The most important part of the Alabama foster care system is the children for whom it cares.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
Wes Akins met Sam in the lobby of Birmingham’s 1917 Clinic where Akins was—and still is—a social worker. Baby Sam, just 3 days old, was handed over to Akins that day. Akins would take the baby home, because at that point, Sam didn’t have a family. As a social worker, Akins had recognized a need in the state of Alabama for foster parents, so he had become one. “I had always wanted children and felt fostering would allow me to see how raising a child would be…the challenges and strengths,” Akins says. “Little did I know, I learned some of the most valuable life lessons that I ever have from the children I fostered.”
Akins and Sam have an unusual story. Akins fostered Sam for an entire year; after that, Sam’s birth mother turned over rights to Akins, who went on to adopt Sam. Now 19, Sam is a dancer. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he dances with the Los Angeles Ballet.
Akins’s and Sam’s story is not unheard of, but fostering doesn’t always—or even usually—end up in adoption. The goal for the futures of most children in foster care is reunification with their biological families once those families are able to care for the children again. Perhaps this—what some see as inevitable heartbreak—is one reason why there are some 5,000 Alabama children in foster care but only 1,600 foster homes. “Eventually, the hardest part of fostering will be accepting that this child or children you have prayed over, loved so greatly, and nurtured through sleepless nights may return to their original home. Every fostering circumstance is different, so reunification may feel like a tragedy or it may feel like a joyful reunion. Either way, the ache of letting go of this child will hurt greatly,” says Natalie Brumfield, a foster parent and director of foster care and adoption at a local church. “But your aim is to love, support, comfort, and give your best with the time that you were given. The ache of letting go is far outweighed by the incredible opportunity of loving this child and their biological family during the most critical crisis of their lives.”
Brumfield has known for many years that she wanted to help children in need. As a young teenager, she went on mission trips to Jamaica, where she worked with a Christian school in place to help children who were deaf. “In past Jamaican culture, they believed that if a child is deaf, then they are demon-possessed. Deaf children there had been badly abused or tied to a tree in order to beat out or starve out ‘the demon’ from them,” she explains. “The children in the villages and at the orphanage were a delight, filled with joy and so loving. I remember holding a little baby with a cast on her arm at the orphanage. When I saw this helpless baby, it broke me. I told my parents I wanted to be a missionary when I grew up. I wanted to have an orphanage so I could take care of children, too. I was then told that there are no orphanages, anymore, in America. We have the institution of foster care instead. ”
Brumfield went on to college and then secured her first job [in publishing], and the desire to care for children never left her. She was especially interested in children who, like the deaf children in Jamaica, were found in crisis in some way. “I remember looking at children’s homes nearby on my lunch break, praying about how God would use me to help them,” she explains. Eventually, she began working at a local church (where she also serves as the children’s director), and felt even more drawn toward children and families caught in the foster care system. Those children have obviously experienced crisis—many of them again and again. “Working within the church, I could see up close the way the American family suffers and their needs. I began praying about foster care again. I saw foster care as another amazing way to help partner with families that needed healing, prayer, and someone to show them love and support,” she says. “I see adoption as the same. These are two beautiful ways that Jesus knits and makes families.” Brumfield and her husband, Matt, began the process of becoming foster parents shortly after they were married in 2013.
To foster, a couple must have been married at least a year (you do not have to be married to become a foster parent, however.) The Brumfields completed their training through the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR), which includes a 10-week class, a home study process, and background checks, and then waited the required amount of time before they were matched. They fostered a few children for a short time before they got the call about the child currently in their home, “B.” Like Sam, B’s case is special because it is likely that he will come available for adoption. When he arrived, B had a number of behavioral and emotional needs brought on from the trauma he’d experienced up until that point—he was 3 years old. When they got the call, the Brumfields had the opportunity to say no to B, something all foster parents may do, as DHR would rather you decline than have a child placed with you whom you don’t feel capable of parenting. Because of B’s needs, he would need to be the only child in the Brumfields’ home while they fostered him, so that was something they had to consider before they said yes. “In foster care, instead of saying behavioral ‘issues,’ we say behavioral ‘needs.’ And that is necessary so that we can begin to understand that it isn’t an ‘issue’ like we so naturally call it. It’s a behavior produced from an unfulfilled need,” Brumfield explains. “A child’s developmental or behavioral repercussions all stem from real needs. Our little boy had lots of needs and it would take a lifetime to answer them all. In this case, they wanted him to enter a childless foster home able to adopt him—so permanency could happen if the court so decided. At that point, we learned there was such thing as ‘fostering to adopt.’ There is a reason we didn’t know it existed: It’s not common in the state of Alabama like it is in other states.”
