Island Family Shares Life Lessons Learned Through Foster Care

By VICTORIA FORD | Mar 21, 2018
Photo by: Marjorie Amon

“If my heart isn’t broken when he leaves, then I didn’t do my job properly,” Elizabeth Beaty said, describing the experience of fostering a child.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Elizabeth and Tom Beaty of Holgate were moved to take meaningful action they hoped could improve lives and make a positive impact on the world – or at least their small corner of it. For Elizabeth, foster parenting was something she always had in her mind to do when the timing was right. Having grown up with foster siblings, she was influenced by her mother’s example of volunteer service. As community-minded people in general, Tom said, they felt it would be “something that could be helpful” – particularly in light of the opioid addiction crisis that continues to ruin lives close to home in Ocean County.

With one son of their own, Tommy Jr., who turns 8 this month, the Beatys also see fostering as an opportunity to model the behaviors and values they want to instill in him.

Preliminary research led them to njfoster.org, which directed them to the foster care section of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families website, where a “contact us” form prompted a call right back.

The need is huge, Elizabeth said.

In January 2017, they signed up for PRIDE training (Parent Resources, Information, Development, Education), a series of classes at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library, taught by social workers from the state Department of Children and Families/Division of Child Protection and Permanency. The course trains and prepares participants for child placement, working from a thick textbook chapter by chapter, providing “a standardized, consistent, structured framework for the competency-based recruitment, preparation, and selection of foster and adoptive parents,” according to the DCF.

“This program offers a competency-based, integrated approach to recruitment, family assessment, and pre-service training,” the DCF explains. “Through a series of at-home consultations and competency-based training sessions, prospective families have an opportunity to learn and practice the knowledge and skills they will need as new foster and adoptive parents. The readiness of families to foster or adopt is assessed in the context of their ability and willingness to meet the essential competencies,” defined as “protecting and nurturing children; meeting children’s developmental needs, and addressing developmental delays; supporting relationships between children and their families; connecting children to safe, nurturing relationships intended to last a lifetime; and working as a member of a professional team.”

The training was awesome, Elizabeth said, but it gave a startling look at the grim facts of child neglect, abuse and homelessness, against a backdrop of poverty and domestic violence, often with addiction as the underlying cause.

“You really learn how traumatized some of these kids are,” she said. And it’s not just happening “elsewhere,” to “other people” – but here, in our towns, to us.

In Ocean County, the number one reason kids are removed from their biological parents is neglect associated with drug addiction, according to Elizabeth. In some cases, a child is immediately up for adoption because a parent has fatally overdosed.

Upon completion of the course, participants are certified as state-licensed resource parents and get assigned a resource worker. The screening, home inspection and background check process for resource parents to prove they’re worthy caregivers seems even more rigorous than for biological relatives, Elizabeth said, at least from her perspective. Additionally, anyone a resource parent hires for childcare is also subject to fingerprinting and background check.

Elizabeth estimated the whole process took about three months, during which time she and Tom discovered previously unknown things about each other that brought them closer as a couple. She added that anyone thinking about signing up should be open to some seriously in-depth self-exploration. Discussions about family history, a scary subject for some, can bring up a lot of long-buried memories and feelings, but the outcome is personal growth.

*   *   *

The Beatys’ first child placement was in August. What they learned from that and subsequent experiences is theory and practice are very different, Elizabeth said.

Tom described it as a “a roller coaster: Once you open the door, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“It was heart-wrenching,” Elizabeth said, “to see the damage inflicted on such a young child.” Behavioral issues are extraordinarily taxing, and resource parents must weigh the risks and benefits.

Resource parents sign up for temporary placement only, or foster-to-adopt. They can also stipulate “criteria” for the children they would like to foster, but emergency placements tend to be the rule rather than the exception, where the call comes without warning and decisions must be made quickly. A child may be waiting in a hospital, at a social service office or group home, so there is always a sense of urgency.

