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Chatham confronts foster care needs

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Shawna Williamson, now 19, still gets that antsy feeling about change.

Williamson grew up in southern and eastern Chatham County: Bonlee, Bear Creek, Siler City, “a little bit of everywhere down there.”

She was placed into foster care on three occasions, the first time when she was 7 or 8; she can’t recall for certain. After about six months, she returned home, but a couple of years later was again removed, first to live with a great aunt and uncle and then in a foster home in which she felt very comfortable.

But after about a year, her foster dad was offered a faculty position at Appalachian State University. The family asked her to come with them, “But I chose to stay in Chatham County,” she says today.

“My older brother was still in Chatham County and I wanted to be close to him. … He was the only one there by my side through everything, that I could talk to every day and see every day, and he supported me, and I did the same for him.”

Fortunately, another foster family was found within the county, and Williamson remained in her community, her high school, among her friends.

“It helped me not panic about having to leave everything behind,” she says.

Chatham County is experiencing a shortage of foster care homes. It’s nothing new – the numbers rise and fall, and are seldom if ever sufficient – but the county is now taking strategic action to prevent kids from having to be sent out of the county to foster care or group homes.

On Feb. 21, the Department of Social Services launched its 2012 Campaign for Chatham’s Children to help community members learn more about what’s involved in being a foster family and to support those who provide homes and the children in their care.

The campaign will create “circles of support” with local businesses, churches, organizations and individuals, and volunteers have formed FACES of Chatham, a nonprofit to provide clothing and other items and support for afterschool programs, summer camp, community garden-building and fieldtrips.

DSS also will be conducting a survey, asking for the community’s views on foster care in Chatham in hopes of better targeting its recruitment activities.

Bottom line, the county is attempting to keep kids closer to home.

The reward

Shirille Lee has been a foster parent to 38 kids over the past 15 years. She says that anyone interested in taking in foster children must look within and ask a few essential questions.

Shirille Lee

First: “Can I love unconditionally?”

“Children coming into care are in care for a reason,” Lee says. “Some have been exposed to things we can’t imagine or believe.” They come with baggage. “Can I look past a child’s behavior and see the needs?

“Children go with what they know. If negative behaviors have gotten them what they want in the past, that’s what they do.”

Many children brought into foster care have been abused. To cope, they often have an “I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me” mentality, Lee says, “so they lash out.

“Children can say some hurtful things that can cut deep and affect your interactions. Can you still open your heart to this child? Can you step back and take a minute before you respond to a comment that has your mind racing?”

Taking in a child of whom you know very little, exposing yourself and your family to the unknown – that’s quite a challenge.

But for Lee, that’s also the reward: stepping up and accepting the challenge and offering “your world, that is by no means perfect, but a world where a child can count on his or her needs being met, a place he or she can feel loved and safe.”

“You have to be realistic,” says Jessica Lemons, 33, of Siler City, who’s presently foster mom to siblings, aged 1 and 2. You have to accept that you can’t know how things will play out, she says, and prepare for what may come.

“In the beginning I thought I was doing it all for the kids, and so did my family,” Lemons says. “But they’ve taught us that love doesn’t have a color or have bloodlines.”

Lee’s first foster child ran away after a couple of months, and her second had to be moved to another placement.

“It made me question if I was right for this job,” she says. “But I truly believed I had something to give to these kids.

“Fifteen years later, my first child still tells me my house was her first home and she still loves me,” Lee says. Her second child recently returned to North Carolina for a funeral and stopped by to say thank you and that he was doing OK.

“Thirty-eight kids later, I may still have questions,” Lee says, “but in my heart I know I was created for this.”

“For me, it just feels natural,” Lemons says. “This is my calling, and I don’t plan on stopping.”

‘Eyes wide open’

DSS Placement Services supervisor Jamie Bazemore says potential foster parents should ask themselves why they want to take on this challenge, and to fully understand their own motivations.

They then should ask if it will work for their entire family and immediate support network.

“Everybody has to come in with their eyes wide open,” Bazemore says.

To help prepare potential parents, the county provides 10-week Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) classes.

“I say to people, take the MAPP classes before you make any decision,” Lemons says.

Taking the classes doesn’t signal a commitment, Bazemore adds. “You can take all 10 MAPP classes and then say, ‘This is great information, I’m thrilled we did this, but we’ve decided this isn’t the right time in our lives.’ And that’s fine.”

“It’s very much a process to make the final decision,” she says, “and we’re with you 100 percent of the way.”

There’s also a network among foster parents in Chatham, with training sessions and nights out that offer both formal and informal support.

Alleviating the anxiety

Bureaucratic issues come into play when children must be placed in homes outside the county.

But “first and foremost, we want to keep children in their own communities for their own benefits,” Bazemore says.

Shawna Williamson can appreciate that.

“There’s always that panic,” she says of being taken from even a bad situation at home. “You don’t want to be separated from everything that you’ve ever known.”

Leaving Chatham County would have been especially rough.

“I grew up in little country areas, and we didn’t got out of county all that much unless we were going to see my grandmother. So there was a lot of anxiety at the thought of leaving everything and having no stability.”

“The thought of leaving everything I’d ever known was very difficult,” she says.

DSS wants to make foster care “a constant, continual community conversation” and to engage the community in its recruitment efforts.

“You may not be currently able [to be a foster parent],” Bazemore says, “but you probably know someone who is.”

Williamson hopes to one day be a foster parent herself.

“Of course, I would,” she says, “once I get everything situated and get settled and get through college and know that I can handle that.”

She’s now working at Walgreens, has her own place and pays her own bills.

Her immediate objective, she says, is to “be my own person.” She’s working through that now, and it helps to be grounded.

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