Program at Jonathan’s Place in Garland among many in Texas preparing singles, couples to be foster parents — regardless of sexual orientation
GARLAND — As a product of the foster care system, Rusty Johnson — perhaps best known in the LGBT community for his saxophone playing at local clubs — is passionate about finding great foster parents.
One of the parents Johnson found is Joe Good.
Through Jonathan’s Place, an emergency shelter for children who’ve been removed from their homes, the openly gay Good became a foster father for the first time in February.
In the first two weeks he had 3-year-old Christopher, Good missed work, rearranged his house to make it safer, learned to take very quick showers while the boy was sleeping, nursed Christopher through a cold, and listened to a lot of crying and screaming.
“My house is a circus,” he said. “But I’m really getting into Scooby Doo.”
Good has also experienced the anguish of turning Christopher over to a social worker for a supervised visit with his biological parents.
“When he left, I called my mom and cried for an hour,” Good said.
And he fretted through a parental court hearing. Interviewed as he waited anxiously at home for the results of the hearing, Good said if Christopher is returned to his birth parents, he’ll be devastated. Although he hopes to eventually adopt the boy, Good vowed to always be part of Christopher’s life.
Despite the emotional ups and downs, Good said becoming a foster parent is a wonderful experience.
The frequent hugs Christopher gives Good indicate how comfortable the boy is in his new home. And Good, who’s single, said his family has welcomed the boy.
They’ve gone to church and shopped together.
Good knows Christopher could be taken from him at any time and placed back with his parents. So he said he’s teaching the toddler to be self-sufficient.
“God only knows what he could go back to, where he might have to protect himself or take care of himself at a very young age,” Good said.
Ricki Casterline, director of programs for Jonathan’s Place, said Good is doing a great job.
Casterline loves the structure he’s put into Christopher’s life. She said structure is something missing from the lives of most of the children she sees.
And Casterline would like more LGBT singles and couples to become foster parents through her agency or another one that welcomes LGBT parents. Fostering can be a challenge, and after just a few weeks as a foster parent, Good had some advice.
“Have a great support system,” he said.
Among the members of Good’s support system is Judy Erickson, his friend, neighbor and doctor. Erickson has also fostered as a single parent, and she said as many as 40 percent of foster parents nationally and a third of adoptive parents are single. Before about 1970, only married couples could foster in the U.S.
Marissa Gonzalez, a representative from the state Division of Child Protective Services, said it’s unclear how many LGBT foster parents there are in Texas.
“We don’t track gay, straight, single, married,” Gonzalez said.
In 2005, right-wing Texas legislators attempted to ban gay foster parenting, but the proposal died amid concerns about increased costs to the state, as well as opposition from Equality Texas and other pro-LGBT groups.
Gonzalez said agencies like Jonathan’s Place and CPS are looking for a wide variety of homes, and people with diverse backgrounds. The goal is to have many options to find a great fit for every child.
“The process is intensive,” she said. “The first thing we’re looking for is people who have the desire and willingness.”
She said the process to become a foster parent is designed to weed out those who might not be the best fit for the program. As prospective foster parents train, either the agency or the prospective foster parents might decide it’s not a good fit.
“It can be hard to have a child in your home and then let them go later on,” Gonzalez said. “If that’s going to be hard on you, think of adoption.”
That happened to Erickson. The 2-year-old she fostered was returned to family members. She plans to foster again but is taking a break first as she recovers emotionally from the loss.
Gonzalez said some people feel they have a calling to take care of children temporarily until they can go on to a better life.
Johnson said the first step to becoming a foster parent is to attend an orientation, which he conducts for Jonathan’s Place. He said orientation is a time for those who might be interested to get questions answered.
Johnson said orientation can help people decide whether they should pursue fostering or adoption. Fostering to adopt, the path Good chose, is a third alternative.
After orientation, prospective foster parents must attend a series of classes on a variety of topics including CPR and first aid, medication administration, behavior intervention techniques, and policies and procedures. The program is coincidentally called PRIDE — Parents Resource Information Development Education.
