Family Twist Episode 29: 60 Children and Counting
This episode’s guest is Dr. John DeGarmo, the director of the Foster Care Institute. John is an author and expert in foster care – and he and his wife have parented more than 60 children through fostering, adoption and birth. Corey and John discuss the challenges facing the foster family community today, and John offers some advice as Kendall and Corey consider becoming a foster family.
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This is Family Twist, a podcast about astonishing adoption stories and finding family via DNA magic. I'm Kendall. And I'm Corey. And we've been inseparable partners in life since 03, 04, 05, also known as March 4th, 2005. In January 2018, our found family journey took us 3000 miles from the San Francisco Bay area to New England, where we now live near my biological father, two half siblings and their families.
and the adventure continues. Our guest this episode is Dr. John DeGarmo, Director of the Foster Care Institute. John's an author and expert in foster care, and he has parented more than 60 children through it, fostering, adoption, and birth. Welcome, John, and thanks for taking part in Family Twist. Oh, thank you for the opportunity. So just curious, how many children are living in your house right now? Well, today, there's a small six.
Okay, a small six, but you've had as many as 10, right? 11. 11, okay. Who's the cook there? Oh, well, we teach children at a very young age to learn good social skills, including cooking. So, you know, it depends upon the day, really. Gotcha. You know, my 10-year-old makes pretty good omelet. Oh, excellent, excellent. So the six that are there right now, how many of them are foster children? How many are there?
They're all de-garm-o's at the moment, although all three of them came from adoption from the foster care system. So, we don't have any kids placed in our home at this very moment, but that changes all the time. How often do the numbers change? Well, we've had over 60 plus kids come to the home, and it really depends upon the day when we have a placement. So how did the...
concept of fostering come into your purview and why are you so passionate about it? Oh, that's a great question. I didn't plan on being a foster parent. I never really imagined doing it actually. I believed so many of the myths and misconceptions associated with it that much of society does. It wasn't until the death of our first child, 27 years ago, child died of something called anencephaly or some pronounce it an-uh-keh-lee. It's a condition where the brain and skull doesn't truly form.
and my wife was in labor for 92 hours in. And after that, I really turned my back on a lot of things in my life. It wasn't until several years, we were living in Australia at the time where she's from. It wasn't until years later that we moved back to America and we're living in the rural, rural deep south of Georgia. And we noticed a lot of, I noticed a lot of kids coming through my classroom. I was a teacher at the time, high school level. I noticed a lot of kids coming through my classroom had issues of attendance, issues of behavior, issues of academics.
And I kept wondering, what's the correlation? Why so many kids? And then I recognized, it started in the home. I met a lot of the birth parents and recognized, yeah, it starts in the home. So I went to my wife one day and I said, we have three healthy children. We've lost a child. How can we help other kids? And that led to the discussion of foster parenting, which led to my doctorate, which led to all the books, which led to speaking and training around the world. Why I'm so passionate? Well, I'm actually not.
I would say I'm driven. I'm driven daily to make the system better because sadly it has failed some of my kids who have come to live in my home. In my house, there's no label. There's no foster, biological, or adoptive. They're all my kids. There's no black or white. We're all the same color, just different shades of God's skin. Because I don't believe in labeling kids because kids don't like labels.
So, so, um, the, the, the system failed some of my kids and, uh, as I explained in my Ted talk, so I'm just driven daily to make the system better once what does not happen again to any child. I think that's just pretty amazing that losing a child, you and your wife would be open to bringing more children into your home. When a lot of couples lose a child that ends the family sometimes, we can, and, um, on the flip side, it expanded yours. So that's, that's.
pretty amazing. What was the first conversation like with your wife about? Let's expand this family. She said, well, you know, it was interesting. Um, she had been having similar thoughts as well. We had never discussed it, but she had been thinking about foster parenting as well. So I came home to her one day and said, Hey, I've got, I've got a senior in my classroom. She's pregnant with triplets. Um, both the mother and the father of the kids were
I could tell it was not going to be a good environment for these babies, these three babies. So I said to my wife, you know, hey, I got a senior who's pregnant with triplets, what if I brought them home? And she said, as long as you change the diapers. So that was her initial conversation. That was her initial reaction. And then we started talking about it further. And she said, yeah, I've been having these same thoughts as well. So that's where it led to. Little did we know.
prior to getting into this? Because as you said, there's a lot of misconceptions, there's a lot of drama around the subject. Well, everything I knew was wrong. So what I thought I knew was that kids were bad kids, which is far from the truth. They're victims of abuse, of neglect, of abandonment. They're kids who want love. They wanna be loved unconditionally. They want a normal lifestyle. I believe that foster parents were crazy people. That part's a little bit true.
