Fostering the future

One teen finds a new family and a new outlook in foster care.
Sunday, January 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jasmine Coleman is a popular honors student in her sophomore year at Hickman High School. She has a boyfriend and a part-time job that funds outings to the mall with her friends. She’s active in student government and well-liked by her teachers. She sees college in her future, followed by a career in medicine. No one close to her doubts that she will achieve whatever she sets out to do.

What you might not guess about Jasmine is that she is one of 4,769 teens in Missouri who are in foster care.

In January 2003, Jasmine paid a visit to her school counselor at Oakland Junior High School. She was 15, and she was about to take control of her life. She knew that what she was about to say would most likely break up her family. She told the counselor that she could no longer live at home.

The Department of Children’s Services moved quickly to take Jasmine and another sibling into foster care.

Jasmine joined the ranks of 11,406 children in Missouri who, as a result of their parents’ neglect or abuse, are being cared for by the state. Teenagers make up 42 percent of that figure. In 2003, only 79 of the children in foster care found homes with families willing to adopt them. Twenty-seven percent of foster children are in group homes or, if they have special needs, in residential care. Jasmine and her sibling joined the 34 percent of foster children living with foster families.

Jasmine did not like the situation with her first foster mother. Jasmine said her sibling was unhappy and wanted to move.

The sibling found a new home with Rachel Bennett, a teacher at Oakland Junior High, and her husband, James Bennett, an administrator at MU. Jasmine quickly established a good relationship with the Bennetts and decided that she wanted to be with her sibling.

The Bennetts were happy to have her, but the news did not sit well with her first foster mother, Jasmine said. She endured a tense relationship with the woman during the two months it took for the Department of Children’s Services to make the move.

While Jasmine depended on herself for most of her needs at the time, she wasn’t completely without adult support.

Through a part-time job at InterACT, a youth theater group that uses drama to promote teen education, she found a sympathetic ear in Mark Kelty, the group’s director.

Jasmine joined InterACT a year and a half ago, she said, so she wouldn’t have to ask her mother for money to buy clothes, but it soon became more than just a job. She overcame her initial shyness to become one of the group’s leaders and one of its most dedicated members.

Kelty pays the more established members of the group, like Jasmine, with funding he receives from various sources. Other teens participate on a voluntary basis. The group performs at schools and other local venues.

Performances dealing with teen issues are followed by discussions with audience members who then are invited to improvise scenes with the actors. The message of InterACT’s performances can be boiled down to making responsible decisions, Kelty said, and that message tends to have a greater effect when it comes from teenagers like Jasmine who have some first-hand experience to draw on. Kelty can’t be sure how much of a role InterACT played in building Jasmine’s self-confidence, but he believes that going to her school counselor showed great strength of character.

“That took a whole lot of guts,” he said.

Jasmine was finally able to join her sibling at the Bennetts’ in August 2003.

Rachel Bennett, 23, and her husband, James, 29, started taking foster children into their home two years ago and estimate that they have been foster parents to about 15 children since then. Currently, they are caring for four foster children in addition to their own 7-month-old daughter.

“We felt like we’d been blessed and we needed to give back in some way. We love kids and we love working with them, so it just seemed very natural,” Rachel said.

They prefer long-term placements because, Rachel said, it allows them to have a greater effect on the children’s lives. Knowing that younger children are easier to place in foster homes, they also make a point of taking teenagers.

Rachel admitted that, like many people, her extended family had some negative preconceptions about foster children when she and James first began taking them into their home.

“But then they (the Bennetts’ family) met the kids and saw them interact with us and they said, ‘Wow, these are normal kids,’” Rachel said. “And we said, ‘Yeah, they’re normal kids. They’ve just had a rough beginning.’”Rachel described mealtimes at her home as “a positive chaos.” They are some of the few times during the week when family members come together and catch up with one another. On one particular evening, Rachel served the children soup while James made them grilled cheese sandwiches. Jasmine sat at the kitchen table while her foster sister updated Rachel and James on the latest in teen slang.

“When you say you haven’t seen someone in a minute that means you haven’t seen them in a long time,” she said. James and Rachel laughed incredulously.

“Tell us another one,” Rachel said.

Jasmine explained that if someone is “dusty” that means they look like a mess.

Rachel and James finally sat down to eat and there was more laughter around the table as Rachel teased Jasmine about a bad hair day. When the laughter subsided and everyone’s plate was empty, no one seemed in a hurry to get up from the table. Jasmine let her head come to rest on Rachel’s shoulder and they sat quietly for a while.

Having a baby of their own last year only strengthened the Bennetts’ commitment to foster parenting.

“We don’t treat our biological child any different,” Rachel said. “There’s a different bond that took place before she was even born, but our commitment is the same.”

That commitment means making each child they foster feel like part of the family. The Bennetts take the children to their church; they traveled with the children to relatives in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving; and the family decorated a large Christmas tree in their basement den. Each child was given their own ornament to hang on the tree.

Getting used to a new family’s holiday traditions is one of the most difficult adjustments foster children must make. Jasmine said that her new great-grandparents in Wisconsin were sweet and welcoming but that she thought a lot about her mother over the holidays.

“A couple times I did get sad because it was just different. I wasn’t with my family doing things I’m used to,” she said.

Jasmine is trying to focus her energies on doing well at school and building a relationship with her new family. Still, she said, she gets depressed sometimes when she thinks about the past.

Despite her sadness, Jasmine considers herself lucky to have found a home with the Bennetts.

“I think a lot of foster parents are about the money,” she said. “I think DFS just puts kids with whoever they’ve got, because they don’t have room to put them anywhere else and they need some place for them to go.”

Rachel said that the money they receive from the state for fostering doesn’t go very far. She estimates their food budget alone at about $325 a week. They start saving for Christmas in January and keep their entertainment costs down with activities that are free or inexpensive like going on walks or renting movies. With four foster children involved in extra-curricular activities and attending three different schools, organization is the key to keeping stress at a minimum, Rachel said.

“Jasmine is awesome, irreplaceable, remarkable,” Rachel said and added that there’s no question that even after Jasmine turns 18 and leaves for college, she will always have a place she can call home.

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