"When I got my first child, I just loved it," said Janie Carter, who has cared for about 50 foster children in the last 17 years.
Carter, 54, one of 12 Alexandrians honored recently for serving as foster parents for periods ranging from 12 to 30 years, said that she will continue "as long as I can" to mother the needy, neglected and abused children who become the charges of the Alexandria Dept. of Social Services.
About 130 families open their homes to foster children in the Alexandria area and more homes are needed, a social services department official said.
The number of children entering the foster care program is higher this yea than last, according to social worker Lynn R. Fountain.
"I don't know why," she said. "Last year I would have said it was the state of the economy. It probably still is, to some extent. And more people are becoming responsive to us, are calling in to tell us about children who are being mistreated."
Recalling her years as a foster parent, Janie Carter said that social workers "tell you not to get attached, but you get attached anyway. I raised three sisters, and they still visit me every weekend; they've like my own kids."
Like several other foster parents in Alexandria, Carter, a divorcee who had no children of her own, adopted one of her foster children.He is Earl, now 18, who was placed in her home by city social workers when he was 9 months old.
Ethele Hewitt raised two daughters and a son of her own before she began taking in other people's children. "After my children grew up it seemd so lonesome around the house," she recalled. Hewitt, 73 and a widow, has been a foster parent 21 years and still has one foster child living with her, a man who is now 21.
Another long-term surrogate mother is Ruby Tucker, who proudly shows off the picture of her "grandchild," the infant daughter of a foster child who lived with Tucker and her husband for more than 10 years."
"We have a lot of children who have spent 10 or 12 years with one family," said Kathy Bigalke, of the social services department's office of home finding, licensing and review. "The fewer moves a child makes, the better. It isn't always possible but the ideal situation is to have a child stay in one foster home."
Mayor Frank E. Mann presented certificates to Carter, Hewitt and Mary and Monroe Ross, 16 years of service, at a luncheon for Alexandria foster families.
Certificates were sent to four other couples who were not ablet to attend the luncheon. They are Catherine and Lawrence Leonard, who have cared for children for 30 years; Carlene and Leonard Kline, 16 years; LUvenia and Will Madkins, 20 years, and Hazel and Willie Spradlin, 12 years.
Mildred Watson, who is retiring this summer as supervisor of residential care for the social services of department, spoke at the luncheon, discussing provisions of new child care legislation that will go into effect in July. The law places emphasis on permanent foster care and requires mre reporting, review and planning by social services staff members, she said.
"We don't know yet what differences it will make" in the operation of the foster care program, Watson said. While social workers study implementation of the new law and other aspects of foster care, Watson told the foster parents, "You go on about your business of providing one of the best services there is in the world."
Of the 309 children now in the custody of the Alexandria Social Services Department, 204 are in foster homes. The remainder are in institutions.
In an effort to improve children's chances of staying put in foster homes, Alexandria social workers are working toward establishment of an emergency shelter for children under 12. The shelter would be the home of a qualified foster family where children turned over to the social services department could stay temporarily while social workers evaluate their situations, backgrounds and needs, and make detailed plans for their future care. Sixty-two children under 12 were turned over to the department in the first nine months of this fiscal year.
The social services department has started advertising for a foster family to run the home and hopes to have the emergency shelter in operation by July.
About one-fourth of the children who become wards of the social services agency each year return to their parents within 12 months, she said. "If they're going home at all, they usually will do so within a year. After that, their chances of going home go down every day," Bigalke added.
Only another 10 per cent of the total group of children in the agency's custody go back to their parents annually, after staying in foster care for more than a year, she said. About 20 children yearly are released by their parents for adoption.
About half the children who come under the agency's jurisdiction do so through court orders issued after action is initiated by public officils, usually over the objections of parents. The other half are placed in foster homes after parents ask for help, usually because they cannot find work or housing, Fountain said. In these cases, a court is asked to give the social services department legal authority to take over the children's care.