The Brumfields did agree to take B, knowing that he might one day legally be theirs for keeps. But Brumfield explains that he is theirs for each day they have him, no matter the end outcome. And like all foster families, they’re aware that B may one day be placed elsewhere. As Brumfield pointed out, sometimes that’s for better and sometimes for worse; regardless, it’s the reality of the situation. “Even saying yes to this opportunity does not mean the end result will be that he is our legal son full and clear. Remember, he has a family with extended family who can all have a say in this process. We have to maintain being a safe place that is flexible and uphold the understanding that reunification is on the table, even when it is horrifying for us to imagine,” she says.
Both Brumfield and Akins stress that if you’re looking to adopt, foster care shouldn’t be the avenue you choose to do so (you can, however, apply to DHR as a prospective adoptive parent.) But when Michelle Bearman-Wolnek, executive director and cofounder of the Heart Gallery of Alabama, wanted to adopt, she didn’t even consider doing it through DHR—or domestically at all. Instead, she adopted her two children from Russia. While there is certainly nothing wrong with that, she says now, her heart has changed a bit for the children in the United States, and Alabama in particular, who long for homes. “When my husband and I began the adoption process we didn’t consider adopting from foster care,” she says. “I realized that if a social worker was scared of the ‘system,’ then how would the average citizen view children living in foster care?”
That’s why she started the Heart Gallery of Alabama in 2005. She’d seen an article in Parade magazine about the Heart Gallery of New Mexico and was interested in bringing the concept to her home state. On Valentine’s Day of that year, she and Karen Nomberg reached out to DHR about the possibility of having access to children who were in foster care. When DHR agreed, the Heart Gallery of Alabama (HGA), which was volunteer-run for its first three years, was set into motion.
The idea of HGA is to take these beautiful children from a statistic to the wonderful people they are; the HGA aims to take “foster care kid” out of a child’s description and, for a moment, allow him or her to simply be Brandon or Michael or Gabby. “I felt that the Heart Gallery was a way of changing that [negative] perception and allowing us to show these children in their best light,” Bearman-Wolnek explains. “Potential families could actually ‘picture’ these children as a member of their family. Most of us have been blessed to have many beautiful pictures taken of us over the course of our lives; these children deserve the same chance. Each portrait is much more than a snapshot—it is a chance for a new life.”
Children in the Heart Gallery don’t have an identified family—that means their parents are either deceased or have had their parental rights terminated. Thus, each child in a Heart Gallery exhibit is looking for a permanent home, which is where the HGA comes in to help. Of the 5,000 children in foster care in Alabama, about 350 fit into this category. Through HGA, the children each have a photoshoot where, as Bearman-Wolnek points out, the focus is entirely on them—for some, for the first time in their lives. Then, their photos, a video, and information about the child is uploaded to the HGA website (heartgalleryalabama.com).
The Heart Gallery photo exhibit travels around Alabama, stopping in places like the Birmingham Museum of Art, where it will be this month, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Children in the Heart Gallery are also featured on news sources across the state in the hopes of finding their forever homes. “One of the main reasons I was motivated to help start the Heart Gallery was the common misconception that an older child living in foster care is unadoptable. I truly believe that there is a family out there for every child,” says Bearman-Wolnek. “Many times children in foster care are labeled and only seen for their behaviors and the labels that have been placed on them. Most of these children will thrive in a structured and love-filled environment.” Once a family comes across a child they are interested in adopting, they can contact HGA via their website and be connected with the right association to follow through. (It differs depending on whether the interested family is in Alabama or out of state.)
Bearman-Wolnek echoes both Akins and Brumfield when she says that while the “system” is a broken one, it’s broken on account of the circumstances that demanded it into existence in the first place. “To ‘fix’ the system, we would have to eradicate substance abuse, alcoholism, and the other things that tear families apart,” she says. “In my opinion, the biggest issue with the system is that they are not set up to be parents. Truly a child needs to be raised by a loving human being and not a governmental system. The obligatory red tape that goes along with federal and state dollars and the overload of the case workers sets them up for failure. The case workers have caseloads that are unmanageable to truly care for all of the needs of the foster families and children who live with them. Because of this, they have to focus on putting out fires.”
