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Valley Center family lovingly shelters kids after traumatic events

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 11:12 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, at 11:46 p.m.

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How to volunteer

If you would like to volunteer to become an emergency foster parent for the nonprofit Wichita Children’s Home, call the home at 316-684-6581.

Youthville, another social service agency that cares for and oversees placement of foster children in Wichita and in much of Kansas, also needs volunteers to work as emergency foster parents who can step in and provide “respite” foster care, temporarily caring for children to give long-term foster care parents an occasional break. To volunteer with Youthville, call 800-593-1950, ext. 8118.

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Photos online

Go to Kansas.com to see a gallery of more photos attached to this story.

After they became emergency foster parents, Heather and Dan Smith took in an infant boy with broken blood vessels in his eyes and face.

Someone had tried to strangle him.

The infant was less than a year old.

Dan Smith remembers sitting beside the baby for a long time that first night, feeling upset, hoping for a successful and aggressive prosecution of the attacker. He hoped for this in spite of a lifelong belief in Christian forgiveness.

“I sat for a long time, trying to see if the baby did anything that could make anyone want to do such a horrible thing,” he said. “Does he cry all the time? Was that why? But the kid acted completely normal. It just shows you how much evil there is.”

Evil, Dan Smith said, is the absence of God. He and his wife care for children like that boy to fill that absence, he said.

In the last year and a half, emergency foster parents Dan and Heather Smith, along with their five daughters, have given shelter and temporary care to 76 children, most of them 4 years old or younger.

It’s a job they wanted, prompted by the parents’ religious beliefs about helping the weak. To live a Christian life, he said, requires more than merely going to church.

But this is a wrenching job, and not only for the parents. The Smiths’ daughters, ranging from 3 to 12 years old, change diapers, feed baby bottles, and kiss and coo and read to traumatized children alongside their parents. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Heidi Smith, 10. “You see how they have suffered, you care about them, and then when you say goodbye, it’s heartbreaking to know you will never see them again.”

Heather, the mother, said she’s taken photographs to remember them but has lost count of the children they’ve taken in. But Heidi kept a careful count: 76 children in a year and a half. “You want to remember them, and you try to do that,” Heidi said. “But that’s impossible.”

What they saw with these children shocked them at first. Holly, 12, said it still shocks them. Some of the newborns that Heidi, Holly and the others have held in their arms were born addicted to drugs, tiny arms and legs shaking through the tremors of withdrawal, addictions that started in their mothers’ wombs.

Some were kidnap victims, stolen by one parent from another. Some were taken after police broke into a house and found drugs or a drug-making lab in their parents’ home.

Heather Smith still gets upset when she tells about the twins they cared for. The babies had been neglected, left lying on their backs for so long that their soft infant skulls had flattened in back. “But they smiled and laughed and felt so happy when we had them,” Heather said. “They were just normal kids … but happy that someone actually paid attention to them.”

Many of the foster children cry at night in the Smith house near Valley Center; they miss their parents, even the parents who beat them.

The foster children are not the only ones crying. “I cry when we have to say goodbye,” said Holly. “It is really hard to do this.”

“It’s devastating,” Heidi said.

Dan Smith works at a sales company; his wife, whom he’s known since they were in grade school at Sunrise Christian Academy, is a homemaker.

The Smiths are one of 14 families who perform what the Wichita Children’s Home calls a grueling but vital community role. Kristina Young, the Children’s Home foster care manager, said emergency foster care parents are tough, resourceful and unpaid volunteers who submit to fingerprinting, background checks, seven weeks of training, home inspections – “and sometimes 3 a.m. calls to come to the Children’s Home in the dark and pick up yet another child.”

The Children’s Home provides temporary shelter to about 3,000 children taken there every year, often by law enforcement officers after the officers find them in any number of traumatic situations. They trained those 14 families (and would like to have more) because they believe children thrive better in a family home rather than in the more institutional Children’s Home.

Some children are injured from abuse, attention-starved or hungry from neglect. Some were born into a drug house. Police, the courts and social services use the Children’s Home as a temporary shelter until court hearings determine a longer-term decision: whether the child should be returned to the home or taken into long-term state custody.

“Usually the children taken in by the Smiths or our other emergency parents have just suffered the biggest trauma of their lives, being taken from their home,” Young said. “So we are incredibly picky about who we allow to become emergency foster parents. The last thing these kids need is more trauma.”

The toll this work takes on foster caregivers is considerable, Young said.

The emergency foster care families give shelter to children for only three to five days. Then they say goodbye. “Our family looks like a funeral procession when we take the child back and hand it off at the Children’s Home,” Heather said. “They all cry.”

“I really wanted to do this when my parents brought it up,” Holly Smith said. “But I had no idea how hard this was going to be. When I say goodbye to the kids I try to tell myself that this child is now going to a bright future with people who care for them. But it hurts.”

“When we train them, I tell them that whenever they have to say goodbye, we’ll usually have another child who desperately needs them in just a day or two,” Young said. “But it is very hard on them sometimes.”

At the Smith home on Thursday, all five of the blonde Smith girls sat with their parents on the family’s long couch. Holly, the eldest, held an infant girl in her arms; the child, only 7 days old, had been living at the Smith house for four days. In a few minutes, Holly and her family would drive the child back to the Children’s Home and say goodbye forever.

The child asleep in Holly’s arms had a full head of black hair and weighed barely more than the 6 pounds, 6 ounces she weighed at birth.

To Holly’s left sat her sisters, Kailey, 8, and Heidi, 10. To her right sat Madeline, 6. Crouched behind Holly sat Bethany, 3.

Holly, Heidi and Kailey spoke at length, without any prompting from their parents, about how much it hurts to do this work, but how they want to keep going.

All four of the older girls said they cry nearly every time they say goodbye to each child. All four said they want to play this role when they have their own families. They said the work has taught them how to help others, love others.

It has taught them how to think about other people. Bethany, the youngest, said she’s learned “how to be nice” around the children. Holly remembers trying to console one child, and how bad she felt when the kid, about age 5, suddenly whirled on her with a question: “Have you ever been taken from your parents?”

But Heidi told about a pair of small brothers, who looked surprised as they walked into the Smiths’ well-supplied home. “So do we get to live with you now?”

It was time to go.

Holly stood up, and handed the baby to Kailey. The other girls began to get ready to go with their mother to deliver the baby and say goodbye.

Kailey turned the sleeping infant in her arms so that she could look into the child’s face. Tears began to stream out of Kailey’s eyes. She stood still for a few long moments, holding the baby, crying.

A few minutes before this, Heidi had told a story about another goodbye.

A 5-year-old child, one of the other 76, had prepared to leave the Smith home forever a few weeks ago. The child suddenly looked closely at Heidi, and spoke:

“Will you remember me?”

“Yes,” Heidi said. “I will remember you.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or at rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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