They were foster parents for 10 years. They sheltered 25 children in their home, adopted two and had one of their own. They even won the Montgomery County Foster Parents of the Year award in 2003. Then, three months ago, Marcia and Christopher Tivoli made a decision they had been dreading: The Gaithersburg couple did not renew their license to be foster parents.
"It was hard," said Marcia. "It gave me a sense of purpose. I enjoy watching the kids, seeing them interact in a loving environment. They come out of their little shells, and they are very joyful."
The decision came not because they were overwhelmed or tired, or because of the difficulties of rearing foster children or having social workers involved in their lives. For the Tivolis, it was because it was just too painful to watch their younger children form bonds with their temporary siblings and then have to sever them when the children returned to their families.
"It was difficult for them to accept that after the child leaves here we're never going to get to see them again," Marcia Tivoli said.
The Tivolis are one of a number of Montgomery County foster families who have opted out of the system for one reason or another.
For the last five years, the number of licensed foster parents has been declining, according to the county's Department of Child Welfare Services. The number of children in foster care also has decreased, though that number still far exceeds the number of available homes.
There are many reasons foster parents opt out. For some, it's because they have gotten older and want to concentrate on other things. Many stop fostering because they have adopted a child, through foster care or a private agency. Others stop because of divorce, a move, retirement or some other lifestyle change.
"There have been times when we've been close to a crisis," said Agnes Leshner, director of Child Welfare Services. "We have some wonderful foster parents, but we need to find available foster parents right away. The crisis comes when we can't find an appropriate placement right away."
In an effort to stop the decline, the county is launching a recruitment drive. Officials say potential participants often have misconceptions about foster parenting -- that they don't have enough time, that it is too difficult, that it is a long commitment. But the truth is, there are many foster care options, said Jeanne Booth, a supervisor at the department's foster and adoptive parent services unit.
"You don't have to assume responsibility for years and years and years," Booth said. "You can be an emergency foster parent. You can be a respite parent if parents need to go on vacation. You don't need to have a long-term commitment."
In 2000, the county had an average of 310 foster families in its system. As of last week, there were 280 (officials attribute a short-lived increase in 2004 to attention attracted by a particular child's case). Foster parents receive training, monthly stipends and child care expenses.
Meanwhile, the number of foster children surpasses the number of available foster homes. This year, there are 563 children, down from 571 last year. About 40 percent of the children are white, 40 percent black and 10 to 15 percent Latino, according to social services officials. Many of the children have been neglected, abused or abandoned. Some of their parents are too poor to care for them properly, suffer from mental illnesses or are addicted to drugs. There are also cases where parents have died.
Officials said the number of foster children is declining because of more aggressive efforts to keep children in their original homes.
Still, each month, about 15 children come into foster care.
Last month, for example, four social workers worked into the night to place three children under 10 who had been abandoned by their parents. At about 11 p.m., a family offered to keep the children for a weekend to give the department more time. Social workers finally located a family that would take two of the children; the third went to different home.
"I think children being removed from their home environment is always upsetting," Leshner said. "When siblings have to be separated, it exacerbates the difficulty of being removed from an environment where you're comfortable."
Officials said that usually it is easier to find homes for younger children.
"A lot of foster parents say, 'You know what, I'll take an 8-year-old, but I won't take a 10- or a 16-year-old,' " Leshner said.
If no homes are available, social workers turn to a small set of foster parents who provide emergency shelter. If none of them are available, the children are put in group homes.
"We are always searching," Leshner said.
'A Good Foundation'
Shannon Berkheimer, a soft-spoken 10 year old, moved in with her second foster family -- the Berkheimers -- when she was 6. Her little sister, Samantha, was 8 weeks old. Two years later, Susan and Dean Berkheimer, of Olney, decided to adopt the sisters.
In her new family, Shannon got a sister and two brothers -- including a "twin" 10-year-old brother. And her own room, she said, smiling.
"I have my own room, too!" offered Samantha, now 3. (She actually shares a room with her adoptive sister, Sara Kate, 6.)
On Shannon's first day in the Berkheimer home, she cried. Now, when the Berkheimers bring home another foster child, Shannon ushers them in with comforting words.
"I tell them that this is a nice place, and you shouldn't be scared," she said. "I tell them I'm glad they came because they can have a home."
The Berkheimers say they probably won't adopt again, but they continue to serve as foster parents.
"There are so many kids out there who don't have a loving home, and then we all look at each other and say, 'Oh, look at all these troubled kids out there,' " Susan said. "If you don't have a good foundation, it's really hard to expect these kids to grow up and be wonderful adults."
As Susan flipped through a book of photographs of foster children who have stayed in their home, all five Berkheimer kids crowded around.
"I loved him," said Keith, 10, pointing to a picture of a small boy.
"Remember, she always cried when we put her down," said Kevin, 12, about an apple-cheeked baby.
Sarah Kate said, "It's fun" to have foster brothers and sisters.
There is a benefit to foster parenting, too, Susan said. Her own kids are more generous, more empathetic.
"They appreciate what they have more," she said.
A Former Foster Child
Ibrahiim Irvin would have liked to have had more choices. The 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore was 15 when he and his five younger siblings were taken from his mother.
He was separated from his brothers and sisters, and the family he ended up living with was different from what he was used to. "They were Christian and the father was a preacher," he said. "I was Muslim."
They were strict, and Irvin was unhappy. After a year he moved in with a family from Jamaica.
"They were island folk, and I could relate to them a lot more because my family's from the islands," he said.
He stayed with them for five years.
"There's a shortage of good [foster parents]," he said. He credits two social workers with getting him through adolescence. He plans to be a foster parent when he's older.
"I want a lot of kids," he said. "And I want to give them the same opportunities I've been given."
Though it is challenging, Donna and David Owens of Rockville have been foster parents for several years.
"There's a lot to do. If you want to do it, you need to make the time commitment," said Donna. "You can't do this halfway."
Last year they adopted their 10-year-old son, but they still are on the list to be foster parents.
"We have the space, and we want to share it with kids who need help," said Donna.
The next information meeting for prospective foster parents is 7:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at 401 Hungerford Dr., Green Room, First Floor, Rockville. For more information, call 240-777-1664 or visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov, click on "Departments," "Health and Human Services," then scroll down to "Child Welfare Services" under "Programs."