Best Self Articles
Honoring Foster Moms

Honoring Foster Moms

 
Atlanta’s foster families give children
 in crisis the hope and love they need

By Amy Meadows

The statistics are as staggering as they are heartbreaking. “Foster care is a desperate crisis in Georgia and in the U.S.,” says Lynette Ezell, adoption and foster care advocate for Send Relief and creator and co-host of the podcast “Adopting and Fostering Home.” “We have approximately 14,300 [children] in the state’s foster system. There has been an 
88 percent increase in the number of children in the system over the past five years. In Georgia, 700 of those age out of the system each year without a family. Today, in Fulton County alone, there are 757 foster children and 515 additional foster homes needed to help protect them. Sixty-eight percent of them had to be placed outside of their known communities because there weren’t enough available homes in Fulton County. We have to accept the reality that brokenness is all around us, and our state’s foster children are our responsibility.”

Since 2018, Ezell has helped train foster families through FaithBridge Foster Care, a private agency that partners with local churches to work toward solving the foster care crisis. It’s one of several comparable organizations across Atlanta that is striving tirelessly to find safe temporary homes for children in need, matching welcoming families to young people of all ages who require both respite and ongoing care. In many cases, those children are waiting for reunification with their biological families; in others, they may be looking for forever homes through an eventual adoption. Whatever the situation, they have to have open arms that can give them support and love as they prepare to move in the future.

“The rewards of opening one’s life to a hurting child are immeasurable,” notes Ezell, who became an adoptive mother 18 years ago and saw great need in the foster community after moving to Georgia from Kentucky a decade ago. “If we’re lucky, we all have about 70-plus years to do something significant, something that is eternal. To make a difference in the life of a child is to change a part of the world, to truly change their 
future forever.”

In honor of National Foster Care Month, which takes place in May, and Mother’s Day, Best Self Atlanta spoke with local foster mothers about their own experiences of navigating the challenges and reveling in the rewards of giving children in need a safe place to land. These are their stories.

FosterMom 01Bridgitte Ferraro Hatfield
A Servant’s Heart
It was a mission trip to an African orphanage in 2017 that really got Bridgitte Ferraro Hatfield considering foster care. The concept had always been on her mind and her heart, particularly having worked in Catholic social services in the early 2000s and as the co-founder of the nonprofit organization 
Refuse To Do Nothing. Yet, as a wife, mother of six and business leader, the timing never seemed right. Then she took that fateful journey and everything changed. She returned home on a Tuesday, and by that Sunday, she and her husband, Craig, developed a partnership with FaithBridge Foster Care.

“We consulted within our family because it wasn’t about me being a foster mom—we had to be a 
foster family. We all had to be on the same page and on board,” Bridgitte recalls. Soon, the Hatfields, who include children ranging in age from 10 to 21, began the meetings and intensive training that are required to be certified in the state to foster young children. They also sold their home so they could purchase a larger one to accommodate foster sibling groups. Then they bought a car that could fit up to 14 people. With everything in place, they were ready, knowing that they planned to serve strictly as a reunification home, which comes with the primary goal of keeping children safe and happy until they can reunify with their biological parents. 
And not long later, they received their first placements: sibling brothers ages 4 months 
and 15 months.

“That beginning stage is the honeymoon stage. You have three days to get them to the doctor and the dentist, and there’s so much paperwork. The kids are learning a brand new environment, and there are so many emotions going on. You just have to be present. You want to stay in the moment and love on them so hard,” Bridgitte explains. And as she and her family cared for the brothers over the next 11 months, she also came to know their mother well, mentoring her as she strived to retain custody of her children. At that nearly year mark, though, state law required the Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) to find a more permanent arrangement for the boys. With their mother still unable to bring them home, DFCS found “fictive kin,” or a family friend, to take the siblings. “That was heart-wrenching,” Bridgitte admits. “It was difficult because you fall in love with them. You know their schedules, and they call you ‘Mama.’ And when they go, there is a grieving process.”FosterMom 01B

However, Bridgitte continues to be a part of the boys’ lives and mentor their mother. The Hatfields are currently housing their second sibling placement. “I’m a boy magnet,” Bridgitte muses about the 7-year-old and 20-month-old brothers who have joined the household.
“Foster care stretches and shapes you and puts you back together,” Bridgitte concludes. “I have a servant’s heart, and our children are also able to have a servant’s heart. They’ve opened their hearts and their home to children they’ve never met before. As a family, we’ve always been a tight group, but this has elevated us. The bar has been raised.”

