Over the past 16 years, Dr. John DeGarmo and his wife Kelly have welcomed 55 children in foster care into their home and hearts. While the children were in their care, the family provided them with much more than the basics of food, clothing and shelter. They gave them the unconditional love and support every child needs to grow into a healthy adult.
On September 22, Dr. DeGarmo, who has also devoted his professional life to serving children in foster care, will be the featured speaker at our Foster from the Heart conference. As a primer for the free event, Dr. DeGarmo graciously agreed to participate in this Q&A.
How has fostering changed you as a person?
Foster parenting has been the most difficult “job” I have ever done. But it is by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done, as well. Without a doubt, I am a far better person for each experience and a far richer person for each child who has come to be a part of my life.
What is your single most memorable moment as a foster parent?
Oh, so many. I have watched children smile for the first time, heal from abuse and learn how to trust again. I have also adopted three children from foster care. So many wonderful memories!
What is the truth behind what you consider to be the most common misconception about fostering?
Despite what some people think, foster parents are NOT in it for the money. In truth, taking care of children in foster care can be financially straining and even stressful. To be sure, foster parents are reimbursed for many things. But we often spend our own money to give the children in our care the same opportunities other children have, whether that means a special birthday celebration, a memorable Christmas or a family trip.
Are there certain qualities every foster parent should have?
You don’t need to own a big house, have lots of money or even be married. You just need a heart for children and a passion for helping children in need.
You have three biological children. Has it been hard for them when you bring new children into your home? If so, how did you ease the transition?
We have been fostering for 16 years, and my oldest child is 21, so fostering is a lifestyle for us. Of course, that won’t be the case for everyone. As I wrote in The Foster Care Survival Guide, when you decide to become a foster family, you need to prepare yourself and your children. After all, their lives are going to change, too. Your children will not only be sharing their home, but they will be sharing you, their parents. This can be difficult for them to understand, and they will need your support more than ever. One way my wife and I show our support is by including our children in deciding whether to bring a new child into our home.
How has the opioid epidemic impacted the foster care system, and what can be done about it?
The opioid crisis is straining America’s foster care system. There are not enough foster homes for the approximately 450,000 children currently in care. Now, more children are entering the system every day because their parents are in jail or, tragically, deceased because of opioids. We have to work together as legislators, foster care agencies, health care providers and as a community to:
- Deliver more resources and help to families before a child is removed and placed into foster care.
- Increase awareness about the dangers of opioids, not only to those who take them, but to their unborn children.
- Improve care to children who are born addicted to the drugs in their system.
There are thousands of teens in foster care and a common misconception is that fostering teens is more challenging than fostering younger kids. What are the rewards in fostering teens?
Oh, there are so many rewards. Just last year, I had three high school seniors living in my home, and two of them were homeless. There were certainly challenges, but there were also so many joys and adventures. It was a house full of laughter and discovery. I would not have changed a thing about it.
All children in foster care have suffered trauma. We know that trauma impacts education in many ways. As a doctor in education, a former teacher and a longtime foster parent, can you explain how foster parents can help ensure their children get the best education possible?
Well, as I write in the book Helping Foster Children in School, foster parents NEED to be advocates for their children’s education. Children in foster care are typically about 18 months behind academically. There are bound to be behavior challenges, as well. Here are five things you can do right now to help the children in your care succeed:
- Reach out to teachers and stay updated on your children’s progress.
- Volunteer in the school.
- Encourage children to become active in after-school activities.
- Take an interest in your children’s school work, and make sure they do it to the best of their ability each evening.
- Help your children study and praise them when they do well.
- If you have young children in the early years of school, help them with their spelling and writing skills, read to them each evening, or listen to them read to you.
What unique safety risks does today’s digital world expose children in foster care to, and how can we protect them?
Where do I start? As I note in the book Keeping Foster Children Safe Online, human trafficking, cyberbullying, and pro-suicide sites are just the beginning of these challenges. Quite simply, foster parents need to be vigilant in monitoring their child’s online access and use. Here are just a few ways to keep a child safe online: Know their passwords, monitor which sites they visit, know who their social media friends are and put protective filters and software in place.
Upbring invites you to meet Dr. DeGarmo and hear more about his experiences during the Foster from the Heart Conference on September 22 in Flower Mound. The conference is open to foster and adoptive parents, social workers, counselors, child protection staff, educators and anyone else interested in child welfare. Limited seats for the free event are still available, so register today. We hope to see you there!