40 years of sharing love and caring

One family has taken in about 200 foster children

May 14, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The baby's name was Betty, but Alice Ashford called her "Betty Bubbles" because she made everyone smile.

The 6-month-old had undergone brain surgery and was in need of foster care. Ashford volunteered. The Abingdon resident recalls feeling a little intimidated by the prospect of caring for an infant in such a delicate condition.

"It was scary to hold her at first," Ashford said. "And it was hard to go to sleep at night because we were constantly checking on her to be sure she was all right."

Eventually, a family adopted Betty, and the Ashfords felt as though they had lost one of their own.

"I cried and hoped they would fill my arms with another baby quickly," Ashford said of social services agencies.

She got her wish.

Betty was the first child Ashford took in, and in the 40 years since, she and her family have cared for about 200 foster children. Many have had serious medical problems or have been abused or subjected to difficult home environments.

"When some of the kids come to me, they have never played outdoors and they have always lived in hotels," Ashford said. "I try to teach them to just be children. I want them to know [that] at my house it is safe and warm and the people in it love them."

The Ashfords are one of about 85 families registered as foster parents in Harford County, said Brenda Sponsky, the county's foster care recruiter and trainer for the Maryland Department of Social Services.

At any one time, 200 to 250 children are in foster care in Harford. That is about 10 percent more than five years ago, a rise Sponsky attributes to county growth.

Sponsky considers Ashford a model foster mother.

"Alice has more love to share with children than any other person I have ever met in my life," Sponsky said. "Every child leaves Alice knowing someone cares about them."

It was personal heartache that led the Ashfords into foster parenting -- their fifth child died during birth when Alice was 25. Later, she and her husband, Clarence, decided to pursue adopting a child. A social worker from the state suggested that they become foster parents.

"She thought that since we were mourning the loss of our daughter and we already had four other children that we would change our minds about adopting another one," Alice Ashford said.

Although determined to adopt, Ashford decided to try foster parenting, and that is when Betty came along. Through the years, Ashford has fostered children for days, weeks, months and years, and although she knows that someday they will leave, that does not make it any easier.

However, at times there have been children the Ashfords could not bear to part with. So they adopted them.

In 1977, they adopted three sisters -- Lisa, Sheila and Christine -- when the girls' parents could no longer care for them. They ranged in age from 5 months to 4 years.

About two years later, the Ashfords took in and eventually adopted Nicole, a child who would have a significant impact on the family.

The 5-month-old was a patient at University of Maryland Medical Center when the Ashfords learned about her. The infant had been severely abused and spent 25 days on life support. The abuse left the child mentally retarded, with limited eyesight and cerebral palsy, Ashford said.

"When they called us to pick up Nicole, they wanted us to come see her first," Ashford said. "They were worried once we saw her we wouldn't want her."

But that wasn't the case. Ashford knew that caring for a baby with serious medical problems would be difficult, but she felt up to the task and took the baby home.

For the first several years of Nicole's life, doctors frequently told the Ashfords the girl was going to die.

"We took her back and forth to the doctor and the hospital, and for 12 years we lived like that," Ashford said, holding her current foster child, an infant girl who arrived in March.

The Ashfords were so concerned about Nicole's health that they bought a house a short distance from Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.

"It was exactly 862 steps to the front door of the hospital," said Clarence Ashford, Alice's husband of 50 years, who is a technician at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. "We wanted to be close to make sure she wouldn't die if she needed medical attention."

By the time Nicole was 16, her medical needs began to exceed the care that the Ashfords could give, and she was placed in an assisted-living facility. Her departure strengthened the Ashfords' resolve to help children in need.

"I can't care for Nickie on my own anymore, but I can show other sick babies love and affection," Ashford said. "God only gives them to me for a short time, so I try to do as much as I can for them while they are with me."

The children the Ashfords have taken in make up a succession of tragic stories. There were those recovering from major surgery, or the abused, or victims of severe burns. Some wore body casts, or had feeding tubes or respirators or both. Some were the children of drug addicts.

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