Prizm News / April 1, 2019 / By Laura Newpoff

LaShonna Myers and Buffie Courtney started as foster parents and have adopted 10 children. (Prizm photo by Briana Snyder)

And they’re finding out that it’s not just the kids who benefit.


By Laura Newpoff

When LaShonna Myers met her wife 12 years ago, Buffie Courtney was the mom of three adopted children. After several years of dating and then deciding they would make a life together, Myers knew she wanted to become a parent, too.

A painful family experience made foster-parenting an appealing option as she considered how to grow a family.

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“My dad is a Baptist preacher,” Myers says. “When I came out (as lesbian), my family rejected me, and they’ve maintained that for 30-plus years. I envisioned the rejection a child must feel when they’re in the foster care system, and I just didn’t want kids to feel like that. Foster kids face a lot of rejection and abandonment issues. I could relate to the trauma.”

Myers also was able to draw a contrast between her family and her wife’s. Courtney’s family is loving and supportive, and Myers wanted to show foster kids, who frequently suffer deep emotional trauma, that they could have a life like that, too.

The couple had gay friends who had adopted through an agency that at the time was called Action Adoption. It’s now part of the National Youth Advocate Program, an Ohio-based child-advocacy agency that offers foster-parenting services.

Today, Myers and Courtney are the proud parents of 10 children, seven of whom they fostered and adopted together. They and other LGBTQ parents say foster-parenting means nothing less than saving lives and breaking destructive cycles. At a time when the foster-care system is strained more
than ever before because of the unrelenting opioid crisis, there’s never been more of an emphasis on the importance of outreach between these two
marginalized communities.

LaShonna Myers and Buffie Courtney. (Prizm photo by Briana Snyder)

FINDING A MATCH
Myers and Courtney, who live northeast of Dayton in Fairborn, began the foster-to-adopt process by taking 12 weekly three-hour training sessions to become licensed through the National Youth Advocate Program.

They learned CPR, parenting skills and how to handle a child’s emotional meltdown. They had to provide references and host two home visits, but perhaps the most interesting test was a five-page checklist that helped the agency find a good match.

“It includes everything that a human being could have endured,” Courtney says. “Are you interested in a child who’s been sexually abused with mental illness? Or someone who has broken the law or has a physical disability. You can say ‘Yes,’ ‘No’ or ‘Maybe.’ If you say, ‘No,’ that’s OK, but we didn’t say no to hardly anything.”

One of Courtney’s daughters has cerebral palsy and can’t walk, so the couple did say ‘No’ to anyone with a background that included fire-starting or sexual offenses. On the day they completed their last training session, they got their match. Three children—ages 5, 4 and 20 months—needed
a home.

“We made it our goal to adopt children of diversity,” Courtney says. “When you foster, not only are you changing that child’s life, you have interrupted the cycle. For those three children who were possibly going to be the fifth generation of addiction, we have now stopped that. They won’t have that family influence now. This gives them a better chance.”

The couple would continue to foster. Their brood of 10 now ranges in age from 17 months to 17 years.

The licensing process helped in so many ways, the couple say. They made friendships that they’ve maintained and received a valuable education that has helped them navigate the challenges fostering often presents.

“One of our children, he was left alone a lot in his room. Now when he needs some quiet time, it can’t be in his room or he flips out and starts to destroy things. So we have him go sit on a stool in our kitchen. My mom would have said, ‘Go to your room and I’ll see you when you’ve got it together.’ We can’t do that with him.”

An older son, who at age 5 had to scavenge for food in dumpsters for him and his little sisters, can’t snap his fingers and can get frustrated when he tries.

When you grow up in a house where you don’t use a spoon to feed yourself Cheerios in the morning, Courtney says, certain motor skills don’t develop.

They’ve made sports an important part of all their kids’ lives to help with motor skills and confidence.

“Everything we do works around the kids’ schedule. One of the things they teach you (is to) get the kids involved in as many things as possible so they can make friendships and connections. Every time we are chosen, one of the selling points is we keep our kids busy. Before, they were in a socio-economic situation where they couldn’t afford team sports or were bouncing around different family members. … So we have them involved in swimming, soccer, basketball, band and dance.”

Courtney and Myers say fostering is one of the least expensive ways to start a family when you compare it to the cost of private adoption, surrogacy or in-vitro fertilization. They receive a monthly state subsidy of a few hundred dollars per child to help with basic expenses.

The couple have made several sacrifices in building their family, which includes four dogs and three cats. They’ve given up full-time careers;Myers, a disabled veteran, is now a dog walker, and Courtney works from home for a direct sales company that sells makeup and skincare products.

Their children’s biological families weren’t told who Myers and Courtney are, but it’s not uncommon for foster children to want to reach back out to
the families they first knew. Their 17-year-old son recently got in touch with his mom, a decision Myers and Courtney chose to respect.

“You have to leave your ego at the door,” Courtney says. “You are Plan B for these children. Still, we are the lucky ones. We have 10 of the bravest, most resilient children you could ever have the honor and privilege of knowing.”

‘UNIQUELY QUALIFIED’
The opioid crisis has stretched Ohio’s foster care system, and the numbers of children coming into care each year continues to surge, says Kathleen Sullivan, senior manager for caregiver resource management at Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services.

The agency started the year in 2014 with about 1,600 children who had been removed from their homes for safety reasons. Today, the number of children in care is over 2,600 and growing.

