LOGAN — After their oldest child moved out of the house several years ago, Laura and Gary Champ quickly began to miss having kids around, despite now having 14 grandchildren. With an empty house and financial stability, the pair knew it had more than enough love and resources to give to those who need it.
Laura Champ said she has helped people through much of her working career, and wanted to continue serving others in a different way. The desire to help people and raise more children led to the couple’s decision to become foster parents four years ago.
“I felt like I wasn’t finished raising children, and our house is big enough and we are financially able to help out children and families, and I needed small children in my house again,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do this for a really long time.”
The Champs usually foster kids from zero to four years old, and have fostered 10 children so far. Although they live in Hocking County, they foster children from Athens County, as they were referred to a different county for training when they first began the process to become foster parents.
On Friday, the pair received the 2018 Athens County Children Services Foster Caregivers of the Year award. Additionally, they recently finished the adoption process for their daughter Lydia, who they fostered for two years.
The Champs are also currently fostering Lydia’s 10-month-old sister and a 5-year-old boy.
Having been a foster parent for many years now, Laura Champ said she fully understands how hard it is for the children going through the system to adjust to a brand new home and family.
“To be three or four years old and put in a stranger’s home, you don’t know them, they don’t know anything about your home, they don’t know anything about you,” she said. “It’s hard.”
May is National Foster Care Month, which aims to raise awareness about the needs of foster care children and parents across the country and honors the groups that work to keep the foster care system running.
President Ronald Reagan decreed May as National Foster Care Month in 1988. The Children’s Bureau, created in 1912, sponsors the month and events around the country in honor of the occasion.
The Children’s Bureau works to improve the lives of children and families by sponsoring various programs that aim to reduce abuse and increase adoptions.
Caregivers, children, policymakers and community members all play a role in the foster care system. Foster children require a host of resources from many groups, as they often have been through tremendous hardship.
“Every single child that is in foster care has some sort of trauma, it’s traumatic just being removed from your parents and from your home, that’s trauma all by itself,” Laura Champ said. “Then it’s compounded with the reason they were removed.”
Over 400,000 children are in foster care across the country. In Hocking County, about 20 children are typically in the foster care system at any given time, but there are less than five licensed foster families in the county.
The opioid epidemic has significantly exasperated the number of children in needing placement across the country. In many of these cases, extended family members step in so children don’t have to be placed in the foster care system, said Theresa Johnson, social services supervisor for South Central Ohio Job and Family Services.
“People who are related to these kids that are kinship are taking care of kids, but if there are no family members or no one who is able to take these kids, then they end up in foster care,” she said.
Johnson said being separated from family is extremely disruptive, and many suffer from mental health disorders as a result of the trauma they’ve endured that brought them to the foster system in the first place.
SCOJFS works to connect foster children with counseling services in the community, and sometimes has to extend outside of the community to find additional resources.
The agency refers all children in the system to local counseling services, including Integrated Services for Behavioral Health, Hopewell Health Centers and Hocking County Behavioral Health.
Johnson said when a child is referred to child protection services, SCOJFS tries to keep children as close to their families as possible, and the agency’s ultimate goal is reconnecting children with their biological parents.
“We try very hard to make sure kids stay with family as possible,” Johnson said. “Even if kids come into foster care, the goal is to do reunification and to get those kids home as quickly as possible.”
The Adoption and Safe Families Act, enacted in 1997, prevents children from being able to stay in foster care beyond two years. If parents aren’t making strides to reunite with their children, and no extended family members step in, child protection services has to file for permanent custody of the children.
In some cases, such as the Champs, a child who has been taken into the custody of child protection services already has a potential adoptive family lined up. Otherwise, the child will be sent to Ross County’s adoption services, which works to find appropriate families for children in the agency’s custody.
Any family member recommended to take care of children who have been removed from their biological parents has to be screened for drugs and complete a background check in order to be approved to take care of that child, Johnson said.
Johnson said that child protection services is often seen as the enemy, but their job is to help children through an all-around difficult situation.
“Our agency is not here just to take your children, we make every effort to keep your family together,” she said. “Foster care, honestly, is our last resort.”
Foster parents receive a significant amount of training in order to become licensed. Additionally, they are required to do a detailed home study and a background check.
The process can take several months — even up to a year — depending on when training is available.
Laura Champ has learned in her time being a foster parent that the hardest part isn’t saying goodbye — it’s hearing the stories that children carry with them.
“The biggest challenge for me is knowing their backstories and trying to keep it together after knowing what happened, what put them in care,” she said. “If you get caught up in it, that’s not good for you or them.”
Despite the challenges, she said being a foster parent is incredibly rewarding, and she stressed that there is a significant need for foster families in the area.
“We need more foster parents,” she said. “All of these kids need love, every one of them.”