How Fostering Can Transform a Child’s Life

When Ashley and Riley Hurd first began to think about having a family, they made a plan — to have one biological child, then adopt another, opening their home to a child in need. But after their son Riley IV was born, when they started exploring adoption, they discovered a much bigger need: many children entering the foster care system, but not enough foster homes.

They also discovered that because many potential foster parents are looking ultimately to adopt, there was an urgent need for families willing to take children not expected to remain in the system long. “At the same time that we heard about these needs,” says Riley, an attorney specializing in land use issues, “we were learning about the scientific benefits of fostering, and how taking a child even for a short period of time and giving such kids love and contact can actually change the brain pathways, could change the trajectory of their lives, even if they returned to a less than desirable situation. And that changed our plan.”

As of this date, the Hurds have fostered four little girls, ranging in age from 6 months to 18 months at the time they arrived, who remained with the family for up to 11 months. All four are still actively in the Hurds’ lives, even though three reunited with their parents and one was adopted by close friends. “At this point we’ve never had to give a child away forever, which we know is unusual, but we’re so grateful because it has allowed us to build this extended family,” says Ashley, an event planner. “At any given time I have three or four different car seats in the car because I don’t know who I’m going to be picking up that day.” She wants to be clear, however, that letting go of a child after bonding with him or her over a period of months or years is painful — and she acknowledges that this is one of the concerns that prevents many people from becoming foster parents.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it: it’s not easy — giving them back can be like mourning the loss of a child,” she says. “But for me, personally, I feel like it was my calling to help take care of these children until they can find their forever home. And I know that now they can transfer that attachment to another human being. It’s just a selfless type of love that you find a way to give.”

Many Layers of Support

Ashley also helps raise awareness on such issues as board president of the Marin Foster Care Association, which provides a network of services to foster and former foster children and people caring for them in any framework, foster, adoptive or biological. Offerings include support groups, teen coaching, and a community resource center that takes donations and equips foster parents with clothes, baby and school supplies, toys and other essentials. Donations and grants cover the costs of sending kids to after-school enrichment, tutoring and sports programs.

“These kinds of services are so important, because we know that families are more likely to continue to foster if they have good support,” says Bree Marchman, Child Welfare Division Director for Marin County Children and Family Services (CFS).

To extend this network further, CFS recently launched Friends of the Family, which connects foster families with trained volunteers who deliver cooked meals, drive foster kids to activities and appointments, and help out in other ways. “It’s a huge ask, becoming a foster parent, and not everyone can make that commitment, even if their heart is in it,” says Leslie Fields, a CFS recruitment and support specialist. “But we want people to know there are all sorts of ways they can get connected to the foster community and help these families.” This mission couldn’t be more important, because in Marin, as in communities across America, there is a severe shortage of foster homes. In 2019, Marin had 121 kids in foster care; 37 percent were placed out of county.

When the Hurds started exploring adoption, they discovered a much bigger need: many children entering the foster care system, but not enough foster homes.

A third of those went to homes of relatives or extended family, but the rest were sent to live with strangers far away. “We have kids in Stockton, Concord, Sacramento, Oakland and as far away as Long Beach and Los Angeles,” says Fields. “They are often in a community they’ve never even visited.”

The children entering foster care span all ages and backgrounds. In 2019, 34 children entered foster care in Marin for the first time; of those, nine were babies age 1 year or younger, 9 were ages 2 to 5, 11 were between 6 and 12, and five were teenagers 13 to 17. The shortage of homes is most serious for teenagers, particularly teenage girls. Children are removed from their original family household when a parent’s behavior puts them at risk. While physical and sexual abuse do occur, the majority of cases, in Marin and nationwide, are attributable to general neglect. “We see a lot of situations in which the parent isn’t providing for very basic needs, like food and shelter, leading to a safety risk for the child,” says Marchman, “or there’s a lack of supervision, like we find the child wandering in the street at night.” A parent’s involvement with drugs or alcohol or mental illness are often factors. Nationwide, in 2018, of the 163,500 children entering foster care. 94,400 were there because of a parent’s sub-stance abuse, up from 92,100 in 2017.

One assumption people working in the foster care system are eager to correct is that children who endured neglectful or abusive situations are different from other kids or are permanently scarred in ways that prevent them from ever having healthy lives. “Sadly, we have these negative stereotypes and people are nervous; they feel that these are damaged children,” says Fields. “Certainly, they’ve experienced trauma, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive once they’re out of the chaotic situation; in fact, many do really well.”

Learning to Thrive

It was the sudden death of her mother that put Jessica Karner into the foster care system at age 10, along with her older sister, age 12. Their father was alcoholic and unable to take custody, so the girls were placed in a home with a kind and supportive couple who helped them adjust to their loss.

“They were very loving; they did everything you would want a family to do when helping kids in a crisis like that,” Karner recalls. Then the couple had to move out of state, and the sisters were placed in another home, which proved much less kind. “I saw both sides of it, very positive and very negative,” she says, “and I saw what a difference it made to go to a loving home.” Karner and her sister were lucky: their mother’s younger sister, 22 at the time, was able to move them to California, where she and her young husband raised them to adulthood. Now an attorney practicing in Marin and a mother of three, Karner is a financial supporter of Marin Foster Care Association.

