Part Eight

How fostering can affect parents’ biological children

In the basement of Scott and Laura Beth Russell’s Brentwood home are several bins holding all manner of children’s clothing they have either purchased or had donated by friends and family.

The bins are sorted by size and gender, and they’re arranged for easy access when items are needed. As relatively new foster parents, the Russells never know when it’s time to grab a pair of shorts and T-shirt for a girl or a pair of shoes and socks for a boy.

“A lot of the kids come with just the clothes they are wearing, and you don’t know how long they’re staying,” Laura Beth said. “You don’t know if they’re going to be here a day, a week, a month, or however long.”

Such is the nature of fostering. The Russells have been at it since May, having fostered more than 20 kids for varying lengths of time, and no matter how organized they’ve tried to make their system — clearly labeled clothing bins, for instance — there is always a new twist.

“You’re trying to create stability, routine and structure for these kids in a situation that allows for no routine, no stability and no structure,” Laura Beth said.

“One of the biggest challenges is not knowing, the uncertainty. But when we think about the uncertainty for these kids, it pales in comparison. 

"Every single kid in foster care has trauma, every single one of some form or another,” she added. “Just the fact they’re in foster care is traumatic in and of itself, so trying to combat all of that along with everything else is purposeful, it’s worthwhile. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we’re learning things every day.”

Adjusting to fostering

The Russells knew early on in their marriage they wanted to foster. It was in their DNA, so to speak. Scott is clinical director for the Baptist Ambulatory Surgery Center in Nashville and Laura Beth has been a teacher and an administrator in Williamson County Schools for nearly 20 years.

“We definitely knew the need was there,” Scott said. “That’s our background, we take care of people. Her focus is on education and mine is on health care. Our careers are based on service to others, and this [fostering] is kind of an extension on how we do that. We’ve always said we wanted to do this.”

In time, however, Lexi and Michael came on board. Now 13 and 10, respectively, the couple’s biological children took priority, of course, but the idea to foster still simmered in the Russells’ minds and hearts. Actually taking that first step, however, stayed on the horizon for a time.

“Initially we didn’t want to do it with having our own kids here,” Scott explained. “We were fearful for what that would mean for them, but I think our kids are pretty well adjusted. We felt like it was something we could handle.”

After going through the early preparation, the PATH (Parents As Tender Healers) classes and the home studies, the Russells were approved by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services last spring and welcomed their first foster children around Memorial Day weekend. While their home has been a revolving door of children staying for as short a time as one night to others remaining for a couple of weeks or so, the first two kids they fostered have been with them throughout. In fact, the brother and sister returned this month to their original home.

New look on ‘what’s out there’

Meanwhile, the experience has given Lexi and Michael a fresh focus on what it means to take care of others who may be in need, as well as a renewed sense of the county they call home.

“We kind of live in this bubble here in Williamson County,” Scott said, “where you think everybody has a house, everybody has a car, and yet there’s this whole other world out there. And I think some of this [fostering experience] has exposed them to that and has given them some perspective on their life versus what’s out there.

“I think it’s been really good for them. It doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some struggles along the way, but we’ve always let them know to be honest with us and let us know how they’re feeling.”

Lexi, an eighth grader, said the coming and going of what are basically strangers in her home has had its challenges, but she has grasped the value of the good her family is doing.

“It’s a lot of people, all the time, but it’s fun to get to help people,” she said. “Some of them will come from a decent situation and some have been homeless, so it’s a lot of different stuff. It’s made me realize how blessed I am.”

Laura Beth said she can certainly see how their six-month trek into foster care has helped the family to grow, despite the challenges fostering may present.

“I think it’s helped us as a family to be more cohesive,” she said. “That’s ironic really, because one of the most frequent questions I get is, How are the kids handling it? How are Lexi and Michael doing? Well, it depends on the day, just like any other sibling situation. But I think they are so much closer than they have ever been.”

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