I mean, you've got to be a little bit crazy to take on, I call it a lifestyle. It's a very, I don't think it's a job, it's a lifestyle. It's a very different, unique lifestyle that so few will ever really appreciate or understand. I surely didn't before I became a foster parent. But to tell you what, it's been the most rewarding thing I've done. Did you two make some mistakes at the beginning, getting into it? Whether or not.
What were the hurdles like? Well, I, you know, so here I am, a teacher. I had three kids of my own. My wife had a degree in psychology. We went through the training. I thought, yeah, I'm ready for this. This is not going to be that bad. I recognized with 20 minutes of my first placement that, oh my gosh, I'm not prepared for this. And then when the children, the two girls left our home, four months later, I was also shocked.
how unprepared I was for the heartbreak. I've been told it was gonna happen, you know, through the training, but I was not prepared for the gaping hole in my heart and the feelings of grief and loss that I experienced as well as my wife. Because, you know, these kids, they need structure and they need stability, but what I think kids of foster care need more than anything else is unconditional love. So that's what good foster parents do. They...
They give all their heart to these kids. And so when they leave our home, sometimes it is a time of heartbreak. Yeah. What was that first round experience like for your three kids that were already there? They loved it. My kids have loved, you know, I wouldn't say they've loved the entire 20 years of doing it, but for the most part, they've really, I think they have been thoroughly enriched. Now, while my children,
may never ever be foster parents, I strongly believe that all six of my kids are going to lead a life of serving others in some way, because they have lived the lifestyle of having kids come to their home who have suffered tremendous abuse, neglect, abandonment, and they've seen it firsthand, and they have come to love these kids as their siblings, if you will. These are family members. So,
So while there have been difficult times and difficult moments, I think overall, my kids have tremendously benefited from it. They have seen firsthand what abuse looks like, what a bullying looks like, what abandonment looks like, and they have become much more compassionate towards others. They're much more eager to help others than I think a lot of their peers. What was the process like of, you know?
you're bringing children into your home and you're doing the right thing. What was the process like of like, okay, well, I can be an advocate for this. I can be a voice for the foster program. I can write books. I can go start speaking. So I was doing my doctorate. And at the time I thought I was going to do it in administration in school. When I first started out and then I thought, you know what? I don't want to do this. I want to.
focus more on kids in foster care. Because at the time as I was teaching, I recognized that my fellow teachers and administrators did not really understand the foster care system and as a result, 55% of kids who drop out of school, or I'm sorry, 55% of kids who age out of foster care drop out of school and they're 18 months behind academically. And that's because they slip through the cracks because teachers in schools really don't know how to address or even recognize.
the challenges that kids in foster care face that are very unique to them. So my dissertation was on how do you bring together teachers, foster parents, caseworkers to help these kids and address the situation and provide them the support services so they don't drop, so some cracks. And when I finished the dissertation, I thought, you know what, I'm loving writing. Maybe I could write a book about foster care. And it just led to another one, another one, the Foster Parenting Manual.
foster care survival guide, keeping foster kids safe online, etc. etc. And then I started doing a lot of speaking and a lot of training and it just one thing led to another. Again, it was certainly a journey or an adventure that I never anticipated. So it's challenging for me to imagine, you know, 11 kids in a house at one time. Including seven diapers. What does that look like?
Um, it looks like, uh, it looks like a couple different things. It looks like a lot of laughter. It looks like a lot of exhaustion. It looks like, um, very structured environment because when you have that many kids, you've got to have structure. You've got to have structure. Um, it's a lot of my wife and I were relying upon each other.
it looks like a lot of laundry, holy cow. And, you know, again, a lot of laughter, but again, a lot of tears too, because, you know, in truth, even though I can provide the most loving, safe, stable environment and a lot of opportunities, goodness, how many kids have I taken to Disney World over the years? At the end of the day, these kids don't want to be in my home when they first place there, because we're strangers.
