• Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard took time out for a photo with his family, wife Rebecca, 13-year-old McKenzie, 5-year-old Brianna and 2-1/2-year-old Luke, at the CASA Dancing With North Georgia Stars. The Jarrards were there in support of CASA, the organization responsible for making it possible for the family to foster than adopt Brianna and Luke.

Dozens of children need a local home

There are Lumpkin County children scattered throughout surrounding counties—living in strange homes, going to schools where they don’t know the teachers or their fellow students. They don’t get much of a chance to see relatives because they are so far away and often transportation can be an issue. Many times they are separated from their brothers and sisters. 

“Connections are really important for a child—their church family, relatives, teachers and friends. Just imagine severing all those connections when you have already been removed from your home,” said Blake Boyer, Resource Development case worker with Department of Family and Children’s Services for Lumpkin and White counties. 

At the time of this interview, there were 52 Lumpkin County children in DFCS care. With only 16 foster homes in Lumpkin County, about 70 percent of children who come into care must be placed elsewhere. The lucky ones are in foster homes. The others, in a group home. 

Either way, Boyer said, “It’s traumatic to be placed with strangers.”

And being placed outside the county, losing all connection to the familiar, is even more traumatic.

Children are removed from their homes due to abuse—physical, sexual or emotional—or neglect. Sometimes it is a case of both. They come into care as a result of domestic violence, their caregivers’ addiction to drugs or alcohol, or because their parents are in jail. 

Whatever the reason, the children come with baggage. That’s why DFCS and other agencies that provide services to children caught up in the foster care system provide training to prepare prospective foster parents for the role they will play in a child’s life.

“The IMPACT classes cover how DFCS works, its policies, rules and regulations. But it also prepares foster parents for issues affecting the child and how to recognize and deal with them—the affects of trauma—how it affects development. We discuss grief and loss, cultural differences, discipline; sexuality and sexual orientation, how being removed from their family may affect a child’s cognitive functioning and a lot more,” Boyer said. 

 

BIG DECISION, BIG BLESSING

Making the decision to become a foster parent is a big commitment, but a rewarding one.

Lumpkin resident Susan Cheatham made that decision four years ago. She is a foster parent for Wellroot Family Services, an agency of The United Methodist Church in North Georgia. Its foster care, transitional and independent living and family housing programs have helped thousands of children and young adults over the years. Wellroot is one of several agencies DFCS works with to place children.

Cheatham taught special education for 30 years. After retiring, and with her three grown sons out of the house, she “decided I wanted to help children in a different way,” she said.

Many of the students in her classes were foster children, she said, and she was often called to testify in juvenile court. 

“I knew there was a great need and I had two empty bedrooms—and I like having children in the house. My goal is to be a safe, loving haven for a child in need,” she said.

Cheatham has provided that haven for eight children so far, with placements varying from one week to just over two years. The average placement lasts from eight to 12 months.

Ages have ranged from six months to 15-years-old. 

The over 10 years of age youngsters—especially teens—and sibling groups are the most difficult to place, both DFCS and Wellroot agree.

Neither DFCS nor Wellroot force a foster parent or family to take a child or children. However, Wellroot does ask their families to be approved to care for more than one child.

“We know that separating siblings results in additional trauma for the children, which we try to avoid when possible,” Wellroot representative Brett Hilleshiem said. “Foster parents need to have a heart and compassion for children and be willing to do what is required or needed to provide them with their best days.”

That’s not always easy. One little boy who came into Cheatham’s care had trouble sleeping, she said.

“I would take him on my lap and rock and sing to him before he went to bed at night. While he was there, a baby came into my care, and I had to go to the store for formula. The baby started fussing on the way home and all of a sudden I heard the 3-year-old starting to sing to the baby. He had taken what he learned to love and comfort another,” Cheatham said. “I love to see the growth from trauma to learning empathy; from being scared and not wanting to go to bed, too feeling safe.”

Often times those seeking to foster do so because they are interested in adopting a child. That was the case with Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard and his family. 

“It was really my daughter’s idea,” Stacy said. 

 

EXPANDING THE FAMILY

In June 2016 Stacy, his wife Rebecca and daughter McKenzie were on vacation. 

“McKenzie had a friend with her and when we got home she said she wished she had a sister or brother. She was bored being at home, I guess,” he explained.

