Tennessee Kids Belong: Ending the Crisis for Kids in Foster Care

Emily Graffius, Community Relations Coordinator, Tennessee Kids Belong

It’s 7 p.m. and I get a call from the Department of Children's Services.

“Can you take a baby tonight?”

It’s the middle of my work day and I get a call about a brother and a sister. I’m in the hustle of after-school craziness and running a meeting in an hour.

“There’s a boy that needs a place to stay tonight.”

(Pictured above: Graffius, her husband and son)

Foster care is a roller coaster of ups and downs. It’s been completely worth it for our family and our biological kids to learn to love and welcome children into the fabric of our lives. These children become a forever part of our family, whether they’ve reunified with their families or we’ve adopted them. Foster care exists to give children a safe place to land while their families are working on becoming safe for reunification, which is the first goal of foster care. 

As a foster mom, I say yes to loving a child as my own for an unknown season and I say yes to letting them go when it’s determined by the courts for the child to go to a family member for permanency.

The main thing I hear when people find out I’m a foster parent is, “I could never do that because I could never let them go,” and my response to this is that we’ve all done hard things. We’ve all loved and lost. Our hearts can break a little for their hearts to heal a lot. It’s not the child’s fault that they need your home for one of the hardest seasons of their life. I say yes because the vulnerable children in our community need us.

I work for Tennessee Kids Belong (TKB), and we equip the community to dramatically improve the experience and outcomes for children in foster care.TKB was instrumental in launching TN Fosters Hope, Gov. Lee’s new foster and adoptive initiative in Tennessee for 2021. One goal is to find more foster-friendly businesses as we aim to make Tennessee the most foster-friendly state in our nation.

My husband and I are foster parents and both work full-time. We have five kids including biological children, adopted children and one child in foster care. When we get a call, I say yes with my husband, if we think it’ll be a good fit for our family, and the child is in our home within a couple of hours. We learn as much as we can about the child but there are so many unknowns. The first two weeks are intense as you learn about the child and everyone in the home adjusts to the new addition or additions. There are needs to take sibling groups and teens. Can you imagine going through such a hard thing as coming into foster care and being separated from your siblings or having to sleep at the DCS office because there are no homes available?

Chris Welch and his wife, Rachael, work at TVA and are foster parents through Chambliss Center for Children.  

“People ask if you get attached to the kids; you always get attached to the kids,” Chris Welch says. “People ask if it is sad when they leave or if it hurts; it is always emotional. You are happy if the ending is a good one, but you'll miss them. Our hearts have an amazing capacity for loving others. There is no sharing or dividing our hearts when we foster. To foster in the best way, you open yourselves up, be extremely vulnerable and figure out how best to have a positive impact on these kids. We all have the chance to change their trajectory.”

Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back. 

“Meals being cooked during that first bit of transition of a new placement have been extremely helpful,” Welch reiterates.

We’ve taken a child in the middle of a pandemic. Since Walmart was now closing early, we had no access to the things she needed but our friends found a dollar store that was open. Friends brought meals for two weeks, brought over clothes and shipped packages from other states.

Everyone doesn’t have to be a foster parent to help a foster child. Regardless of your occupation, skillset or life stage, you have the unique ability and opportunity to impact the lives of children in foster care. If you know of a foster family, don’t say, “Let me know when you need something.” Instead ask them, “Can I bring a meal Tuesday or Thursday?” See if they need their lawn mowed and help. Send a gift card for a restaurant or the grocery store. Offer to help with the children. Foster parents do get a stipend to help with costs but extra help is much appreciated. It can be isolating and there’s a lot families can’t share in order to keep the child’s privacy safe.

It takes about six to nine months to get fully licensed to become foster parents, depending on how long it takes to get background checks done, home study completed, etc. It’s an involved process and that makes sense. It’s hard to know how long kids will stay and it takes time for a child to be reunified. Sometimes when reunification can’t happen and there’s no family available to take the child, adoption is a possibility. We’ve adopted two of our sons through foster care and we’re so blessed to have these precious souls as a part of our family forever.

I say yes because the vulnerable children in our community need us. You can say yes too. To bring a meal to a foster family, get connected with our local Chattanooga Area Foster Adoptive Association. You can also donate to support nonprofits in the trenches with the families. You can donate to the Foster Closet that serves our area. If you feel the nudge to become a foster family, now is the time. We need foster families more than ever.

If you have questions, email me at [email protected]. I'm happy to help.

Q&A with Local Foster Parent Rachel Grissinger 

Rachel Grissinger and her wife work at Erlanger and are foster parents through the Department of Children's Services. 

Q: What do you want the general public to understand about foster care? 

A: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about foster care and children in foster care is that they are unwanted or unloved by their bio parents. A large majority of kids in care have parents that truly love them but are products of disadvantages that led them into their situations.

Another myth about foster care is that the children in it are damaged. Children in care did absolutely nothing to get themselves there. The behaviors seen in kids in care are reactions to trauma. These kids have no control over the trauma they are exposed to and don’t have the capacity to process it in healthy ways, which presents as 'unwanted' behaviors.

Bio parents are not the enemy. Most of them were kids once too who probably should have been in foster care. As foster parents we have the opportunity to model healthy relationships and parenting to families and kids.

Also, foster care is not a cheap way to adopt.

Q: What's been the best part of being a foster parent?

A: One of the best experiences is getting to be such an important part of these kids' lives. The impact they will have on your heart and soul is immeasurable. If you're doing it right, being a foster parent also forces personal growth. I have had my prior views of parents, kids, behavior, etc. rocked when faced with situations in real life, not just in theory.

Q: How has someone helped you as a foster family? What's meant the most? 

A: Our friends and family have been invaluable. We have had so many loved ones offer help either by babysitting, buying items and just checking in on us. We have also recently received a WRAP team from a local church that has offered us great support.

Q: If someone was considering becoming a foster parent, what would you tell them? 

A: I would tell them to evaluate themselves and be sure they are in it for the right reasons. Foster care can be hard on all aspects of our lives. It can also be the best thing you have ever done but you have to be able to compartmentalize your feelings with the best interest of the children, that can be two different things at times. Also do your research, learn as much as you can and don't let the horror stories people tell you scare you away.

Q: Tell me about how you keep up with some of the children that have reunified.

A: We have only had one very short term placement leave and go to family. We were not able to make connections with the family but do get little updates from his caseworker.

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