By Victoria Landers
About 38 percent of the 992 foster children in the Panhandle region of Texas live in Lubbock County, according to the Texas Department of Family Services. With hundreds of children in need of homes, Lubbock officials are looking for more families to volunteer to foster children.
On March 3, Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson publicly highlighted the urgency for foster families in Lubbock. Robertson, along with representatives from several placement agencies in the city, held a meeting at City Hall with a goal of getting more families involved.
“We so need that precious resource called a family that can open their heart, their home, their resources, and their love to these children that have been removed,” said Jenifer Jarriel, president and CEO of DePelchin Children’s Center, at the meeting.
Since then, foster parents like Justin Keene, assistant professor of electronic media at Texas Tech University, and his wife, Johanna Keene, have raised awareness of the issue. The Keenes began their journey with foster care a year and a half ago but had considered adoption for years.
“We need the entire system to be raised in numbers and general awareness to be raised citywide,” Keene said. “The reality is, Lubbock is a city of a quarter million people, and we have so many poor little babies that just need a place to sleep and just need someone to hug on them and say, ‘You are a product of your environment, that is not who you are, and I love you even when you misbehave.’”
There are many different ways to become a foster parent, Keene said. The couple is licensed through Benchmark Family Services.
“You do a lot of training with them, like CPR and things like how you deal with a kid having a meltdown, how you administer psychotropic drugs, like ADHD meds, how you store medicine, how you properly install a car seat,” Keene said. “Quite frankly, training on how to restrain a kid if they’re going to hurt themselves or you. How to downplay aggression so you can calm a child down. You also do a lot of interviews with them; they use a lot of time vetting you.”
The agency also completes home studies before certifying foster parents, to better understand the environment children may be put into. The home must also pass a fire and health inspection, similar to what a business or restaurant goes through.
Four children, ages 6, 5, 4, and 13 months, currently find comfort in the Keenes’ home. The oldest three, who are biological siblings, will be adopted by the Keenes at the beginning of May.
“We’ve been foster parents for about a year and a half now, and we’ve had six different kids in our home over that time,” Keene said. “Now, three of them are never leaving.”
The couple has an open adoption arrangement with the siblings’ biological mother, with whom they have a close relationship.
But, Keene, along with former foster youth Jordan Arce, said being a foster parent does not always end with adoption. The main goal is to reunite children with their biological parents.
“As a foster parent, we champion parents,” Keene said. “We want them to get their stuff together, we want them to succeed. We want them to mend broken fences, to beat addictions and to be able to break cycles. The reality of that is that sometimes the way they do that is to give up their kids, and that’s tough for them.”
Arce, a sophomore math major and sociology minor from Lubbock, said reunification typically happens within the first three months of a child being removed from a situation, as long as the parents can improve their lifestyle.
Arce was placed in the foster care system at the age of 14 after his home was condemned for safety reasons. His mother never lost her parental rights but was too ill to care for him.
“When I was 16, my mother passed away, and they gave me the option to be adopted, and I chose not to be because I was so close to aging out of the system,” Arce said.
Arce lived in seven different homes, some temporary or unsuitable, during his four years in foster care.
“You always have the feeling that you need to be somewhere. There was no place of staying; there was always transition,” Arce said. “I still keep a backpack full of two weeks of clothes just in case. It’s just a mentality you grow up with in the system.”
Typically, when foster youths “age out” of the system at 18, they rarely have the skills needed to live and thrive on their own. Few attend college, and less than 1 percent actually graduate.
But Arce is beating those odds. The Texas Tech student, now 21, is not only attending college but also is attempting to raise awareness about the foster system on campus.
The Tech Foster Youth Organization was created this semester to “represent, advocate and establish a network of support for current and former foster youth in the pursuit of higher education,” according to their OrgSync profile.
During the summer, Arce will complete a 12-week training program to become a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, for children in the foster care system in the Panhandle region.
Arce said that, unlike caseworkers, who are paid, being a CASA is completely voluntary. The advocates act in the child’s best interests and serve as a support system during uncertain times.
“I had a CASA advocate during my whole case, Stu, and he helped me a ton,” Arce said. “Case workers come and go, but he really was the only person that stayed. So, I thought to give back to the community, I could do the same thing. And there’s no better person to be an advocate than someone who has been through it. I can truly tell a child, ‘Hey, it’s not the end of the world.'”
Both Arce and Keene suggest becoming a CASA if being a foster parent is not the best option for you.
“I don’t think that everyone is called to be a foster parent,” Keene said. “I think that everyone is called to care for the orphans and the needy, and I think that how people do that looks different for every family unit or person.”
The Keenes plan to continue their roles as foster parents until they meet their goal of having four adopted children, with room for two foster children.
“There are plenty of things in life that I could pour my passion into,” Keene said. “But why wouldn’t I rather spend my energy possibly rerouting the direction of the lives of little ones at a point in their lives where they’re pretty malleable, where you can see lives changed through small interactions and through some therapy and counseling.”