FosterMom 02Sharon Koerber

An Unexpected Blessing
Sharon and Michael Koerber were surprised when they were told they would not be able to have any more children. After she gave birth to their first son, they planned to expand their family as soon as possible. However, her doctor told her that it was a miracle their first child was born. And Sharon simply could not imagine not having another child in their home.
“We both have good relationships with our siblings, and we love having kids in our home,” Sharon says. “We love a full house.”
The couple had considered becoming a foster home before, but the medical news accelerated their desire to become involved. They have friends who have fostered, so they decided to begin the process with a local private agency and completed all of the training and preparation. Unfortunately, that agency was more focused on adoption, and the Koerbers wanted to foster only. So they transitioned to Giving Children A Chance of Georgia (GCAC) in 2010. By January of 2011, they received news that a newborn baby boy needed a foster home. They brought him home—and he became their second son.
“We adopted that baby,” Sharon recalls through tears. “It was the greatest gift. We wanted to provide for children in need, and while adoption wasn’t a motivator for us to foster, we were so grateful.” That baby boy is now 9 years old, and he is one of three sons, as Sharon soon found out after the adoption that she—miraculously—was pregnant again. And although they ended up with the full house they had always dreamed about, the Koerbers continued to be part of the foster community, taking in girls predominantly under the age of 3.
“We have had five to seven long-term placements and 20 to 30 respite situations,” she says. And no matter how long the children remain with the family—from a few days or weeks to several months—the family strives to provide as much comfort as possible. “We always want the child to feel safe and part of the family,” Sharon continues. “They are welcomed into the family. And we make sure to ask each of our kids individually how they feel about each foster scenario before we welcome them into our home. They are valued in this. We do this together, and it gives us a unified purpose.”

Of course, when the foster children are either reunified with their biological families or receive new forever families, there is always a feeling of sadness and grief. So the family often takes a bit of time off between each foster placement, as sustainability is very important to them. The Koerbers feel that it is a great learning experience for their boys, and they plan to continue fostering for as long as they feel called to serve. As Sharon says, “This is what our family does. I’m hoping that my children will have love and empathy for all people. I want them to see a need and act. And they’re seeing that through what we do. It gives them a sense of responsibility, and as much as it hurts to let go, the benefit is greater.”FosterMom 03

FosterMom 04Mary Kathryn Kaye

A Complete Family
Mary Kathryn Kaye was surprised when a foster care trainer from Giving Children A Chance of Georgia (GCAC) said to her, “Families that come into fostering to adopt often have heartache. They may be placed with foster child after foster child and never have one who is in a position to be adopted. And many of those who come in just to be fosters will end up adopting.”  
Mary Kathryn never expected to be in that latter group. She and her husband, Wes, along with their son, who was born when Mary Kathryn was 39, planned to be a foster family only. But in October of 2016, they received a call about a five-pound, three-week-old baby girl. The plan was to reunify her with her biological grandmother, the primary caregiver, at some point. But the child was ill and required a great deal of medical attention. The Kayes happily brought her into their home as a foster and cared for her, supporting her through an array of medical issues, including a frightening bout with respiratory failure at seven weeks old. After about a year, Mary Kathryn, now 54, was told that the little girl would need to find a forever home, as being restored to her biological family was no longer an option.
“In October of 2018, she became a legal member of our family,” Mary Kathryn says. 
“Our son is 16, and now he has a 3-year-old sister. Fostering changed our lives in the most wonderful way when most families, at this age, start going in different directions with children becoming more independent. But for us, it wasn’t just like two parents fostering because our son was so committed. We all really worked together. And it added so much to our lives that we didn’t know we were lacking. We didn’t realize how much we would benefit from this.”
Today, the Kayes serve as a respite family for GCAC, usually accepting infants who need a temporary home. And she credits the agency with their ability to navigate the foster process so seamlessly. “Private agencies are skilled at working with DFCS and the system. It can be overwhelming,” she notes. “As foster parents, it’s easier to have an advocate and someone who can be the bridge to guiding the family and working with the state. And Giving Children A Chance of Georgia is the best—they prepared us in the most practical and realistic way.”
Mary Kathryn and her family, including her now healthy daughter, plan to continue fostering for as long as it’s possible. “It’s scary to take in a child, but it puts life in perspective,” she concludes. “To foster a child is something positive I am able to do in the world. It makes me feel good, and I’m able to participate in the world in a meaningful way. It’s just the greatest thing we’ve ever done.”FosterMom 05

Sources
Division of Family & Children Services, www.dfcs.georgia.gov
FaithBridge Foster Care, www.faithbridgefostercare.org
Giving Children A Chance of Georgia, www.gcacofgeorgia.co