Did you know that more than 690,000 children spend time in foster care each year? May is Foster Care Awareness Month and a great time to shine a spotlight on these children who are so often forgotten as well as the thousands of foster parents who open their homes and their hearts to them. Keri Vellis has fostered 19 children and adopted three of them over the past 6 years. Read below for our conversation and find out the moment she knew she had to “hit the ground running to help these children.”
Katie Couric: How did you first get involved with foster care? Tell us your personal story about when you knew you had to do something to help these kids…
Keri Vellis: Eleven years ago, my husband, who works in law enforcement, came home from a call where a baby died. The death occurred because the unsupervised ten-month old drowned while his parent was using drugs and not watching the child. It was heartbreaking and I felt a huge tug at my heart to do something. I knew we had an amazing home and could provide a safe place for children. We waited until my youngest of three children started kindergarten five years later, and then went through the process of becoming a licensed foster home. The first two children we took in, a sibling set ages two and four, were horrifically abused and neglected. It was the kind of abuse you hear on the news and it makes your stomach turn. I was told it was the worst case that our county had seen in 13 years. From that moment on, I hit the ground running trying to help these children. I was determined to get everything and anything the kids needed: from dental surgeries to speech, physical and play therapies. One child managed to have 72 appointments in one month. To say our first placements were challenging is an understatement.
I could not understand why the doors didn’t fly open to help us find services for them. They were, in fact, closed. We did what it took to help these children who we have since adopted. We have continued to foster and have had 19 children come through our home; from drug exposed newborns to neglected teenagers. Along the way we adopted our third, making us a family of 8.
My experience over the last 6 years was a catalyst to writing two self-published books for foster and at-risk children. I am currently writing my autobiography, Saving Michael, which candidly shares our personal story.
How has the reality of foster parenting differed from what you might have expected? Tell us about your experience and what you’ve learned…
Most of these children had little to no experience with the normal things that other families do daily: sitting at a table for a real meal, running through the sprinkles, playing with other kids, brushing their teeth, a parent to read at bedtime. They had no structure in their lives and we were amazed that our daily activities and care were foreign to them. One of the children couldn’t speak at age four. We didn’t even know her name. A nine-year-old had never been to school. Their health was poor. I just never imagined a child would be so neglected that they couldn’t say their name or enjoy playing with other kids. I naively never thought such things our family took for granted was a life they never experienced.
Half of foster parents quit within their first year, with 40 percent citing lack of institutional support. What would you suggest can be done so that foster parents can feel more supported?
I absolutely can see why foster parents quit after the first year. It’s a tough job, I’m not going to lie. One of the challenges I found is that everything is confidential, so you can’t reach out to family or friends to share what you are going through. It can be very isolating. Being a mom comes naturally to me, so parenting the kids is not the hard part. I feel like I really have that down. Another challenge is continually being placed on waiting lists when your foster child is in crisis, and services are so impacted that you are waiting on help and support. It is a huge problem with the system. A lot of foster parents give up which leads to a failed placement and a lack of foster parents available. If we didn’t have the financial resources to pay out of pocket for our little guy, he wouldn’t be where he is today. I needed to look beyond what was offered and not delay therapies and professional mental health assistance.
Tell us about your children’s book for foster kids…what message do you hope it conveys to kids who feel afraid and uncertain about their futures?
I always read to my kids at bedtime and I found that there weren’t any books that these children could relate to. It instantly inspired me to write one for them. I connected with an illustrator who was a former foster youth, and I created the book Sometimes. This is a story about a child who is removed from his or her home and how they might feel and what they might expect in their new environment. The book provides the children with a hopeful message while validating their fear, sadness and confusion.
There are 450,000 children in foster care in the US. This book is not only a tool for the foster children, but it is also helpful for other kids to learn how to support these children who may be in their class, on their sports teams, or in their community. One thing I have learned when volunteering my time in classrooms teaching children about foster care is that they may have preconceived notions of what they think foster care is, or how their personal stories can relate. After I read my book aloud and I start the dialogue, many children open up about their experiences which they might not have otherwise shared. In some cases, childhood trauma or difficult situations are rarely addressed. By getting these children to talk about an identifiable situation, they are instantly validated.
May is National Foster Care Month…what can people who might not be able to foster kids themselves do to help?
There are many organizations, such as my non-profit Keri’s Kids, that work with or support foster children. Some ways of helping are by donating to these causes, volunteering time or resources and simply spreading the word to others to do the same. Our goal for 2019 is to get every foster child a book. I started Keri’s Kids to get these books distributed and this takes innumerable support and effort. Please visit my sites kerivellis.com and keriskids.net to purchase or sponsor our efforts.