At the beginning of this week, children laughed and ate to their heart’s content at a party thrown specifically for them, an annual celebration where gifts are distributed to later be placed under the tree to extend some ‘cheer’ to a child who may be in need of it.
The Christmas Cheer party was put on yet again by the Sampson County Department of Social Services, a culmination of the namesake program whose aim is to give holiday gifts, with the assistance of community partners and private donations, to foster children in the area.
DSS officials, social workers, Guardian Ad Litems (GALs) and other child advocates, as well as foster parents and birth parents enjoyed the festivities, which not only focused on the spirit of the season but shed a light on an issue that remains prevalent all year long.
Thad Toomer, who has been a Guardian Ad Litem for five years, said the Christmas Cheer program was a worthwhile one in order to spread cheer all around and ensure children, especially those most vulnerable, are provided a good childhood memory.
“I think it’s very important, because in many cases these kids are not home,” said Toomer, who is based in Duplin County. “They’re with foster parents, and sometimes the foster parents have their own children. Because of this program, they are able to get Christmas gifts that they might not get otherwise.”
Toomer taught school years ago before leaving to work in the private sector. Following retirement, he wanted to get back to working with kids, and did. Like the Christmas Cheer Program, the volunteer Guardian Ad Litem serves an equally vital role in the lives of children — but it is an ongoing one.
“We are the advocates for the children in the court,” said Toomer. “Everybody else has an attorney. We find out what the children want and report that to their attorney, so their voice is heard in court.”
Charlie Steinbraker, a fellow GAL for five years, focuses his efforts in Sampson and Duplin. He similarly praised the Christmas Cheer Program for providing the Christmas experience to more children.
“Kids in this situation sometimes don’t get the same Christmas opportunities as other kids do,” said Steinbraker. “Anytime you can show kids that they’re cared for, that they’re loved, that they’re around caring adults … it’s the kind of thing that is going to take them on down the road to where they need to go in life. It’s the kind of nurturing stuff that normalizes a situation that sometimes isn’t real normal.”
The GALs had a pool party earlier this year for the children to ease them back to school, a celebration that allowed the children to receive donated backpacks and school supplies. Social worker Kaytric Herring said the DSS’ Christmas Cheer Program serves the same purpose for them at the end of the year.
“It gives back to the kids who are no longer placed with the parents,” said Herring. “Some are placed with relatives, but a lot of them are placed in foster homes, and they are not going to be spending Christmas with their families. This is a way of giving back and making sure they do have Christmas. It’s a good experience to be able to give and reach out to the community.”
An employee of Sampson County DSS for 18 years and a social worker for the last decade, Herring works specifically toward placement for children, trying to get them in “appropriate homes.” There are not that many foster homes in Sampson, so many are kept in foster homes in Duplin, Pender and other counties. One child, Herring noted, is in a home as far away as Butner, in Granville County.
While the number of foster children fluctuates, it is not dwindling, officials said.
“I think we have more this year than we had last year,” said Herring. “We’ve had kids coming in this month. I think we had two just before this event.”
‘A critical need’
The United Way of Sampson County donated $5,000 to the Christmas Cheer program this year and another $6,500 came from Wellman Oil Company Inc. in Clinton. The United Way has regularly been a heavy contributor and Wellman has been a significant donor the past two years. Additionally, there are other smaller individual donations.
In 2010, the Christmas Cheer program provided for 108 children and 17 adults, which DSS director Sarah Bradshaw noted at the time was the largest she had seen, with the number of children around 70 or 80 in previous years. In 2011, the program provided for even more children — at 132 — as well as 26 adults. Currently, DSS has around 120 children in foster care.
A retired Parks and Recreation official, Steinbraker has past experience working closely with children as Toomer and others do. The need cannot be ignored, he said.
“What prompts you is just the need,” said Steinbraker. “It’s such a critical need. You see kids that are out of the home, all ages, even teenagers. The advocacy needed is one of the important pieces. The social workers here do a marvelous job, they do a great job.”
And Guardian Ad Litems are able to step in and take that advocacy further, fighting for specific abused and neglected children and their well-being, where social workers are forced to juggle large caseloads. While social workers are in a professional capacity, the GALs are volunteers who can argue freely for “specialized attention” on behalf of the children for which they advocate, Steinbraker said.
