Creating a Forever Family - Foster system can be door-opener

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Meet the Koeller family. They are, front row, left to right: Ruby, 9; Layia, 6; and Ty, 7; back row: Sam, 14; Max, 13; Ryan and Tricia.

By Kim Hurley

Freelance Writer

A house with lights glowing through the windows, smoke blowing from the chimney, blankets strewn around the living room, the aroma of supper cooking in the kitchen, and love felt throughout.  This is what we cherish most, especially during November, the month of giving thanks. It’s not coincidental that November is also National Adoption Month, a time to promote awareness of the number of children in foster care who are waiting for a forever home.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that, on September 30, 2011, there were over 400,500 children in the U.S. foster care system. During FY2011, about 61,000 children, whose biological parents had their rights terminated, were waiting to be adopted while about 50,500 actually were adopted.  Awareness of such dire statistics indeed builds thanksgiving for not only the fulfillment of our basic needs—food, shelter, clothing —but ultimately for our forever families and the villages the support us.

Two local families agreed to share their stories, hoping that readers might be motivated to provide forever families for other youngsters in the foster care system. The Register earlier introduced readers to the Burns family. Since that time, they have added two more youngsters .

The Burns Family

Marnie and Jasen Burns as well as her parents, Ken and Sharon Seney, all of Elkader, know first-hand that you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect family to a child in need.  Born on January 31, 1971, Marnie was adopted by Ken and Sharon on February 9, 1971.  “I had a very normal childhood:  Great parents, happy life, solid religious background, and support with the things I needed help with,” Marnie reflects.

Marnie emphasizes the importance of ensuring adopted children know their own culture and heritage. Tricia Koeller, McGregory,  agrees; her family has  two adopted children from another culture. She, however, identifies this as a challenge living in Northeast Iowa where there isn’t much cultural diversity.

Ken and Sharon empowered Marnie to be proud of who she was and the Indian culture she came from.  She explains that she was adopted before the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) which was enacted in 1978 due to the high removal rate of Native American children from their traditional homes, and from the Indian Culture as a whole. Before the ICWA enacted, 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were being removed from their Indian homes and placed in non-Indian homes with presumably the absence of Indian culture. Obviously, if the ICWA had been enacted before 1971, Marnie wouldn’t have been placed with Ken and Sharon.

Similar to Ken and Sharon, Marnie and Jasen tried for five years to get pregnant on their own. Marnie was eventually diagnosed with a medical condition that made pregnancy unlikely. So the couple researched and weighed a whole spectrum of alternative ways of creating a family:  Foster care/adoption, private adoption, international adoption, egg donors, and a surrogate who would help us conceive and carry a healthy baby for the couple.

Because of the staggering number of children in foster care in the U.S., Marnie and Jasen decided to pursue foster care and adoption.  In 2009, they went through a very extensive 10-week parenting class, during which they learned what to expect when they received their first placement. After passing three required home visits, they received their foster/adoption license from the State of Iowa in January 2010.  Their end date for foster care would be December 2014.

So, the Burns family grew from two to seven within only three years. Like all proud moms, Marnie eagerly shares that traits and gifts of each of her five children.  Compassionate, smart, and silly is how this mom describes her oldest child, Jonah Wesley. Now an eight-year-old second grader, Jonah was the first to be adopted (May 2011).  

Madelyn Genevieve and Isaiah Kendall became Jonah’s siblings when they were both adopted on March 30, 2012.   While Madelyn is age seven and a second grader, Isaiah, is age six and a first grader.  A great big sister, Madelyn is helpful to, and has a huge heart for, others. Besides being a total sweetheart, Isaiah is also intelligent and determined.

Amelia Jane (Millie) and Cooper Irish joined the family when they were both adopted on December 5, 2013.  A seven-year-old first grader, Millie is not only loving and appreciative of everything, but she’s also a leader.  At age three and in nursery school, Cooper Irish is a funny and head strong daddy’s boy.

The adoption process is different for everyone. For Jonah, it meant months of visitations with his biological parents, family planning meetings, court dates, reunification plans, and lots of stress on him.  Marnie and Jasen found out on January 31, 2011 that they had been selected as Jonah’s forever family.  However, that didn’t mean that the adoption could take place right then and there.  While it meant that the motion was filed in the court that Jonah could not safely return home to his biological family, his other family members could ask the judge for permission to adopt Jonah. In his case, it had already been decided that Jonah could not live with his extended family either, because he had already done stays with them and those visits had failed. It wasn’t until May 18, 2011 that Jonah was officially adopted.