She points out that perhaps the “solution”—if there is one—is for DHR to lean more heavily on the private sector. “I am not sure that I have the magic bullet to fix the system, but I do feel that Alabama DHR does have the best solution. They are open to working with community organizations who are able to be sole-focused, such as the Heart Gallery, who can help them do their job better since our only concern is permanency. Or other statewide agencies who help support children living in foster care. This is a safety net that if widened may be able to help even more children.” Bearman-Wolnek is proud to share that in 10 years, HGA has photographed and shared almost 1,100 children, and about 65 percent of those children have been adopted.
Each person I spoke to about foster care acknowledged that there are a lot of problems concerning it—there are too many children and not enough foster homes; the case workers’ loads are astronomical; there are people who find ways to corrupt the system, even though the monetary compensation is nominal. But they also each pointed out that with a system like this—with the government stepping in to parent children—those things are almost unavoidable. “Foster parenting has a negative connotation because I know that so many children in care’s experiences have not been good ones,” Brumfield says. “I know that because I have friends who grew up in foster care. Their stories are horrible and I weep for their childhoods. The system would likely weed out weakly equipped foster parents if there were more healthy and willing foster parents to pick from. We need loving parents to flood ‘the system.’”
Barry Spear, public information manager for Alabama DHR, agrees that the greatest challenge DHR faces is recruiting safe, loving homes for the children for whom they care. “One of the most significant challenges is recruiting foster parents willing and able to provide safety, support, and stability to our children. We struggle most specifically with finding foster homes willing to provide care for older children and teens, as children can remain in our care until age 21,” he explains. “Finding foster and adoptive homes for our young people with special needs and older youth is also a challenge. Though we receive several inquiries related to adoption, they are most often for young, healthy children with no behavior issues.” Spear explains that the children for whom a foster care home cannot be found (and who don’t have relatives who can care for them) are placed in group homes or child care institutions.
“The system has many aspects that work well as well as areas that need improvement,” Akins says. “All the public hears about is what is wrong. Highlight what is right and build on those strengths. I have a deep appreciation and respect for social workers in this arena and the foster parents that they partner with.” Besides the system and its much-discussed shortcomings, there’s a bigger issue at hand—beyond the system is the children it cares for, children like Sam and B.
“I love hearing B say, ‘Daddy, Daddy, look!’ One day, I listened from the next room and felt how badly our kids want permanency,” Brumfield shares. “Some children so deeply desire for us to be their real mommy or daddy. And so do I, I’m not going to lie. I’m for reunification for families and I want to be their mama. That day, I heard Matt answer him in a way he never had before: ‘What is it, son?’ I stood in the next room, stunned. I want to say that as much as anyone in this whole world, but fostering is unpredictable, so I try to keep things ‘safe.’ I try to protect them by saying things like, ‘What is it, love?’ or ‘What, baby?’ But you know the part that really got me? I asked Matt why he said that to him. And Matt told me, ‘Well, I thought he might have never heard a man call him that in return before.’”
As a foster parent, Brumfield explains, you give these children something some of them have never had—a family. And the joy of that far outweighs any of the heartache that comes with seeing the “system” up close or eventually telling your children goodbye. “Sweet B told me what he wants to be when he grows up. He said he wants to be ‘a daddy.’ And I know that’s because he is experiencing the love of a father and it’s real,” she continues. “Matt may be a foster dad, but that isn’t what B thinks of him. He gets the real thing from us and so will all of our children in care. We understand legally we may never have the same last name, but all of them are Brumfields to us. There is no secondhand love in our household.
“Yet, when we are told to, we must be ready to hand over our children,” she says. “They are given to us for a time and it’s our opportunity to love, share in their pain, and uplift their lives. It’s more than worth it. Every single time.”
For more information on the foster care system of Alabama, including how to become a foster or adoptive parent, visit dhr.alabama.gov.
Alabama Foster Care by the Numbers
5,000: the number of children in Alabama foster care
1,600: the number of Alabama foster care homes
230: the number of children with no identified family
20.27: the average number of months a child spends in foster care
40 percent of children discharged from foster care returned to their parents in 2014
3.5: the average number of children in a foster home
18: the average number of cases an Alabama foster care worker has