They're scared, they're confused, they're afraid. They have questions like, why am I here? When do I go home? Why do I see my mommy and daddy again? Because I'm not their dad. My wife's not their mom. We're strangers to them. So it takes time for them to learn that they're gonna be safe and that we're not gonna hurt them. So, you know, there's lots of tears those first few nights. But again, what a wonderful, wonderful adventure. I'll tell you what else it looks like. At Christmas time, we have...
we open up our doors to as many of the kiddos that we've had come through our home and our family and last year we had 23 kids join our family for a pre-Christmas brunch so it looks like a lot of love. Yeah that's great. How did you go about building that structure? Well my wife and I both were we tried to have structure for our when we were raising our original kids and we tried to
wrap them up in a very structured, warm, nurturing, safe environment. And then when the kids start coming to our home from foster care, we recognize, yeah, we can't lapse on any of this. Otherwise, we could quickly become burned out, become exhausted, become worn out, or maybe suffer from something known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue.
So we had to have consistency and structure. Otherwise, you know, when you got 11 kids in the house and only two adults, you want to make sure that the kids don't outnumber the adults in regards to parenting. So, so, yeah. And I imagine that you have to be, like a therapist has got to be a big role for you and your wife. You have to, because as these kids are coming in.
Probably traumatized in a lot of situations. Oh, absolutely. They're all traumatized in some way You know you can put aside all the abuse and neglect they've experienced beforehand When they're placed into my home or any foster parents home that is a time of Trump trauma and anxiety there again They're they're taken away from everything they know Including their mom and dad and maybe the siblings and it could be Tremendously horrific abuse. Nevertheless, that's their norm. That's what they know
And suddenly, without an explanation, many times they're placed into a home of strangers and told, you know, here's your new house, here's your new family. And those kids have those questions. Did I do something wrong? Is it my fault? Will I see mommy and daddy again? Who are these people? Will they hurt me? So that is traumatic unto itself. How often have the children that have come through your home have gone back to their families, their parents? The vast majority.
The end goal of foster care is always reunification. And 50% of kids in foster care are reunified. Of that 50%, sadly, 20 to 30% go back into care because they were abused or abandoned or neglected or experienced additional trauma and they were reunified with their family members for whatever reason it might be. So most of our kids have gone back to their family members. Some have aged out or transitioned out of the system. A couple have been adopted by others.
And we try to stay in contact with as many of them as we can, as we possibly can. What is the process like of when a child ages out? And what are you able to do? What have you been able to do for the kids who have aged out of the system? Well, in my home, as I said earlier, they're my family. So we, you know, when they age out of the system, we help them get jobs, help them go to college, help them get apartments.
That kind of thing and continue to stay involved in their life I'm thinking right now specifically of one who came to our house at 17 years of age who had suffered a tremendous Abuse from so many families that adopted her. I'm not gonna go into details. It's in my book fostering love And when she transitioned out She we helped her get into college and Now she's working for child welfare agency and my wife and our grandparents to her kids and she's married to a wonderful man
very much part of our family. So that's kind of what happens. That doesn't happen with every child though, to be sure. As I said earlier, 55% drop out of school, 65% end up homeless, 75% end up incarcerated, and for so many girls the system starts over again with their children. What are the biggest challenges right now with the system in general? What can be done to turn things around? The system is overwhelmed right now with
so many children coming into the system, whether it's due to opiate addictions, whether it's due to human trafficking, kids are just flooding over the borders right now. Our borders are so unsecure. I don't think the general public recognizes the danger that poses to children. Children are just flooding over the borders right now and being abandoned. They're coming over here for human trafficking. There's not enough foster families.
child welfare agencies are struggling to not only retain good foster parents, but also good caseworkers because the job is, caseworkers today are overworked, overwhelmed, under-resourced, under-supported, under-paid, under-staffed. And then what we did as a society during COVID to these kids and these foster parents also places an additional burden on the system.
In 2020 and 2021 when we decided to send the kids home from school, which we're learning now was a huge mistake, but I was saying it from the forefront, this is not a good idea because you have 5 million children who experience domestic violence every single year in our nation in their home. So for these kids, school was their safe space. For these kids, they're getting two meals a day and school is the only place they're not getting abused, not getting raped, not getting hurt.
and we lock them up at home with their abuser, child welfare workers were not able to go visit them because of social distancing and all of that. So the abuse only worsened. In addition, foster parents were at home with these kids from foster care and the children in care were no longer getting the support services they needed at school, they were no longer getting the professional therapy or counseling sessions they needed, they were no longer getting visitations, and their anxiety levels were through the roof.
