Editor’s note: This ongoing “Wards of the State” series explores West Virginia’s challenges in caring for its foster children as their numbers rise during the drug crisis. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children. Part 3:
By M.K. McFarland
For the West Virginia Press Association
MILTON, W.Va. – When he was three months old, the little boy’s mother placed him, unbuckled in an unsecured car seat in the back of a stolen car.
She led police on a high-speed chase while driving intoxicated. When she came to a halt at a dead end in the road, the police found the baby in the back of the car protected by the upside-down seat.
Meanwhile, Will and Amanda Basham had just decided to start fostering kids, but Will told his wife he couldn’t handle another baby. The couple’s biological kids, Bella, 7, and Micah, 5, had been out of that stage for a while.
Then Necco, a private foster child placement agency, called and said they had a baby who had survived a car accident and his mother was in jail.
The Bashams couldn’t say no.
Now the boy is almost 2 years old, and in May the Bashams adopted him. They named him for the car seat that saved his life.
“Tevah” is Hebrew for “basket.” In the Bible it is used to describe the vessel Moses’ mother placed him in as an infant. She put him in the reeds of the Nile River to save him from extermination.
Tevah is one of seven children adopted and 23 fostered by families at the New Heights Church in Milton where Will Basham is the senior pastor.
Basham grew up in Hamlin, Lincoln County. In 2015, he and Amanda were seeing the community around their church lose vitality and life to drug addiction and overdose deaths. He and his 3-year-old church were searching for ways to help.
When church deacon Adam Fannin and his wife, Jackie, brought home their first foster children, Basham had his answer.
“It was like I had an epiphany,” he said. “This is how we help.”
A year and a half later, 14 families at New Heights church have fostered children. The church holds periodic meetings about fostering, and more families are expressing interest all the time.
Chad Messer, a home resource coordinator for Necco, the placement agency, said, “I do believe this is a ministry and a calling for them, and they do it very, very well, and they have a lot of support. It’s just infectious.”
It is a significant help to a foster system that had 5,182 kids in care in September – about 1,100 more than three years ago. That growth is taking place in a system already overburdened. In its report on the 2014 fiscal year, the Bureau for Children and Families noted a lack of foster homes in every region of the state.
In September, 1,153 of those kids were in “therapeutic foster care,” foster homes certified by 10 private agencies in the state, which also provide counseling and therapy services if children need them.
But those agencies turn away kids daily because they don’t have foster families to take them.
The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia has nine offices in the state and had 208 kids in homes at the end of September. But the agency was unable to place 243 children from July 1 to the beginning of October, said Steve Tuck, the agency’s CEO.
The Bashams and other families at New Heights Church are often some of the first calls for the Huntington office of Necco.
Katie Parsley, who was a case manager at Necco until October and who worked with the Bashams and other families in the church, said their office turns away about 15 kids a week.
Although agencies may have families willing to accept foster children, sometimes the families can’t meet the needs for a particular placement.
Adam Fannin said no to the first three calls his family received. He said his wife was gung ho about fostering from the beginning, but he was a little more cautious.
From the time the Fannins completed the certification process with Necco, it was almost a year before they accepted the first child. Now the Fannins have fostered eight children since 2015.
When they finally said yes, it was for brother and sister siblings to stay with them for a weekend.
“After that first weekend, they didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t really want them to leave,” Adam said.
Within a week the Fannins had bought a minivan so they could travel in one vehicle with their foster kids.
The next call was for Andrew, a 2-month-old just released from Lily’s Place, a care facility in Huntington for babies born drug exposed.
The baby arrived in their home, his first, in April 2015.
Now Andrew is there to stay. He became the Fannins’ third child when they officially adopted him on July 28 of this year.
A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report noted West Virginia, Maine and Vermont lead the nation in babies born suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms.
The number of those children has tripled nationally in the last 15 years.
The Fannins moved to Culloden, a town that straddles the Putnam/Cabell county line, from Kentucky, where the drug epidemic is equally deadly.
The CDC lists West Virginia, Kentucky, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Ohio as national leaders in deaths due to overdose in 2014.
The Fannins, who are both in their early 30s, began attending New Heights Church when they returned to West Virginia after job relocations took them away.
