Florida Panhandle couple Chatt and Carol Johnson are hands on experts on newborn care. They have willingly and lovingly provided a home for 55 newborns over the course of 40 years serving as foster parents.
The Johnsons did not set out to be foster parents. Carol explains it was the Lord and the Air Force who led her to this work. The U.S. Air Force transferred Chatt from Virginia to Florida. Shortly after arriving in Florida, Carol was playing bridge with some squadron wives, one of whom happened to be a foster parent. She was heartbroken to learn from this woman that newborns were being sent out of Okaloosa County over to Pensacola because there were no foster homes available in the area.
Carol knew immediately that she wanted to be a foster parent, but that desire did not turn into a reality for two years. Chatt was initially reluctant to pursue fostering because he did not want his wife’s heart to be broken. But when a neighbor held a garage sale with lots of baby gear, that “flipped the switch” for Chatt. The couple underwent background investigations and health department inspections finally being approved to serve as foster parents for Catholic Social Services in 1979. Eleven years ago Chatt and Carol became foster parents for the State of Florida.
The Johnsons have only fostered newborns, and they only foster one baby at a time. As Carol explains, it is very difficult to find foster parents willing to provide such care. Having to get up for 2:00 a.m. feedings is not appealing to many potential foster parents. But what Carol likes best about fostering newborns is snuggle time with the babies.
When the Johnsons began fostering, they were still raising their own biological children. Their daughters were in 5th and 7th grade when the first newborn came to the Johnson household. The girls enjoyed having a baby in the house and, over the years, were available to babysit.
Even today fostering is a family affair. When Chatt and Carol visit their grown daughters and their five grandchildren, they have baby paraphernalia waiting for their use in their daughters’ homes. The grandchildren especially love having babies come to visit along with their grandparents.
Newborns placed for foster care with the Johnsons remain in their home for varying amounts of time. The longest a baby has been in their care is seventeen months and the shortest has been two months. Letting go of a child she has cared for is the only negative aspect of being a foster parent to Carol. The first time that a baby was removed from foster care was particularly hard on Chatt.
While a baby is in the Johnsons’ home, efforts are made to reunite a birth parent with her child. Typically visitation with the birth mother is held five times a week and with the birth father three times a week. When it is time for the baby to leave foster care, transitioning occurs. A child spends more and more time in the new home, so that it is not a drastic step for the foster parent not to come back to pick them up.
Even though babies may no longer be in the Johnsons’ home, they are never forgotten. Carol estimates that she and Chatt are still in touch with two-thirds of the babies which they have fostered. A framed picture of a heart containing the first names of all 55 babies the Johnsons have fostered hangs in the couple’s home; the artwork was a gift from their granddaughter.
Carol receives positive reactions from people who learn that she is a foster mother. Many admire her ability to do this work remarking, “I could never let them go.” Others relate to Carol that they have themselves been adopted.
The last 15-20 babies Chatt and Carol have fostered were drug-dependent. Carol says that it is not just one drug that the baby’s mother is using, but usually several. These babies are not released from the NICU until drug withdrawal is over. Once in their home, Carol and Chatt love on these babies and make them feel secure. And, of course, Carol prays over all her babies.
Carol expresses concern about the “desperate” need for foster parents in the area. Due to a lack of local foster homes, some children are being sent all the way to Central and South Florida for foster care. Sibling groups may also be broken up due to the unavailability of foster homes. Although Carol recognizes that it is a “rigamarole” to get licensed, she emphasizes what a blessing it has been to her and to the babies she has fostered to serve as a foster parent.
Lack of information and misperceptions may hinder some people from pursuing becoming foster parents according to Carol. She notes that foster parents may be single or gay and that a foster parent can work full-time because the state will pay for daycare. The biggest requirements for a foster parent, in Carol’s opinion, are simply that he or she be able to provide stability and love for a child. She also points out that a foster parent must be prepared to have a broken heart. Babies eventually grow up, and foster parents eventually must retire.
Carol tearfully faces retiring as a foster parent next year. Foster parenting has changed Carol and Chatt’s lives, but they have also had the opportunity to positively change the lives of the newborns placed in their care. The Johnsons are praying that others will step up to the foster parenting plate and be there for kids who need a stable and loving temporary home.
JUST WONDER-ing: Were you aware of the critical need for foster homes? Have you ever considered becoming a foster parent? Why or why not?