Well, foster parents were saying to me, hey, I'm not a teacher, I can't help these kids. I'm not a therapist, I can't help these kids. I can't do visitations virtually online five days a week. I need help. Well, caseworkers were not able to visit their foster parents. As a result, foster parents were not getting the help they needed, so a lot of foster parents quit. So it was a really, really difficult time for the system, and we're paying for it now, if you will. Again, the system's overwhelmed with kids coming in.
There's not enough foster parents, and many states are looking for more caseworkers. So it's a challenging time. We don't really hear a lot about that. No, of course we don't, because it's not part of our narrative. Foster care and human trafficking are things that we don't want to discuss. I call human trafficking America's ugly secret, because no one wants to address it because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Same with child abuse. You know, as I said earlier, five million children experience child abuse or...
or a domestic violence in their house every single year. But we don't wanna address this as a society because it makes us feel uncomfortable, even though all of this happens in every single community in our nation. And this was running rampant during COVID. We were more concerned about putting masks on and staying six feet apart, instead of worrying about what we're doing to these children by...
secluding them in an environment where they were getting abused and raped. And I don't know how many interviews I did during 2020 and 2021 of yet another child dying at home and being unreported. It was a very sad time. But you're right, we don't address these things because as a society we don't, it makes us feel uncomfortable. And I harken back to what I said initially, I believed a lot of the myths and misconceptions that are associated with foster care because I was not aware of the realities of it.
And that's how it is with so many, including those people closest to me. So what can folks like me and Kendall, who are just starting to consider the fostering conversation, we're starting to have that. I think we've decided that we're a little bit too old to have an infant. And so, but we're like, we feel like we've got a large home, a lot of love to give. What advice can you give to folks like us?
Well, to begin with, you got to make sure that you're both on the same page. It kind of sounds like you are, but you need to both make sure you're on the same page because it's a commitment for both of you. It's a commitment from both of you. It, you know, it takes both of you to do it. Um, you know, some of the misconceptions are you have to be married. No, you don't. You have to have a big house. No, you don't. You have to have a lot of money. No, you don't. Um.
So I would suggest the two of you sit down and have a conversation. Are we ready for this? It sounds like you are. And then buckle up for a wonderful adventure. It's a truly life-changing experience. You know, you're really gonna make, when you go through the training, afterwards, it's so vital that you find some type of support system because foster parenting, as I said earlier, is a lifestyle that so few are really gonna understand or.
or appreciate. I did not. I did not not. So my family and friends, those closest to me don't understand what I go through either. No one understands the life style of a false parent unless it's another false parent. So you've got to find a support group that will help you during difficult times. Because as I said earlier, when a child comes to your home, they are afraid, they're scared, they're confused. It's a time of anxiety and that can be challenging. And when you have kids in your home who have issues of trust, who have issues of attachment, who might have anger management issues.
or maybe sleep disorders or eating disorders or whatever it might be, that can be exhausting. So it's vital that you have that support system and that you're both supporting each other and you're both on board.
I imagine when you and your wife started doing this, there weren't the online support options. There weren't the Facebook groups and things like that. Would you recommend, is that how you find your community now or how do you find your fostering community? Well, that's interesting you note that. So I started up Facebook's largest foster parent support group called Foster Parent Help and Support Page. And I started that up because I recognize foster parents needed this. We now have, I think, over 34,000 members.
But initially, my caseworker at the time connected my wife and I to a local foster parent support group in our area. And that's what I encourage foster parents today to do, both online and in person. Because when you're surrounding yourself with people who have experienced similar things, they're not going to judge you, they're not going to criticize you, they're not going to look at you funny, because they've been there, done that, so to speak. So they can offer you some wisdom. They can offer you a shoulder to cry on.
and they can offer you support because they have walked in your shoes and that's so important. It's great to hear that a lot of the kids that came through your home were reunited with their families. How did it happen that you and your wife adopted some of your foster kids? Well it's known as termination of parental rights, TPR, so the parental rights were terminated for all three of those children. I need to add that we had four failed adoptions as well so we could have had four more adoptions.
But those were, those fell through for one reason or another. My TED talk is one of them. Very tragic situation actually. Very horrible situation. But the parental rights were terminated for those three children and we were able to adopt them. Now I will say, and I write about that in some of my books, it was not an easy process. We had to fight. We had to fight for those children.
Fight the system, fight the families? Fight the system. One of the girls was gonna go to, one of the girls was gonna go to her mother's friend. Now her mother's friend was 23 at the time and dating a 46 year old man. The 46 year old man had two other children and both of them were in jail. The 46 year old man had been in and out of jail himself.