Across Ohio, more than 16,000 children were in foster care in July 2018. That number was an all-time high, a 28 percent increase from 2013, and part of what the Public Children Services Association of Ohio calls a “tsunami of need” in the state.

“We need foster parents who will care for and nurture these children in the hopes that they can eventually go back to their family of origin,” Sullivan says. “However, if that cannot be safely accomplished, we want caregivers who will also be willing to become that forever family.”

Members of the LGBTQ community, she says, are uniquely qualified.

“Foremost, they have likely endured their own trauma by virtue of being marginalized due to their own sexual orientation or gender identity and expression,” she says. “Because of these experiences they are poised to be able to quickly understand children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect.”

Members of the LGBTQ community also are extremely valuable when it comes to fostering LGBTQ youth, Sullivan says. Her agency has started a group called the Pride Caregiver Network, which is open to any caregiver who wants to care for a young person in the foster system who identifies as LGBTQ.

People who join the network are provided extensive training on how to be affirming to these young people and learn how to not only support them, but to celebrate them for who they are, Sullivan says.

“LGBTQ young people are overrepresented in the child-welfare system and are at greater risk than their heterosexual and cisgender peers of poor outcomes like drug addiction, homelessness, human trafficking, aging out of the system without a support network and living in group care instead of a family-like setting,” Sullivan says. “We need LGBTQ people and allies who can be affirming but also willing to learn how to work with our older youth.”

Isiah and Wilbur Williams. (Prizm photo by Jackie Bertolette)

‘DO YOU GUYS HAVE A BABY CRIB?’
Isiah and Wilbur Williams decided to become foster parents about two years ago. Isiah’s mom was a foster parent when he was a child, so he understood how the process works and decided it would be the ideal way start their family.

The Cleveland couple, both in their early 30s, took weekly eight-hour courses for a month and a half so they could be licensed by the Division of Children and Family Services in Cuyahoga County.

They learned about childhood development, behavioral issues and what changes to expect as their family grew.

“I was extremely nervous,” Wilbur says. “I didn’t know what to expect, and you hear horror stories about kids being unruly or misbehaving. But I went in with an open mind because I wanted to learn.”

The Williamses welcomed their first foster child, a boy, in June 2018. He’s 3 years old now. Two months later, while Isiah was working an overnight shift as a truck dispatcher, a baby girl was brought to their house. She’s 18 months old now.

“They had the same caseworker,” Isiah says. “They asked, ‘Do you guys have a baby crib?’

Isiah and Wilbur also are animal lovers and have three dogs and nine birds, which the children love. They are going through the process to adopt their older foster-child, hope to be able to adopt the toddler and plan on many more children after that.

Isiah, in fact, wants their house to be filled with the laughter and love of 10 children.

“Because of opioids and drugs, so many kids have lost family members,” he says. “I feel like we’re changing lives and making a difference. These are two kids who, if they stay with us, won’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or wonder, will they be loved? It will be a new beginning for everybody.”

Amanda Baker and Rayna Huff. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

‘FOUR KIDS AT ONCE’
Amanda Betker and Rayna Huff are a married couple in their late 20s who live in Medina. They’ve been together since 2012 and knew immediately that they wanted to start a family. They originally tried to get Amanda pregnant through insemination with a known donor, but after a year of trying with no success, they changed course.

The couple chose a private agency called Caring for Kids in Cuyahoga County, where both private adoption and foster care are offered. Through their license, they are considered a treatment or therapeutic foster home, which requires extra training in order to work with young people with extensive needs.

Not long after they received their license, they got their first foster call.

“‘Hey, we have these kids, a sibling group of two,’” Betker recalls.
They welcomed the children in June and were under the assumption they’d have them only until September.

“Then we got another call for two more kids,” Betker says. “We thought, ‘Oh we’ll just overlap for two weeks and it won’t be a big deal.’ We never imagined we’d have four kids at once.”

It turns out the training they received to become a treatment home paid off. One of the boys, at the age of 1½, wasn’t talking like he should have been and could say only the word dog. (Betker and Huff have three dogs and three cats.)

“I’m a very persistent person, and I knew he should be talking,” Betker says. “It turned out he had massive fluid buildup in his ears and he couldn’t
hear, so he wasn’t developing speech.”

The four children—ages 1, 2, 3 and 4—all would be welcome to stay with the couple, but it’s expected the two youngest will return to their biological families. In the meantime, Betker and Huff, who are part of the Pride Caregiver Network, are keeping one of the four bedrooms in their home open in case an LGBTQ youth needs a place to stay.
And that speech-challenged child is now talking
up a storm.

“We feel like we’re making a huge difference in their lives,” Betker says. “They are massively different people, and we’re making an impact on a daily basis. I also know it’s made a massive difference in my life.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer who spent nearly 20 years as an editor and reporter at Columbus Business First. Follow her at lauranewpoff.com or on Twitter @lauranewpoff.

FIND OUT MORE

For more information on the Cuyahoga County Children and Family Service’s AFFIRM.ME program, which was was developed to improve the lives of LGBTQ youth in foster care, visit: cfs.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/AFFIRM-ME-Program.aspx.

More information about the Pride Caregiver Network in Cuyahoga County can be found at: cfs.cuyahogacounty.us/ en-US/Pride-Caregiver-Network.aspx.

The National Youth Advocate Program is a private, not-for-profit youth advocacy organization that currently serves youth and families in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Visit nyap.org to learn more.