Michele Calloway began taking in foster kids in the early 1980s. Since then, she has fostered more than 100 children, for varying lengths of time. In the Calloway home, there are Saturday morning football games, trips around the city, and new clothes when possible.
“I never wanted them to be ashamed of where they live,” says Calloway. “I never wanted them to be feel that they were any different than anybody else.”
From trips to Eastern Market to Calloway’s husband teaching them heating and cooling repair, the family provided as stable a life as possible. Years later, former foster children have come back to thank her for caring.
More than 10,000 Michigan children are currently in foster care, and many face challenges beyond the hurdles youth usually face in their formative years. Samaritas is Michigan’s largest private foster care agency, responsible for the placement of 15% of the children in the state’s program.
Foster care is always the last resort and reunification with the parents is the goal, says Laura Mitchell, Executive Director of Foster Care for Samaritas. She says keeping siblings together is also always ideal, but when it is not possible the state of Michigan requires children to be allowed to see their siblings monthly to help emotional stability.
“If children are removed from home, the court also has to agree to that petition to remove the children, but the intent is to keep families whole and intact,” says Mitchell.
Laura Mitchell, Executive Director of Foster Care for Samaritas. Photo Supplied.
Samaritas foster parents Kyle and Erin Schneider of Macomb County knew that they would take in foster kids or adopt when they got married in 2015. Now, the couple are fostering three siblings, ages three to five, who have lived with the Schneiders since they were 16 months, 8 months, and a few days old. They needed help getting set up, though.
“We weren't expecting [the youngest], and we didn't have infant supplies,” says Erin Schneider. “So, I reached out to the Macomb County foster care closet. They arranged for us to come in right away and gave us a bouncer […] a car seat and a ton of clothes and diapers.”
Like many foster parents, the Calloways and Schneiders agree that successful fostering would not be possible without a wide support group. Not only do communities provide emotional support and donated necessities, but family members also watch the kids when the foster parents cannot be home.
Melody Gouldman’s foster experience wasn’t as positive. Her mother died when she was six and her older sister was just eight and not able to take care of her, so she entered foster care.
Gouldman, now 17, was sent to a variety of homes across the state, and says that in many she was treated poorly. At 15 she went to live with her sister, who had a child at that time, but said she felt like a live-in nanny. Despite her past experiences, she reentered the foster care system by choice. Finally, with the help of her case worker, she found a home in Caro where she felt cared for.
Now, approaching age 18, she is aging out of foster care, and says her new family are helping her develop and prepare. She says she has also found time to get to know herself and think about what she wanted to do with her life.
Even though she faced her own foster care challenges before arriving in Caro, she has mentored girls who were new to the system, letting them know their rights. For example, the right to see their siblings and parents. That was not always the case in years past.
“The state did not extend their arm to the birth parents like they do now,” says Calloway, who was reaching out to the natural parents back in the ‘80s.
To assist children aging out of the system, Samaritas has an independent living program for participants reaching adulthood. The program helps set them up with jobs, take control of their own schedule, and teach them life skills. Gouldman, who started getting those lessons in her final foster home, says she found independent living very useful. She found hobbies and is now working towards becoming a beautician.
Independent living and reaching out to parents are ways foster care is evolving over time, especially after feedback from foster children and parents.
Gouldman says she often felt frustrated with the system in the past, and hopes things continue to improve for the next group of foster kids. Her suggestions include requiring foster parents to meet nutritional guidelines and better communication between foster kids and the system.
The Calloways and the Schneiders note there are ways to help without becoming a foster parent, like donations of clothes, necessities, or time. One of the most common questions they get is about concerns that foster parents might “get too attached,” to which they have a simple response:
“You do have to realize that foster parents do get attached and that's kind of the whole purpose of it is that we need to attach to these kids because they need to know that they are loved,” says Erin Schneider.