Every foster parent must also do 40 hours of supervised observation at Jonathan’s Place — interacting with children at the campus in Garland.
At Jonathan’s Place, one of the programs is long-term residential treatment for 10- to 17-year-old girls suffering from low self-esteem, poor coping skills, eating disorders and depression. All are behind in school. Some are questioning their sexual orientation. Many have already unsuccessfully navigated the foster system.
Casterline said most of the girls she’s seen in the residential program have been sexually abused and some have drug problems.
At his last orientation, Johnson asked the girls to talk to prospective foster parents. He said they jumped at the chance.
They talked about their bad experiences — parents buying clothes for their biological children and not for them, taking the family out to dinner while leaving them home, going on vacation and not taking them along.
Johnson said those experiences mirror his own. He was in third grade when he first entered the foster system and lived in five foster homes, in addition to 10 to 15 temporary or group homes, through high school.
Johnson described the first foster family he lived with as having “just stepped off the Mayflower.”
He said another foster family went on vacation and placed him in a temporary respite facility, which left him feeling like a dog put in a kennel.
Because gays and lesbians have often been marginalized, he believes that as foster parents, they’re more likely to pour love on children and never marginalize them.
Casterline agreed. She also said all new parents have trepidation, but Jonathan’s Place walks them through the process. She said she encourages prospective foster parents to ask questions.
“The more the better,” she said.
That helps them with their parenting skills and helps her get to know the new parents better. She said she tries to place children in the home she thinks is the best fit.
“If I call you, I seriously think you’re a good match,” she said.
Johnson said that in all his years in the foster system, no one spent that time trying to place him with the right family. He said no one matches children to parents better than Casterline.
While some people wait longer for a placement, Jonathan’s Place rushed to finish the paperwork on Good’s home study so Casterline could place Christopher with him.
Good said Jonathan’s Place did a good job preparing him for the experience but Casterline said no one can ever be completely prepared. She said the best parents don’t have some preconceived expectations of what foster parenting should be.
“These kids have problems,” she said.
The best parents are extremely flexible. Children are usually placed in foster homes with just hours notice.
Good said there are some things he did to prepare for an eventual placement. He had already explored daycare in his area and had babysitters lined up and cleared by the agency. He spoke to people at work and switched to an earlier shift when Christopher arrived.
“I prepared everyone for the unexpected,” he said.
Prospective foster parents can choose several factors — age range, sex, number of children. Good wanted a boy because he didn’t trust himself to teach a girl things she needed to know as she got older. He asked for a child up to age 7. And he didn’t think he could handle a family group, so he asked for just one.
Erickson asked for a girl and also wanted a younger child, but wasn’t ready for a newborn. As many children as she’s seen in her practice, she had no experience bottle-feeding a baby.
Casterline said the biggest needs are foster parents for family groups so siblings won’t be split up, and for older children.
Johnson said of all the foster parents with whom he lived, the person he thinks of as his mom was single. And the religious couple that were his first parents still keep in touch and come to some of his concerts.
He called the interaction between foster parents and children “a weird psychological game.” He said the children may be happy to be someplace safe, but they never asked to be there. Often they’re scared.
They might ask themselves, “Is this the family I’m going to be with for the rest of my life?” he said. “What if I don’t like them?”
Half a million children live in foster care in the U.S., according to a 2007 study by the Urban Institute.
Gay and lesbian parents are raising more than 3 percent of foster children in the U.S. LGBT fostering saves the U.S. as much as $130 million, and without LGBT parents as many as 14,000 children would be homeless, the study showed.
Good said he thinks more members of the LGBT community should become foster parents.
“I would recommend going through a place like Jonathan’s Place where they’re a little more rigorous,” he said.
Each day has presented him with new challenges, but he said the intensive training and licensing process left him well prepared to welcome Christopher into his life.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 9, 2012.
To foster through Jonathan’s Place, call 972-303-5303 and tell them you are interested in attending a foster parent orientation.