They began noticing families fostering kids in the churches they were attending several years ago.
Adam said they saw families using the foster relationship as a way to minister to the biological families – maintaining relationships with them and trying to be helpful as those families worked towards reuniting with their children.
Adam’s biggest concerns about fostering were the safety and happiness of their two biological children. So the Fannins didn’t start until Jackson and Juliana were 5 and 3 — old enough to understand.
They initially signed up with the Necco agency to be respite foster care providers – those who provide shelter for a few days or weeks, often when foster families need to leave a child in someone else’s care overnight.
Adam and Jackie said their kids loved the idea. Their daughter has even put in special requests for a girl to come and play.
“Jackson and Jules are in this foster care journey with us,” Jackie said.
A fostering ministry
When the Fannins brought their first foster children home, Will Basham and his wife saw the potential to make a huge impact on their community and its future.
Their church, which has a second site in Huntington, is constantly reminded of what they are up against by the local headlines.
He and Amanda talked about fostering and said, “’Let’s do it, and let’s do it in a way that inspires other people to do it.’”
Now they have fostered five kids and adopted one. Will has drawn on the experiences in sermons, and the couple has blogged about it.
“When we started that journey, it came through every part of me, and as I led the church, it was very apparent to the church that we believed wholeheartedly in it.”
Soon other families in the church started signing up.
Parsley said, “It started with a couple of families, and then all of a sudden it caught like wildfire, and everybody just started doing it.”
Jackie Fannin, who organizes support for the church’s foster ministry, said, “There is a stigma in Appalachia regarding drug use and children, like it’s genetic, or people think it is a hereditary type of problem, but it’s not true.
“They just need those positive relationships to help them cope with life, and then we can break that cycle.”
At nearly 2 years of age, Tevah has fetal alcohol syndrome. There have been complications but he appears healthy. The Bashams will have to stay mindful of the disorder.
One of the advantages of fostering through a private agency is the therapists on staff to offer support and help.
The Bashams have sometimes fostered children with special needs, and they can call Necco with questions.
One child had autism spectrum disorder and another suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Will said the therapists have helped.
“Necco is like an extended family to us, honestly,” he said.
Chad Messer, Necco’s home resource coordinator, said the feeling is mutual.
“That is a great church family,” he said. “We love them all and can’t express to you the gratitude. That congregation has stepped up over the last two years and has really helped the children of this state.”
Families signing up to provide foster care are asked to list preferences about the children who will be placed with them. That can include age, gender, behaviors and disabilities.
However, Will said Necco caseworkers were upfront. Preferences would be taken into account, but they were likely to call with everything because the need was so great.
Parsley said the hardest to place are sibling groups and kids with behavior problems. Sometimes kids have been removed from other foster homes unable to deal with their behavior.
“We’ve seen that our church is pretty radical about taking those kinds of placements,” Will said.
Some New Heights families are willing to take children ranging from infants to teens about to age out of care.
Parsley said the Bashams are unique in that they don’t turn kids down. Last November, they got a call about a little girl the day before they were leaving for Thanksgiving vacation. She went with them.
“They’re just very good at making things work, and they don’t care if it changes their routine,” Parsley said.
The Bashams were asked to take another girl who was removed from two other foster homes in three weeks because of her behavior.
Will said she was terrified of him at first.
“I think I went into (fostering) with this idea that every child would see me as a savior and run into my arms, and none of them do,” he laughed.
“They’re all terrified of me. I’m a big guy. I’m 6 feet 6 and 270 pounds with a deep voice . . . It’s scary for kids.”
Will came home from work one night and sat with the girl, who had had a particularly bad day.
They talked for three hours before she finally broke down and threw herself into his arms sobbing. She confessed that she just really missed her mom.
Will sums up the experience of fostering as bittersweet. There is joy in earning a child’s affection and trust, but pain when nothing can be done to ease their hurt.
A short while after that placement, the Bashams were called about a little boy. They didn’t have a car seat or even a car with enough room for another child. The next day they bought a minivan. The little boy came the day after that.
When children are removed from their own homes, they need placement immediately. That is the nature of foster care.
“You can’t see it coming. You can’t expect it. It’s almost like being a firefighter on call. You get the call, and you’ve gotta do something,” Will said.