Steinbraker said he handles two cases at a time, which allows him to dedicate his efforts.
“It seems like it hasn’t gotten better,” said Steinbraker. “They have periods like this, and they don’t even know why. It happens that way. Any time a kid is taken from the home, it’s traumatic. Our role — the thing we try to do the most — is get them back to their parent. The most important thing we can do is get that child back with the parents first, or with a family member. As wonderful as some of the foster parents are, they are not family. There are case studies that will tell you that children do better when they’re with family.”
He said there are so many children who need help, which sparks the need for everyone who can possibly offer it, whether it is a GAL, foster parent or relative. The ideal situation is always to get that foster child returned to a safe, permanent home with their birth parents, but a safe home is a must.
Working with Social Services staff, the GALs attempt to figure out what got the family to the predicament, and then, interact closely with the family to fix what is broken. In the long-term, Steinbraker said, the child does better when reconciled with their parents.
“It always can’t happen because sometimes there are physical issues, there are drug use issues, and some things that are really difficult to overcome,” said Steinbraker, who noted some of the serious abuse, and even death, that may occur at the hands of abusive parents. “Some of the cases are really serious, but a lot of them are not. A lot of them are mommy and daddy got screwed up and they were young and something happened. Nobody provides a manual for how to be a parent, or you don’t think you need to read it before you have children.”
Steinbraker said there have been “great cases” where children are able to be returned to their parents. Even at this week’s Christmas Cheer party, there were both parents and foster parents with children, in some cases both with a single child.
Mary Bethea came to the party with her recently adopted sons, Jesse, 7, and Victor, 4. Bethea was a foster parent for years, working with the boys’ birth mother during that time before she ultimately adopted the two.
“When she first got those boys, there was no way she was even entertaining adoption,” said Saundra Hines, social worker program manager for Sampson DSS. “But the more you work with them, the more connected and the stronger the bond that is built. We do shared parenting, so she assisted that mom by helping her and telling her things she needed to do to parent those children. But the mom, just mentally, was not able to get it together.”
It took four years, from the initial removal of the two boys, for that to happen. The birth mother was given every opportunity, but was ultimately deemed unable to parent the children. Bethea, as the sole foster parent to the boys their whole lives, jumped at the chance to adopt them.
“She didn’t want us to clear them and place them with another adoptive family,” said Hines. “She wanted to be the parent, so that’s what happened.”
A little cheer
Like Steinbraker, Hines said the need for foster parents is evident. A Christmas Cheer Program that has only gotten larger highlights that growing development.
“We will potentially see more and more of our numbers increase because of the economy and because of the growing problems,” said Hines. “If the money is not there, then the parents are scrapping and using drugs. It just increases the whole program. We need more foster parents. We want foster parents in every area that we remove children, so that we don’t have to go outside. Many times, we’re going beyond Sampson to place children. If we had them here, we wouldn’t have to do that.”
The foster children benefiting from the Christmas Cheer funds are those under temporary care due to family problems that prevent the child from staying safely in the home. Children in DSS custody are placed in a licensed foster home or group care facility that can best meet their needs while their parents work with Social Services staff to resolve their problems.
Those problems would only be compounded if Christmas came and went without a visit from Santa and a little help from others. With the help of Wellman Oil, through the BP Fueling Communities program, as well as the United Way of Sampson County and others, gifts are able to be purchased, collected and distributed to the foster parents to leave the gifts out for the children at Christmas.
“The gifts are from the Christmas Cheer Fund,” said Hines. “So many community people chipped in. It’s very important, because if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have it. The county doesn’t budget for this.”
Previously, DSS officials were not able to solicit for donations. Now that Wellman Oil has given a regular donation, DSS will be able to have individuals make direct donations to the county.
“Then, we will be potentially able to not only help the children in the foster care system, but reach out to the community children who are in need,” said Hines, “and that’s what we look for.”
In a society where the safety of children is on the minds of many, and sometimes appears to be at its most fragile state with each passing day, a community that shows it cares through an outreach such as Christmas Cheer is special — and exactly what the season should be about, many said.
“They want to talk about protecting children, these are the kind of programs you have to focus on and keep going, and enhance,” said Steinbraker. “This is about protecting children. This is what keeps them safe.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.