Steve and Cari Bieber with Wendy and Wyeth Willard. (Photo by Nicole Munchel )
Three years ago, two Harford County couples made a decision that would change their families forever. Feeling the urge to help others in need, they decided to become foster parents. In the United States, there are more than 400,000 foster children. Approximately 6,500 foster kids live in Maryland, out of which 250 call Harford County home.
From the outside, foster families look just like other families, but their situation is unique. The call to pick up a child in need of assistance could come at any time and foster parents have to be ready at a moment’s notice. “It’s crazy. It’s chaotic at times. It’s never the same day twice,” admits Cari Bieber, a foster mom in Aberdeen. “But what it’s done for us is immeasurable.”
Cari, 45, and her husband, Steve, 46, have three biological children ages 23, 20 and 16. Currently, they’re foster parents to four young children that range in age, and this summer, they plan to adopt two of them.
In Bel Air, the Biebers’ friends, Wendy and Wyeth Willard, have two biological daughters ages 9 and 11 and care for two foster children—a teenager and an infant. “Foster parents are on the frontline of helping to make a change in the future of our culture,” Wendy, 36, says.
Both Steve Bieber and Wyeth Willard grew up in unconventional families. “My brother and sister are both adopted and they’re both older than me,” Steve says. “It’s kind of unusual, but it’s something I’ve cared about all along.”
Wyeth agrees. “I’ve always grown up in a home that was open to helping kids that were struggling one way or another,” Wyeth, 41, says. “It didn’t seem strange.”
Fostering is done with the intent and main interest to reunite families, according to Brenda Sponsky, the foster/adoptive parent trainer/recruiter at Harford County Department of Social Services.
The department of social services makes every effort to provide reunification services to biological families or place the foster kids with relatives to help the children remain connected to their birth families. But if reunification is not an option, adoption is a way for children to find permanency and security in a “forever family,” says Sponsky.
Foster parents receive a financial stipend from the state, but the role requires a large emotional investment, as well as time and energy. “The most challenging part is that we’re working with the kids one on one. We see firsthand what the shortcomings are,” Cari says. “But when push comes to shove, we have no say in whether they stay or go back to a less-than-stellar home environment.”
But the responsibility is not without reward. “It’s about making a difference in the lives of kids who just need a place to call home for a while,” Steve says. “Knowing that you’ve made a positive difference for these kids and that you’ve given them an opportunity to have a better life than they would have had otherwise is very rewarding.”
Being a foster parent is not possible without support from people in the same situation, according to Cari. “It’s not really like comparing notes with the mom next door,” she says. “What foster kids bring to the table is drastically different from the normal realm of child bearing. Support from fellow foster families is imperative.”
In the Bieber household, fostering is a family affair. The Biebers’ biological children are also involved in caring for the family’s foster kids. “They love it,” Cari says. “They are wholeheartedly, 100 percent on board. There’s no way we can do this without the support from our older children.”
Wyeth enjoys celebrating the small moments with his foster children. “Our present foster daughter failed her permit test the first time. She studied again and later came back beaming when she passed,” he says. “It’s really exciting to help them take those steps and guide them toward those victories. To watch that is really, really satisfying.”
Being a father figure for children who may not have one otherwise is also important. “We had a boy who stayed with us and the first couple of days he was here, him and Wyeth spent two to three hours tossing the ball back and forth,” Wendy says. “The kid couldn’t get enough.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson both families have learned from their foster experiences is compassion toward others. “You need some thick skin,” Wendy says. “But what you will get out of it is infinitely more than you will ever give.”
Prospective foster parents must be at least 21 years old and are highly encouraged to attend an orientation session to learn more. For more information about becoming a foster parent, please contact the Maryland Department of Human Resources at 888-MD-Kids2 (888-635-4372) or online at dhr.maryland.gov.