For as far back as she can remember, Beth Todd wanted to be a mom.
“I was the little girl who took her dolls everywhere. I had a car seat, I had a diaper bag, I had shoes, I had bottles, I had empty jars of baby food, and I took care of these babies like they were really babies,” she said.
“I even have a little picture of me with this doll that’s called Baby Beth, and that’s kind of what I saw for myself.”
In the earliest days of her adult life, she had a plan, a vision, for how that would all play out. She also thought she’d have almost nine months to prepare for each child to come along, one at a time.
But — as often happens with best-made plans — things didn’t come together the way she’d expected. So when she started dating this great guy in pharmacy school who told her he’d always liked the idea of adopting, well, it was one more thing they had in common.
“I made it clear to Beth, initially, that I had just always wanted to adopt,” Alex Todd said. “It’s something I’ve just felt prompted to do. Like, if there’s this need, and I can help meet that need, it’s something I want to do.”
May not only puts the spotlight on mothers everywhere with Mother’s Day, it’s also National Foster Care Month. In the state of West Virginia, the need for foster care and adoptive parents is overwhelming.
“I have been here for 13 years and, for so long, all of our messaging was 4,000. There are 4,000, we have 4,000 kids in foster care,” said Rachel Kinder, a program director with Mission West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure safe and loving families for children through life skills education and foster family recruitment.
“Then around 2016 it hit, like, 5,000. Then it hit 6,000. And now we’re at more than 7,000,” she said.
About 850 of those 7,000 children are from Kanawha County.
Figures provided by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources show 7,095 West Virginia children in foster care placements as of April 30, including 432 out-of-state placements.
“Do we have 7,095 homes for those kids?” asked Kinder. “We don’t.”
The goal for foster care placements is to keep children in their same neighborhoods and schools whenever possible, and to keep sibling groups together. But the numbers are so high now, Kinder said, that the placements are often less than ideal.
“They’re getting placed out of county or across the state or their sibling group is being split up,” she said. “We have had the issue of kids staying in hotels or sleeping in DHHR offices until a placement can be found.”
Some children are placed in short-term facilities, like the Davis Child Shelter in Charleston, or residential treatment facilities when there are specific issues to be addressed. A handful of others are in detention centers, group homes or psychiatric facilities.
Statewide, the figures show 3,397 West Virginia foster care children, about 48 percent, are in kinship or relative placements — including, in some cases, great-grandparents, when there are two generations in the same family unable to provide adequate care.
“It’s definitely linked to the opioid crisis,” Kinder said. “Eighty-three percent of [Child Protective Services] cases are drug-related.”
There is also, she added, a greater focus on trauma, and behaviors related to trauma — though perhaps not the kind most people would expect.
“People automatically think physical abuse when you think kids in foster care, but I think it’s more things that they’re seeing domestic violence, things that they’re a witness to, that’s causing trauma,” including drug activity, high levels of chaos and a fear of police, Kinder said.
“These are not kids with behavioral issues because they’re bad kids. These are kids that have experienced trauma in their lives that is causing behavioral issues.”
Prospective foster care parents are now required to complete trauma training, part of a certification process designed to ensure safe placements for children and to help foster parents handle the challenges that come their way.
For Alex and Beth Todd, the first challenge was sheer volume — and the speed with which things happened.
As the Todds began to explore adoption options, they realized working through the foster care system was the best route for them.
“Private adoption is extremely expensive, like $30,000. And they try to tell you, ‘Oh, you’ll get this tax benefit,’ but we made too much money to get that. And some of them wanted like $18,000 up front,” Beth said.
As they went through the homestudy process, they filled out a questionnaire about the family they hoped to have.
“You can get as selective as you want,” Alex said. “You can say, ‘I want a multicultural background,’ ‘I want a Hispanic child, African-American child, white child,’ whatever it is. And then you even go down the kids’ history, like, if the mom was addicted to drugs or the dad was addicted to drugs, you can say, ‘No, I’m not likely to adopt or foster.’
“I think the only things we did, we didn’t want a kid who had harmed other children or sexually abused other children, but we opened it if that had ever happened to them. ... they’re the victims not the perpetrators.”
Their plan was to open their home to one, possibly two, children under the age of 5. They figured there would be less trauma at such a young age, and that, with two children, there would be a one-to-one ratio.
“Any more than that and we’re outnumbered,” Alex joked.
They waited for the call from the caseworker to come.
It was a Tuesday, lunchtime, in August 2017. Beth was sitting in her car, about to head back to work.
“She called me and said she had kids for us, then she said they had a sibling group, and that there was three,” Beth said.
There were two girls — a 2-year-old and her big sister, who turned out to be not age 5 but 6. Their baby brother was 3 months old.
“He was born in a condemned house where the responding officer was trying to knock cockroaches off of her legs,” Alex said. “EMS took the baby to the hospital and the birth mom went too. But I think, like, she checked herself out against advice and never came back.”
The two prospective parents talked, then Alex asked for a picture.
“Right then, I mean, I was committed,” Alex said. “I knew from that moment. I was like, ‘Yep.’”
“He said he knew, and so I said, ‘OK,’” Beth said. “I think I was in shock. I was at work, and I’m like, ‘What the heck? We’re getting three kids!’ Someone offered to work for me so I could be off the next day.”
They had a whopping 22 hours to turn their home and their lives around.
“We were very, very blessed,” Alex said. “We had neighbors do drives for toys and clothes at their places of employment.”
Friends showed up to help rearrange furniture and put toys together. At times that night, their home resembled a Christmas Eve assembly line.
“We were moving dressers and beds and just cleaning in general,” Beth said.
“We went shopping in the middle of the night at Walmart and got car seats, and I wanted the kids to have new clothes when they came, so we’d at least have clean outfits for them.”
It was a whirlwind.
“We’ve got balloons flying out front and streamers, all this good stuff,” Alex said. “The oldest child, Nikki, they were walking up the walkway to the house — both kids were hiding behind the social worker — and they get up to me and Nikki kinda steps out from behind the social worker and she’s like, ‘Will you be my daddy?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, baby, if that’s what you want, I would love that.’ And she was in my arms right away, and Audrey, the younger daughter, was quick to follow.”
To say there have been challenges is a massive understatement. There have been health challenges and challenges related to trauma. There have also been plenty of moments of great joy.
All of it, Kinder said, is both typical and manageable.
“It’s an undertaking, but any family that’s an appropriate family that’s willing to put in the effort can most likely be certified,” she said.
“Sometimes people think the standards are really high, but the standards exist to keep kids safe, and I don’t think they’re unattainable for the average family,” she said. “You can be married or divorced or single or same sex. There’s not a minimum income requirement. You just have to be financially stable. You don’t have to own a home — you can rent a home — you can have children already in your home. The average family would qualify, they just have to commit to go through the process.”
Families are formed in lots of ways. There are families with a biological mom and a biological dad, families with one or the other, and families with neither. In West Virginia, in the throes of an addiction crisis, an increasing number of families fall into that last category.
“Sometimes I’m still in shock that these are my kids and I’m their mom,” Beth said. “I have a relationship with God, and I do believe things happen for a reason. Like, I do believe these kids are with us for a reason.”