When Jaime and Brent Shawl throw a birthday party and invite family members only, more than 40 people show up.
Many of them don’t share the same DNA, but they’re family nonetheless.
The Glendale couple are licensed foster parents. They’ve been fostering since 2012 and have welcomed more than a dozen children into their home, two of whom they’ve adopted.
May is National Foster Care Month and this is their story.
The Shawls can’t have children of their own. They had always talked about fostering and adopting, but life got in the way, so the topic was pushed to the back burner.
That was until July 2012, when one of the Shawls’ cousins asked if they could foster a friend’s 3-year-old daughter. The friend initially asked the cousin to foster Tressie, but with one child graduating, another getting married and a third still in high school, the family had their hands full.
The topic was suddenly on the front burner and the Shawls said yes.
“As I’ve always said, my husband and I are the biggest procrastinators, so if God wants something done, he’s going to just throw it at us, so that’s what happened,” Shawl said.
The Shawls fostered Tressie for about three years before adopting her in December 2015.
A year later, they opened up their home to more foster children.
“We were like, you know what, we know that there’s a need, there’s 16,000 kids here, so let’s start fostering again,” Shawl said.
Rewards and challenges
She said the rewards that come with fostering are numerous, but there are challenges, as well, especially when it comes time to say goodbye.
She said she meets a lot of people who say, “I could never do that, how do you give them back?”
She tells them it’s hard, but “if it’s not hard, then you’re not doing your job. If you can’t love these children like they’re your own and make your home their home, because that’s what they need — all these kids — is a loving home and they need stability, and that’s what any of them need, so I think what’s rewarding for me, even if they go back to family, is knowing that in the timeframe that they were with us, they felt safe, they felt loved, they got the family life that they needed at that time. Even if it was just a few days, we gave them a home.”
She said most foster children have been removed from their homes, so they carry that trauma with them, which can make things difficult.
“A lot of the children, especially in our care, they don’t communicate well, so you have to figure out as patiently as possible while they’re screaming bloody murder at the top of their lungs, ‘Alright, how am I going to help you?
Because I can’t get through to you right now because you can’t hear me.’ And then just figuring out what it is that they need and how you can help them.”
She described a honeymoon period during the first month or so when the children are “angels” and everything is “hunky-dory.”
“But then they realize, ‘OK, you are playing the role of the parent and I’m going to be who I am,’” she said.
Shawl said once a child leaves her and her husband’s home, she writes a letter to the caregiver, updating him or her on the child. She said she’s become friends with several family members of the children she and her husband have fostered. Some who live across the country even send her newsletters and pictures.
“In that aspect, it’s rewarding because we know that the kids are doing well,” she said. “We know that they’ve gone back to good homes, loving homes, and we did our part.”
She said most of the family members of the children she and her husband have fostered have been appreciative.
“For the most part, they do thank us, and they are aware that we are giving up our time, our energy, when they’re sick and we’re up with them in the middle of the night, all that stuff,” she said. “There’s a very small few that don’t appreciate it, and I think it’s out of love for their biological family that they get frustrated. But for the most part, they know what we’re doing. We’re doing what they would do if they were able to and any other person would do, is loving the child as if they were our own, and that’s what we do.”
The Shawls adopted their second daughter, Chloe, 3, April 17.
Shawl said she and Chloe’s biological aunt get along so well that her children call the Shawls “aunt” and “uncle” and Tressie calls her and her husband “aunt” and “uncle.”
“We kind of just consider it a marriage,” Shawl said. “I mean, it’s essentially what it is, we’re legally bound, I mean she’s our daughter now, but as for the family, we’re like, ‘we’re family now.’”
And thus the Shawls’ family continues to grow.
Last October, they threw a family-only joint birthday party for Tressie and an 18-month-old boy they’re currently fostering, and between their families and some of their children’s and foster son’s biological family members, the party grew to more than 40.
How to get licensed
To become a foster parent, one must take a state standard class and submit to a home inspection.
The class covers legal aspects of fostering as well as child behaviors, and even provides resources that are available to foster parents, such as how to obtain necessary items, such as fire extinguishers, smoke and CO2 detectors and even beds, free of charge.
“They don’t want (the cost) to be a preventer,” Shawl said. “They know that there’s a need and they want to help you as much as they can.”
She said the classes are very accommodating, even providing childcare.
Shawl said hundreds of organizations exist that help people get licensed to become foster parents, but she recommends Arizona’s Children Association because she’s had nothing but good experiences with it.
“They’ve been phenomenal, I can’t complain at all,” she said. “We’ve always had wonderful case managers, licensing agents, it has been such a wonderful organization.”
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1912, is the largest foster care provider in the state, according to www.arizonachildren.org. It trains and supports foster care families, as well as collaborates with adoption placing agencies.
Shawl said foster parents have choices such as the number of children they’re willing to foster, age and gender of the children, and whether or not they want to be on the emergency placement list, meaning they could get called in the middle of the night.
She said people considering fostering should not go into it with any reservations and should have all of their questions and concerns answered beforehand. She said saying goodbye will be hard and that they will go through a grieving period before they’re ready to foster again.
“But you do wake up one day and say I’m ready to love another child again,” she said. “And there’s another kid out there for me.”
To find an upcoming foster care and adoption orientation class through Arizona’s Children Association, go to http://arizonaschildren.evanced.info/signup/Calendar.
For more foster care and adoption licensing agencies, visit https://dcs.az.gov/fosteradoption/foster-care-licensing-agencies.