Stacy explained to McKenzie that he and her mom couldn’t have any more children due to the chemotherapy and other treatments he went through while fighting cancer. The only way she could have a sister or brother, he told her, was if the family adopted.

The family talked and prayed about it, and decided to give it a try. Prospective adopting and well as foster parents must go through IMPACT classes, so the Jarrards signed up. But before they took the first class they found themselves the foster parents to two children—Brianna, 2 1/2 years old, and her brother Luke, 7 months old.

Step back in time to February 2016. Stacy was leaving the courthouse when he saw a man with a little girl and boy in the lobby. 

“The little boy was just glowing,” he said. “I’d just had a stem cell transplant and I wasn’t supposed to be around kids because if they had just had a vaccine I might catch something, but I walked over to the little boy and rubbed him on the head, and he just smiled. ….”

Stacy told his wife about touching the little boy  and called his doctor. He was advised to wash his hands and watch out for a fever. When no fever developed the incident was dismissed from his mind. 

Now fast forward to June and a phone call from Enotah CASA (Court Appointed Child Advocate), asking if the family would be willing to take a boy and girl as foster children soon after their decision to adopt.

“They said they thought the Lord was moving in this situation because the guardians wanted us to have the children,” Stacy said.

Again, the family prayed about it. 

“McKenzie had been an only child for 10 years and I told her she would have to share us, her stuff—everything,” Rebecca said. “I told her it would turn her world upside down.”

But the family decided to take the youngsters, and called back the following day. After a home inspection by CASA a judge approved the placement.

The children’s guardians, their aunt and uncle, brought the children to the Jarrards’ home. 

“The uncle said, ‘What took you so long?’ I was confused. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then he told me he knew back in February when I rubbed the little boy’s head at the courthouse that I was the one the kids were supposed to be with,” Stacy said. 

“He was a preacher, and told us he had prayed for a good home for them to go too,” said Rebecca.

“They couldn’t keep the kids themselves,” Stacy added. “That’s the same boy that calls me daddy now. The Lord was in it the whole time.”

The Jarrards went through the IMPACT classes and continued to foster the children, all the while attempting to help the parents regain custody of the children.

“Reunion is the goal of DFCS and CASA. We helped with the expenses of drug court and everything, but it just didn’t work out,” Stacy said.

“We did all we could to get them back with their parents,” Rebecca added.

Even though the goal is to reunite children with their biological parents, and that can be “disheartening,” Stacy said, “I encourage foster parents to be patient. That’s what the process should be. If you are hoping to adopt, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. It’s a drawn out process.”

 

A PERMANENT HOME

Foster parents also need patience with the children, and with themselves. 

“It’s hard to take on someone else’s kids. There’s no telling what they’ve been through, what they’ve witnessed,” Rebecca said. “You have to be patient. Some days are a struggle, but they just need somebody to love them and show them the right way.”

After 16 months parental rights were terminated and the children became available for adoption, Luke and Brianna, now 2 /1/2 and 5, became a permanent part of the Jarrard family.

McKenzie, now a 13-year-old, is delighted to have a little sister and brother. 

“It’s more fun that they are little. Time flies, and it’s never boring,” she said.

“She’s been wonderful,” Rebecca said. “She’s the best big sister. It’s like they’ve always been there.”

“Luke gets crushes on McKenzie’s friends. He loves Bri Rich. He asked her to come to his birthday party,” Stacy teased his daughter.

Not all foster parents end up, or even want to adopt. But they do usually get attached—and that’s not a bad thing, Chetham said. “A lot of people say they could never foster because they would get attached. But I say if you don’t get attached, you shouldn’t be a foster parent.”

If your heart is moved by the growing number of children entering the foster care system—the number continues to grow, Boyer said—“you can start out helping here and there. We need respite homes, people who can help in case of emergency or scheduled break. To have those people available is awesome.”

Information sessions are held the first Tuesday of each month, 6 p.m. at the DFCS office at the end Tifton Drive. 

“You can sign up at 877-210-KIDS, or email me at blake.boyer@dhs.ga.gov, or just show up. Some Tuesday nights I just stay here waiting for folks,” she said. 

For more information about Wellroot, visit its website at wellroot.org.

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