And I said to the system, hey, this is not the best interest of the child. This is not the best interest of the child. Going to go to somebody completely unrelated to them. The girl's dating a man who could be her father. And it was just, it was awful situation. Um, and we had some similar situations to the other ones as well. So I became that mama bear who fought for her cubs, if you will. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Are there things that you're starting to see change that is the system improving? Is it, you know, is it flatlining what's happening?
Well, that's a good question. So there are 50 different states, which means there's 50 different ways of doing foster care, because every state has its own system. So that means there's 50 different ways of doing foster care, 50 different policies and procedures, and every state has its own agencies, and every agency has their own different policies and procedures as well. So that means there's so many different ways of doing foster care. Some do it better than others. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, I believe that there is. There's more.
advocates out there fighting for the system. It's been wonderful watching faith-based organizations step up and recognize, hey, we have a place at this table as well. I work with a lot of churches of all denominations and all faiths, and they recognize there's a mission field in their community. We don't have to go to Honduras or Nicaragua or Mexico, and I've done that. It's been wonderful. But there's a mission field in our own community, usually a mission within a mile of each church or faith-based group.
So a lot of churches are recognizing, hey, we have a part to play in this as well. And that's kind of turning the tide because churches are able to provide meals or clothing or support services or hygiene items or school supplies, mentors, that kind of thing, which the system necessarily can't provide. So that's been very promising. What about getting the message further out there in the media so people are starting to talk about it? It's, yeah, it can be an uncomfortable subject, but.
What's the message out there that would really start to bring people together and understanding this problem? Well, that's why I wrote some of my books. That's why I did my TED Talk to bring awareness. And that's why I do a lot of media, a lot of podcasts, lots of TV, lots of articles, because I believe that while not everybody can be a foster parent, I firmly believe everybody can help in some way. And I believe that awareness equals advocacy.
If we can bring awareness to these issues, then we can have more advocates fighting for these children. So again, not everybody can be a foster parent, but everybody can help in some way, a child in your community. And that's my message that I try to get out to the media on a daily basis. Where can people look for that in their local communities? Oh, you know, if you contact your local child welfare agency in your area, you can find out more information about how to either help or become a foster parent as well.
What is the holiday season gonna look like in the DeGarmo home this year? Same as it always is a time of tremendous laughter, joy, um, uh, noise. Holy cow. It's a noisy, noisy house. Um, we have five Christmas trees up. Um, uh, we're going to have kids coming in and out of the house adults too, because former kids who are now adults come back and spend a lot of time with us during that time as well.
It's just a huge time of love, laughter, and decibel. It's a great time. It's a truly great time. The hobby season though is a hard time for kids in foster care. I don't think people recognize that because it's a keen reminder to many of the kids in the system that they're not with their family. So when we have kids in our home, place in our home and they're opening up presents for mommy and daddy.
Well, that's a reminder that they're not with their mommy and daddy, that they're with strangers. And that's sad. In addition, we've had many kids come through a home who have never experienced a Christmas or never experienced a birthday. So it's a new experience for them as well. Kudos to you and your family for what you've been doing and spreading this message. And Kendall and I are just starting to explore this concept for us, but we have so much respect.
for folks like you that are doing this. And when you do become foster parents, years from now, those kids might not remember your name and those kids might not remember your face, but years from now, they'll remember this, that a time in their life, and maybe the only time in their life, somebody loved them, and that's you. And that's a gift that they can take with them for the rest of their life. And I can't change the world, and you can't change the world, and Kendall can't change the world, but when these kids come to live with you, their world is changed.
So you're giving them a huge gift of love and stability and consistency and structure. And you know, people say to me often, Dr. John, I can't do what you do. It hurt too much to get the kids back. And I say that's how it should be. It's exactly how it's supposed to be because these kids need us to love them so much when they do leave. Yeah, our hearts are about, but we're giving them a gift of love that they'll take them the rest of their life. So I encourage you to look further into it. And I think, well, I know.
I know you won't regret it. It's, as I said earlier, it's a wonderful adventure. It's the hardest thing I've done. It's the most rewarding thing I've done at the same time. Every child has made me a better person in some way. That's excellent. Well, John, thank you so much for what you do and thank you for joining us on Family Twist. Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity. Family Twist features original music from Cosmic Afterthoughts and is presented by Savoir Fair Marketing Communications.