While efforts to place the child are underway, workers are also researching other prospective homes, with family members.

From the state’s standpoint, Elizabeth explained, reunification is always the goal.

A biological parent is given time to prove their competency by way of sobriety, employment and accommodations, and may be granted visitation in the meantime. A team of advocates – case workers, caregivers and attorneys – works toward an outcome with the child’s best interest in mind. A judge hears all sides.

“I’m frustrated with the system, but I have a lot of sympathy for the workers,” Elizabeth said.

While she believes even the most wayward souls deserve a chance to turn their lives around, she said having a personal stake in a child’s well-being makes it impossible to be unbiased. The process can be physically, mentally and emotionally harrowing. Her mindfulness training helps her to stay present and to manage stress, which is considerable. “I don’t know what I would do without my mindfulness practice,” she said.

In her own business as Life You Want Coaching, she advises clients on how to cope, to overcome fear, to pursue their dreams; as a foster parent, she is walking the walk.

The state pays for the foster child’s health insurance and basic needs, in conjunction with the optional WIC program for formula, Elizabeth explained. A monthly allowance is just enough to cover other expenses. The Beatys feel extremely grateful that “our community has given us so much.” Friends and neighbors have donated diapers, clothing, toys, equipment and gear.

During a placement, the family regularly reports to the state on doctors’ visits and meets monthly with the case workers to keep everyone up to date. Rules must be followed even if they conflict with one’s own parenting principles. No co-sleeping, for example. (It’s a liability.)

People tell her, “I couldn’t do it; I’d get too attached.” Some days she wants to say, “What, you think I’m made of stone?” but most often, her response is to say getting attached is part of the deal.

When a foster child moves on, “we will be heartbroken, but we will have changed a life.”

*   *   *

Advice Elizabeth would give to someone considering fostering: “It’s important to take breaks” in between placements, to “make room for those emotions.” Self-care is essential. So, too, is keeping the faith that foster care makes a difference, even if it’s not always apparent. Even if a child is too young to remember the care they’re receiving, the bond is imprinting.

By the same token, “it’s not for everyone.” The people who choose to foster children are not fear-based, she said. They are brave, strong, and emotionally resilient.

The Beatys’ primary goal was to be of service and to do good during a time of upheaval in the world, and to set an example for their son, to teach him empathy and compassion, the joys of giving, and the necessary pain of letting go. They are living by the dictum “think globally, act locally.”

In their view, Elizabeth said, “you can be upset and do nothing, or be upset and do something.”

“Doing something” might mean heating up a bottle for a baby, tucking him into a rocking seat with a blanket, and – presto – his world is perfect. That’s a powerful act, in a small and immediate sense, that has much broader implications.

Foster care is “definitely a growth experience,” Tom said – challenging, of course, eye-opening in the sense that “you find out you don’t have the patience you need,” but positive overall, and deeply rewarding.

Some people ask why they would voluntarily bring added complication to their life, but Elizabeth doesn’t see it that way: “I’m signing on for love.”

Tommy Jr. is already learning that love can be at once profound and somewhat tricky.

While nobody wants their own child to hurt, Elizabeth said, she and Tom believe it’s important for their son to learn to be selfless. “This will build resilience in him, too,” Elizabeth said. “I want to teach him not to be afraid to love – to feel all his feelings. I also want him to understand that not all kids are as fortunate as he is.”

It’s clear that lesson is sinking in for Tommy Jr. For his eighth birthday, he decided to raise funds for Together We Rise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the way youth navigate through the foster care system.

As the Beatys have witnessed, kids in foster care often move their few belongings from place to place in a trash bag. They might not own a toothbrush. So the money Tommy raises will give foster children “sweetcases,” or new duffle bags filled with essentials such as a teddy bear, blanket, hygiene kit and more.

In just a few days, he reached his goal of $250, which will provide 10 sweetcases. He will deliver his donation to the Ocean County South Department of Child Protection and Permanancy office in Bayville.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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