To support families who decide to foster, New Heights opened up space in their church for a “foster closet.”
The space holds clothes for kids from infants to size 14, as well as cribs, beds, walkers, car seats and toys.
Will said everyone in the church contributes. Clean outgrown clothes are stored in containers. Outgrown beds are brought to the closet rather than sold at yard sales.
“We store those things because you never know what the call is going to be,” Will said.
“And when the call happens, and a family ends up with a child that they had no expectation of, we can usually be there the same day or the next day with a bed for that child, or some helpful resources — some clothes – – and then we’ll set up a meal train for that family so they can get adjusted.”
Jackie Fannin said, ‘When you normally have a child, you’re given showers and gifts. We have thrown two foster care showers at church to help and encourage their journey, but that’s what our closet is for.”
“The closet is a huge thing, because a lot of kids come into care without clothing vouchers, and then they have no clothes,” Parsley said.
Sometimes kids arrive with just the clothes on their back.
The closet is a resource for the church, but also for new foster families in the community. Will said the supplies can go to other families if Necco or someone else lets them know there is a need.
Foster family support group
The foster families at New Heights are a tight group. They gather for meals and play dates, and they pray for each other. They can ask questions on their restricted access Facebook page.
Will said when he has difficulty with a child, he can seek insight in a post. A thread of comments and suggestions usually follows.
“It lets people know they aren’t alone – especially in the hard days,” he said.
Jackie said one of the nice things about having a church family with so many other foster parents is the practical ways they can help each other. They can babysit for families within their church and provide respite care for other foster families in their community.
Parsley said she was the case manager for a foster family in the church struggling with a child. Another family routinely offered to watch the kids to give the parents a break or let them run errands.
“You very rarely have that camaraderie among foster families. It is very uncommon to have that many in one church. It’s incredible really,” Parsley said.
Another big benefit is to the children themselves.
“We’re extended family. All of our foster kids realize there are other foster kids in the church, and they have a bond and it helps them deal with the stressors of that,” Jackie said.
Keeping it going
“So we’ve known it’s a big need. Where the biggest drug problems are — the biggest problems of child removal, neglect, abuse –- that’s where we need the most foster homes. We need people who live in that area to step up,” Will said.
One of the harder sides of foster care is that people are asked to take in kids, whom they risk growing to love, while the system is working towards reuniting those kids with their families.
Will said the movement at New Heights is focused on that goal.
Some of the 14 families in the New Heights church have adopted kids whose parents’ rights were terminated. Their homes are full now, so Will says they are considering phase two.
“If we just take in children with the hopes to adopt them, that means we’re praying against their parents. We pray for the healing and deliverance from addiction.
“That’s the kind of families we need — the ones who will be there and be willing to do the tough goodbyes when it comes time for reunification,” he said.
The Fannins have two biological kids, but Adam said he knows some people become foster parents because they aren’t able to have their own.
“We’re in a very fortunate position. We don’t have that struggle, so it makes it a little easier for us to root for the birth parents,” Adam said.
He noted there’s no rule against having contact with the kids after they are reunited if the family is willing.
Will said Necco told them at the outset that there weren’t enough homes. In September, 278 West Virginia kids in foster care were placed out of state.
“They’re having to send them hundreds of miles away from home when we’re praying and hoping for reunification, “ Will said.
“That makes it infinitely more difficult. When you have to put a child hundreds of miles away, visits get complicated. All of those thing just snowball into odds that are hard to surmount and overcome.”
Messer admires the Bashams’ willingness to communicate with the biological families.
“They do not have a stigma when it comes to the biological families. The Bashams always try to reach out and try to minister to that mother or that father, and that’s admirable.”
New Heights Church is planning a new round of informational meetings to help recruit more families.
Messer said his agency does a good job of opening new foster homes in their area, but the need is still great.
“I do believe that if I opened 100 homes this week, next week we’ll need more.”
Jackie Fannin said one of the best recruiting tools is simply seeing foster families at work.
“We started out with a few families, and others were seeing those kids and seeing them develop and grow and thrive in this environment. And they were seeing that it was possible. It wasn’t some job for a superhero. Normal families could do this.”
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, contact
missionwv.org for information on starting the process and connecting
with one of the 10 private agencies that certify foster families.