well," Barry said.
Over time, each one of the boys made tremendous progress while living in foster care with Barry. They felt confident that Barry would protect them. They were strangers who grew into a loving family.
"I went from being a single bachelor to a single father, going to PTA meetings, sports practices, emergency room visits, graduations, school dances and plays, literally overnight," Barry said.
The four of them have already created amazing memories together, including a family trip across four states. Barry can see that the boys genuinely care about each other and truly feel like they belong.