Original story featured in the November issue of Point & Plover Lifestyle magazine
Being a foster parent is an amazing experience,” says Wendy Attoe. “You get to see the difference you’re making in kids’ lives and you see them grow and become who they are.”
“It’s cool when you see them learn things they never learned,” adds her husband, Chris.
“And when they first say ‘I love you,’ it melts your heart. And for some of these kids that’s huge, because they don’t know what it’s like to love and be loved,” says Wendy.
The Attoes, from Chippewa Falls, have gained a keen understanding of the needs of foster children in the eight years they have been foster parents. They are the first upstate foster family licensed by SaintA, a multi-faceted human services agency that provides foster care, education and mental health services. SaintA has been based in Milwaukee for 165 years, and in 2009 was chosen by the state to provide half of the foster care services in Milwaukee County. But the demand for high-quality, foster care services is statewide, so last year the agency expanded to serve all of Wisconsin with what is called treatment foster care.
The Attoes are licensed as treatment foster parents, those who care for children with serious physical or behavioral challenges. Many of these children have experienced abuse and neglect, and SaintA’s expertise in trauma informed care helps the foster parents understand how these kids’ past affects their behavior and helps them to work with the children to mitigate those effects. The Attoes now are caring for four kids, from the ages of 5 to 12, one who has cerebral palsy. They also have a biological son, Jayden, 12. So their lives are full, to say the least.
They consulted with their son before taking in foster children, which they said is important for anyone considering fostering, and Jayden has grown to be so comfortable with them that Wendy says he’s “kind of the mother hen, especially with the littler ones.”
There are, of course, challenges working with treatment foster children. But, says Wendy: “You don’t need to be special, you just have to be kind and caring and have a heart. You just need to be a parent who loves kids.
“And overall, the rewards absolutely outweigh the challenges. Those are just little bumps in the road you have to overcome.”
Wendy attributes SaintA staff with helping the family whenever they need assistance, even to just listen when they call and are frustrated. SaintA requires trainings in trauma informed care, but to accommodate parents upstate, the agency has started doing webinars, and sometimes a SaintA worker will come to the parents’ home and train.
Beyond understanding the effects of trauma, the most important things for treatment foster parents, the Attoes said, is to simply do little things with the child, encourage them, and let them know you are there for them and always willing to listen when they want to talk.
“Trust is a big issue for these kids, so you have to gain that trust,” Chris said.
“And you have to have a sense of humor in foster care,” Wendy said. “Sometimes you just need to laugh things off.”
Part of fostering, the Attoes said, is understanding that most foster children return to their birth homes. So the family keeps the lines of communication open with the biological parents, offering to lend a hand to help them be successful parents. When the children leave to go home, it can be sad, the couple said.
“But it comes with all the benefits of knowing the impact you are making in their lives and with the bio parent, helping them to learn how to be better parents and to get where they need to be.”
Wendy and Chris often speak to family, friends and co-workers to encourage them to consider becoming a foster parent. Wendy posts on her Facebook page and hangs posters in the community.
SaintA recently hired Heidi Seppelt to do recruitment and licensing for the central region of the state. Located in the Stevens Point area, she connects with schools, businesses, churches, service organizations and families to provide information about the need for treatment foster parents. She is available to speak to any groups that may be interested in learning more.
Heidi will host a treatment foster care community educational meeting in the Portage County Public Library in Stevens Point on Nov. 9, from 6-7 p.m. Interested individuals can attend, or contact Heidi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, www.growhope.net provides answers to virtually any question someone may have about becoming a foster parent, from requirements and timelines, to dispelling common myths.
Wendy and Chris say they hope more people will take the first steps.
“Help save a life!” Wendy says.
Adds Chris: “Help make the difference!”