The adoptions of the other four children were a little easier, as they had already had their parental rights terminated and there were no family members willing or able to take the children.  Marnie explains that once they enter your home as a foster child who has been terminated and you agree to be a permanent placement, you are given 180 days for a family “trial.”  After the 180 days, you are then granted permission to adopt if the state feels you are able to provide the best situation for the child.

During the last four years, Marnie and Jasen have also fostered and/or provided respite for 45 children.  Their experiences as foster parents have been pretty run of the mill.  “I think when we first started, we thought everything was going to be wonderful and sunshine and roses,” Marnie admits, “In reality, you learn very quickly to trust your gut and your thoughts, and you do the best you can in every situation.”  

The Koeller Family

Unlike Marnie and Jasen, Tricia and Ryan Koeller of McGregor were able to have three biological children: Sam, 14; Max, 13; and Ruby, 9. “We thought our family was complete,” Tricia states, “Then after prayer and consideration, we decided to pursue adoption. Foster care just seemed like the next step and we never really questioned why.”

The Koellers went through the same foster care licensing process as the Burns, going through a 10-week, course, a home study, and background checks. The classes were actually what made Tricia and Ryan open up to providing foster care.  Their hesitance was based upon a concern for the safety of their kids and home.  Fortunately, the classes made them aware of what to expect.

During their four years as licensed foster parents, the couple fostered at least eight children—ranging in age from a baby to a teenager. The kids have stayed for as little as two days—giving respite to another foster family—to as long as four months. 

Tricia explains that foster families usually don’t find out they’re getting a new child until a few days before arrival. The information received from support workers about the child and his/her situation is often limited. No matter what, though, the Koeller family helps the child feel welcome, letting him/her decorate their own room and giving space to be oneself.

The Koeller family has indeed welcomed all their foster children into their home, but two in particular.  The two siblings, Ty and Laiva, the Koellers adopted at ages two and one in 2011 were actually their first foster placements.  Now age seven and in first grade, Ty is described by his mom as energetic, charming, and outspoken.  His six-year-old sister is a sassy, friendly, and happy kindergartner.  According to their mom, they have fit right in with their loving, witty, and entertaining older siblings.

The Seneys, Burns, and Koellers believe that both foster care and adoption teach the true meaning of unconditional love.  No matter who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter how stressful situations become, foster and adoptive parents love, support, cheer for, encourage, care for, and safeguard any child they take under their wings.  

This leads to the two other rewards to which Marnie and Tricia point: Strength and a “forever family.”  The love and care expressed by foster and adoptive parents lends even more strength to themselves, their family and friends, and their communities.   “It has made us realize how .much our extended family and close. friends care for our children and want to see them flourish too,” Tricia relishes, 

This all culminates in the ability to create “forever families” and for communities to support them.  “The most rewarding part is not just helping the [foster] kids,” Tricia expresses, “but seeing my own children happily share their home and everything they have.”

Marnie identifies forgiveness as another challenge. “It’s very difficult to be a foster parent to a child who has been physically abused, sexually abused, neglected, or not given basic human needs,” Marnie stresses,  “It’s very hard to forgive the person or people who have hurt them.  However, it has to be done to make sure that the child’s life moves forward.” 

Sending a foster child away is another challenge that has been a difficult one for both Marnie and Tricia.    When a foster child leaves, s/he either returns to the biological family or is sent to another foster family.  “Letting children leave your home can be heart breaking,” Tricia admits.  They explain that their minds and hearts are flooded with what if’s. What if they aren’t properly cared for, don’t have enough food, or end back up in the system?  Marnie shares, “Every time a child left our house, I hoped that I had filled that child’s cup so full of love, laughter, and great memories that it could last them a life time.” 

For this same reason, Tricia and Ryan initially did not consider providing foster care.  “I didn’t think I could give them back, but then the way you think about it changes,” Tricia admits, “Now you just want to give them a place to be for a week or a month.”

According to Marnie, as of 2013, there were approximately 4300 children in the foster care system in Iowa. She estimates 85% of those children were 12 and older. Nationally, she believes there are 63,000 children in the system, with 85% of them being 12 and over.  “The numbers are staggering,” Marni states, “However, with the economy, drug, and alcohol abuse, and mental illness, the numbers are not really that surprising.”

Hence, there is always a need for more foster parents.  The Koellers are quick to point out that “the more [foster parents] there are, the greater the support network.”    If you have questions about adoption or foster care, either couple would gladly visit with you. As the Seney, Burns, and Koeller families attest, you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect family to a child in need.

 The Burns, Seneys, and Koellers agree that it does take a village to raise a child, as without the support of their families, friends, faith communities, school districts and education systems, and medical communities, they wouldn’t be the families they are today.   “These kids aren’t just adopted by parents and siblings,” Tricia exudes amazement, “They are adopted by cousins and friends and teachers and pastors and classmates.”  





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