Michigan needs more foster mothers and fathers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Samaritas-licensed foster parent Sarah Sporny poses among the toys of her son, Mikey, that she and her husband and Mikey's father, Robert, (neither pictured) will share with future foster children at their home in Farmington Hills.

Farmington Hills — Sarah Sporny says she has always had a heart for children. But what she needed was some mac-n-cheese, twin bed sheets and a car seat.

Sporny recalled the phone call in 2016 from a foster care agency worker who said a 6-year-old boy needed a home: would Sarah and her husband Rob, who had obtained their foster care license after intensive training, be ready in hours for their first foster child?

"I asked a lot of questions. There is a lot about a kid. It's important you know what you are getting into," said Sarah, a social worker for 20 years.

The couple met the little brown-haired boy inside a Bob Evans where he was focused on his pancakes.

After a short conversation about making chocolate chip pancakes at his new foster home, the child walked out of the restaurant with the Spornys. And without prompting, while the adults talked, the boy hopped into the back of the family car and belted himself in.

At home, the boy wrapped himself up in a blanket that night and laid on Rob's lap as a movie played. This family of two was suddenly now three.

"It was the sweetest night," Sarah said.

As the nation celebrates all mothers on Mother's Day, Michigan's foster care system is in desperate need of more foster mothers — and fathers — like the Spornys.

The Spornys fostered the child for six months before he was reunited to his biological family. Sarah says she and her husband would do it all over again and are awaiting their next call to foster another child who needs a home.

Samaritas-licensed foster parent Sarah Sporny, of Farmington Hills, talks about being a foster parent and a mother to her 18-month-old son, Mikey.

"It's incredibly rewarding," Sarah said. "It feels incredibly loving. And I found that I really loved parenting, picking him up from school, reading books, nighttime snuggles."

As of April, 13,574 children are in foster care in Michigan. That includes 3,297 in Wayne County, 698 in Oakland County and 613 in Macomb County. Yet there are only 6,000 foster homes ready to take in a child.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s foster care system, says the first step to becoming a foster parent is contacting a Foster Care Navigator, experienced foster parents who can answer questions, help individuals find an agency and provide guidance.

“Foster parents are critically important in helping us meet our mission of protecting the safety and well-being of children,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said.

Children land in foster care who have been victims of abuse and neglect and who need temporary homes to care for them, until they can be safely reunified with their parents or find adoptive homes.

Laura Mitchell, executive director of foster care for Samaritas, a nonprofit that recruits and supports foster care families, supports 900 kids and families in foster care every day. The agency also works with birth parents to restore rights, which is the goal of foster care.

"Foster care is never because of what a child did. It was what was done to them," Mitchell said.

The children have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma, she said.

"All of our kids have some sort of trauma," Mitchell said. "Even just being removed from home. Home is where we are magnetically pulled, and we feel that connection to family. Kids who have experienced trauma don’t know how to process that."

Foster parents are trained on how to recognize and respond to trauma in children.

Foster parent Sarah Sporny, left, and Samaritas Foster Care Case Worker Sara Dingman, right, of Flushing, put a Samaritas sign in Sporny's front yard. May is Foster Care Month in the State of Michigan.

"Often times, kids are seen as bad or naughty kids due to their behavior, but that is their response to trauma," Mitchell said. "It's our role to make sure foster parents are educated on the effects of trauma to a child and also help the child work through that trauma."

Foster care parents see children not only need love and attention but need support to heal, Mitchell said.

"The amount of selfless love and commitment they give to a child who is hurting and has had very difficult life experience is amazing," she said.

Jessica Sweet, a foster and adoptive parent recruitment support and development manager at DHHS, said becoming a foster parent takes a lot of patience and skill. The state uses a specialized program called PRIDE to train parents.

"As much as we try to support and prepare people ahead of time, it's something you can't fully learn until you start doing it," Sweet said. "We ask families to assess what they are capable of, what areas do they need support."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proclaimed May to be Foster Care Month in Michigan to encourage people to consider becoming foster parents and to recognize those who are already doing so.

“Every child deserves a safe, loving and stable home,” Whitmer said. “This month and throughout the year, I hope Michiganders will consider opening up their homes to children in foster care.”

Cathe Hoover, an adoption, guardianship, recruitment and retention program manager at DHHS, said there are a lot of misconceptions about becoming a foster parent.

You do not need to be married or own your own home, Hoover said, and it often takes a person a few years between being curious about foster care and reaching out to a foster care agency to take those next steps.

"A lot of this is word of mouth," Hoover said. "If you know someone who does this you can see this. There is a lot of support and they aren't left on an island. It’s a really big decision people are making for their families."

Samaritas-licensed foster parent Sarah Sporny poses in the family room holding a picture of her then four-month-old son, Mikey, next to a street sign with the family name.  Not pictured is husband, Richard Sporny, Mikey's father. Sporney, a Samaritas-licensed foster parent in Farmington Hills talked about being a foster parent and a mother to her 18-month-old son, Mikey.

Sarah Sporny, who now has an 18-month-old son, said she thinks about her foster son every day although it's been nearly three years since she has seen him.

She said she will think about him on Mother's Day as she celebrates being a mother with her family.

"I absolutely loved my foster son. Sometimes, I say loved, but I still love him," she said. "He hasn't been here for three years, but I love that child."

Sarah says being a foster parent was a good experience, but she knows it's unclear what the next foster care experience may be like.

"It might be better. It might be worse," she said. "So there is always some apprehension on what the next child will be like, but it's worth it, and I am willing to take that chance," she said.

To learn more about foster care, visit www.michigan.gov/hopeforahome.