“My experience in foster care was short, but it shaped many of my attitudes, giving me a deep sense of how important it is that kids have a place to go,” she says. “I have a lot of admiration for those who step up to help these kids.” The experience was quite different for Cherylee Gillispie, who entered foster care at 13 with her 12-year-old sister. The girls spent six months in an emergency group home, followed by stays with several families before they aged out of the system with no support for getting a start on adulthood. “What happened to me was a long time ago, and there have been many improvements, but the problems still aren’t fixed,” says Gillispie, who is now a leader in the teen program at the Marin Foster Care Association. “Only 6 per-cent of foster kids graduate from college and, after they age out, there’s a high level of housing instability — over 50 percent at some point will experience homelessness.

“These kids have already been traumatized by having to leave their families,” she adds, “and it’s heartbreaking that they also have to leave school, their friends, teachers, coaches and their whole adult support network. That trauma has lifelong consequences — it was devastating for me and took me a long time to get over, when I could have had a much better start in life.”

Stepping Up

Among Marin’s foster parents are some who have dedicated themselves to this way of life for years or even decades. Carol Ihlenburg has fostered more than 50 children in 21 years. She takes primarily babies and toddlers, mostly as newborns straight from Marin General Hospital, where many were treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to detox from drugs their mothers were taking. Ihlenburg was a licensed day care provider when a recruiter asked her to consider fostering. “At the time I thought sure, what does it matter if they’re here 24 hours, I’m already watching them all day,” says Ihlenburg, chuckling. “Of course, I found out there’s a big difference. But I also found that I really loved caring for these babies and getting them healthier than when they first came in.”

Her biological daughter, Jordin, was 5 when the first baby came into the house; now Jordin is 27 and pursuing studies in social work. Ihlenburg and her husband Kris Bradley adopted another daughter, Kylie, who came to them as a foster child at 4 months and returned after family reunification efforts failed.

“It’s fulfilling and it’s challenging. Every time I do this I think, why do I keep going back? And then they call with another baby and I can’t say no,” Ihlenburg says.

Every foster family has a different story about what drew them to the role. After discovering they weren’t suited to be full-time foster parents, Bill Anderson and his wife Susan Brennan began offering respite care, taking children for various lengths of time to give the kids’ current foster parents or reunited biological parents a much-needed break.

“We want to help these people who are really committed to doing this and let them take time off when they need to,” Anderson says. Often the couple has developed ongoing relationships with the children and their parents, foster or biological, and some kids have returned for repeated stays over the years. Many of the dozen-or-so kids Anderson and his wife took in are still in their lives: a 3-year-old boy they first fostered when he was just 7 days old comes back regularly, as does a 5-year-old girl living with her grandmother.

When one of their respite charges joined a basketball team, Anderson signed on to help coach the team, then helped her with college applications: “We’re like grandparents or uncles and aunts.” Recently, when an infant needed tending on very short notice, “I thought well, I’m going to be watching the Niners game, so as long as I’m going to be sitting on my couch for four hours, I might as well do that holding a baby,” he says with a laugh.

Moments like this may seem small, Fields says, but they can make all the difference in a child’s life. “You can’t take back a traumatic experience that a child has had, but you can counteract it with positive ones.”

And foster parents like Anderson, Ihlenburg and the Hurds want people to know how gratifying it can be to participate in this process. “There are so many ways people can be involved,” Ashley says. “We can all be part of helping these kids get a better start.”

FOSTER SUPPORT

A wide range of help is greatly needed to support Marin’s foster children and the dedicated families who care for them. Here are some of the organizations working on the front lines to support foster families and raise much-needed funds, both locally and nationally.

Marin Foster Care Association

MFCA lends support to foster families and guidance for those seeking to become involved. Offerings include a Community Resource Center that stocks supplies such as clothes, baby items, toys and toiletries; support groups for foster parents; and a program supporting teens and their caregivers. Both in-kind and financial donations are accepted. marinfostercare.org

Foster Our Future

This branch of Marin Children and Family Services is devoted to recruiting, training and supporting foster parents.

Friends of the Family

Have a few hours to drive a child to practice, deliver a meal or donate supplies? This new program of CFS connects volunteers with families in need of support. foster.marinhhs.org/friends-family

The National Foster Parent Association

The nonprofit offers multiple services to support foster parents at the national and local level and sponsors Walk Me Home fundraising events. nfpaonline.org

National CASA/GAL Association for Children

The countrywide network recruits, trains and supports court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers, who represent children’s interests in the courtroom and other settings.


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Melanie Haiken is a writer, editor and web project manager based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She operates on two simple assumptions: Everyone has a story to tell. And a story well-told will always find an audience. Her work is characterized by exceptional clarity, depth and insight – no matter the topic covered. Haiken writes for AFARForbes, Via, Yoga Journal and many other national magazines and websites. She has also created award-winning marketing and custom publishing materials and communications campaigns for clients like Adobe, Wells Fargo, Lane Bryant, Kaiser Permanente and Safeway.