James and Angela Carlson
Driving by the home of James and Angela Carlson, nestled among the Christmas lights of one of Liberty Lake's quiet neighborhoods, a person would never know that just inside the front door are children who might otherwise be having a very different holiday experience.
That's because for the past year and a half, the Carlsons have been foster parents. Currently, four foster children live with the family. Zoe, Ian and Faith are a sibling group. Ali, at 9 months old, is just barely older than the couple's only biological, Asa, who was born five months ago.
The extended family has been busy during the holidays taking part in all the traditional programs and concerts at the children's school. Recently, the family attended a "Christmas with Santa" event for area foster children at the Northern Quest Resort and Casino.
"It's just the magic of Christmas; the introduction to the stories and the traditions," Angela said. "We attended the first grade Christmas Concert at the school, and it was precious. It's just a lot larger definition of what a family is. It's not just biological, but just anybody who needs to be loved."
According to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, foster care is designed to be a temporary living situation for children and youth who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, abandonment or the death of their caregivers.
For Angela, foster parenting comes as natural as breathing. Born and raised in Wisconsin, she grew up in a household where her mother and father were themselves foster parents. Angela explained that from an early age, she can remember having foster children laughing and playing in their home.
When she and James were married almost four years ago, they didn't immediately think about continuing her family's tradition. James was busy developing a ministry in the area, and the newlyweds were still enjoying the freedom of being able to go skiing, take in a movie - or maybe even sleep late on the weekends.
James explained that when he first encountered foster care through Angela's parents, who had moved to Liberty Lake, he wasn't sure he was cut out for such an adventure.
"I remember thinking there was no way I was ever going to get involved with that," he grinned. "I didn't understand it because I grew up in a very structured home."
Early in their marriage, the couple wasn't quite ready to start their own family, but James was starting to come around to the idea of being a foster parent. They became licensed as foster parents and initially decided to just do respite care, which is basically short-term babysitting for other foster families. James explained that he and Angela initially chose respite care to help out Angela's parents, who had continued to be a part of the program after their move.
Respite care typically gives foster parents the opportunity to travel out of town if a need arises, handle medical situations or to just take a break for a few days. All respite care providers must be approved foster care homes.
Since becoming a part of the foster care program about 18 months ago, Angela and James estimate they have cared for approximately 75 children. Angela explained that there are three levels of foster care: respite care, foster care placement and foster to adopt.
"Then there are foster homes that offer everything from respite to long-term foster care," explained James, as he bounced 9-month-old Ali on his knee.
Angela explained that the smiling, happy baby was brought to their door at 2 a.m. on a Saturday with the explanation that it would be only a three- or four-day placement.
"They felt like they had another placement for her - at least that's what they told us - because they knew we were expecting our baby in two weeks," James said.
"And three to four days has been six months," Angela smiled.
The couple went on to the foster to adopt program about this time last year when they heard about the three siblings.
"We wanted the best for them, and we had the willingness to open up our home," James said.
James explained that any adult, single or married, can apply to be a foster parent. He said the state of Washington does a thorough background check on every applicant, evaluates their home to make sure it is a safe environment, and offers about six weeks of classes to educate them on what it means to be a foster parent and what to expect.
Applicants are also evaluated on the number of rooms in each home. The Carlsons' spacious home allows them to have a total of five children at one time, including their own.
James pointed out that any prospective foster parents should consider where they are financially in their lives, the dynamics of their family if they have any other children, and any future plans for the family.
Angela said a willingness to be a foster parent is the paramount reason for an individual or couple to become a part of the program.
"There is a huge need in Spokane," she said. "They have been breaking records every quarter for the number of kids in foster care."
The couple explained that all four of their foster children bring something special to their lives, but point out that the babies, such as Ali, are unique because she has all the needs of any infant, including bottle feedings, diaper changes and, most of all, the need to be held.
"The babies want to be held, and that is one of the reasons we got involved is because of the touching and closeness they weren't getting; that's why they're in foster care," James said. "We can provide that kind of caring to the baby during their transition to a stable home."
"Every child in foster care just needs someone to pay attention to them," Angela added.
James said some of their friends have begun making comments about looking into the program.
"A lot of our friends are starting to say, ‘My gosh, maybe I should help out, too,'" he said. "That's when I tell them to try respite first. It's a short-term placement; it's not a large commitment, and you can always say no if it doesn't fit your schedule."
Angela said that foster parents involved in the respite program aren't required to take care of a child on a regular schedule.
"Honestly, if they have one weekend a month available it would be a huge help," she said.
"Or one weekend a year," James added. "They'll call you and ask if you are available to take care of a couple of kids - and explain their situation. If you aren't available, they'll just go down the list."
James said the ability to love is the main criteria for being a good foster parent.
"And somebody who wants the best for the child," he continued.
For more information on becoming a foster parent, visit www.fpas.org or call 888-543-7414.
James and Angela Carlson
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