26 years, 200+ kids

BELPRE – Bonny and Malcolm Barber became licensed as foster parents in 1987 only to help them care for a friend of their daughter’s who needed a place to stay.

But soon after they received the license, Washington County Children Services contacted Bonny to see if they could keep a 4-year-old girl whose mother was going into the hospital and had no one to take care of her.

“I didn’t even call (Malcolm) at work and tell him,” Bonny Barber, 60, recalled Wednesday. “He came home, and we just had a kid.”

The girl’s young brother joined her at the Barber home a few days later, becoming the second child the family would foster, along with their four biological children ranging in age from 9 to 15.

Now, 26 years and more than 200 placements later, the Barbers have retired from foster care. They were honored over the weekend at the second annual Child Abuse Awareness Walk, sponsored by Children Services. The agency has a few other long-serving families, but none have overtaken the Barbers.

“It’s amazing that they’ve been with us for 26 years,” said Teri Wright, interim foster care

and adoption services supervisor for the agency. “I’ve been here for 25 years and I don’t remember anybody else serving that long.”

Bonny Barber wouldn’t mind seeing the record broken. At the walk Sunday, she met a young family in the midst of their second placement with a foster child and encouraged them to stick with it.

“I said, ‘Now remember, 26 years from today, we’re going to meet in this park,'” she said.

Being a foster family comes with challenges and the $20-a-day per diem isn’t a moneymaker. But the Barbers say their reward was knowing they’d helped children and families who needed it.

“There are people out there that need help – kids need help, parents need help,” said Malcolm, 62. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing in life, is helping each other out.”

Children are placed in foster care for a variety of reasons, including cases of neglect or abuse, parents’ substance abuse problems and unruly or delinquent behavior, if a judge determines that the home environment is not the place for them. Cases like the Barbers’ first placement are less common, but still happen, Wright said.

There are currently 31 families registered to provide foster care through Washington County Children Services, with 35 children now placed. May is Foster Care Awareness Month, and the agency is always on the lookout for more prospective families.

“What we most need are families that will take the older children,” Wright said. “I think most people feel more comfortable with younger children.”

The Barbers have taken children of all ages into their home over the years. Bonny said her approach was shaped by her own experience in the foster system. In some cases, she and other foster children were so segregated from the rest of the family, they had to eat different food. When the family went on vacation, the foster children did not.

“I just wanted to be fair,” Bonny said. “The rules that applied … they apply to them all.”

Malcolm recalled one boy who once asked the couple’s biological son where his parents were. When he answered that they were just in the next room, the other youth didn’t believe him at first.

“He says, ‘We’re all treated the same,'” Malcolm said.

What children in foster care often need is structure, something they may have lacked in their home lives, Malcolm said.

“It’s white or black. You’ve got to walk the line with them,” he said.

Being a foster family doesn’t just affect the parents. Taking in children that were younger was easier on their biological children, Bonny said.

“They wanted to mother, dress up, paint nails,” she said. “I think the closer to their own age though, it was harder for our kids.

“I think they did a great job in sharing their parents,” Bonny said, adding she and her husband made a point of spending one-on-one time with their children.

And while the Barbers have added to their family through adoption, they believe in the top priority of Children Services, which is reunification of a family whenever possible.

“It’s … not a perfect world,” Malcolm said. “We’re just giving them a place to stay until their parents can get their stuff together.”

Sometimes that happens, and the Barbers have even been thanked by parents of children they’ve fostered after the fact. Other times, the foster parents are seen as “the bad guys,” Malcolm said. The family moved once after what was seen as a potential danger from a birth parent, although that perceived threat never materialized.

The children themselves can be a handful in some cases. The couple has a scanner in their house for Malcolm’s service as a volunteer firefighter, and Bonny once heard a voice come across it saying, “One of Bonny’s kids ran from the high school.”

Laughing about it now, Malcolm recalled finding items that had been missing from the family’s home being offered at nearby garage sales.

“We’ve bought our stuff back more than once,” he said.

In some cases, a placement doesn’t work out, either due to safety concerns or simply an unworkable clash of personalities.

“That was the hardest thing for me because I felt like I kind of failed the kid,” Malcolm said.

In situations where reunification is not possible, sometimes a foster family will adopt a child they’ve cared for. That happened for the Barbers in the early ’90s.

“I just knew that if somebody didn’t show this child how worthy she was, she would take the other road,” Bonny said.

The next child they adopted was Natashia, who was sent to them in 1997 at 18 months old. Believed to have suffered injuries at birth due to lack of oxygen, Tashia’s life expectancy at birth was just 90 days.

Tashia was only slated to stay with the Barbers for three days prior to being placed at a care facility in Columbus. But when the nurse who brought her expressed doubts about the girl’s prospects for survival in the facility, Bonny knew she would be there longer.

“I called her caseworker and said she could stay with us as long as we didn’t put her at risk,” she said.

The family received “110 percent support” from Children Services, who helped them get training to care for Tashia and was judicious when it came to the other children they sent to them.

“I didn’t take any kids I had to chase anymore, because I can’t,” Bonny said.

Six months after she came to live with them, the Barbers learned Tashia’s condition was much different than they’d thought. Fifteen-and-a-half years later though, Tashia continues to bring joy to her family.

The third child the Barbers adopted was Holee in 2000. Malcolm eventually gave her away, along with her biological father, at her wedding. Bonny recalls Holee disliking the rules of the house at times, but said she now has rules for her own children.

At the walk Sunday, Holee presented her adoptive parents with a poem, entitled “Thank You.”

“For changing me as I changed/for accepting all my flaws/for not loving me ’cause you had to/but loving me just because,” it reads.

Bonny was in tears when she read it.

“You never know,” she said. “I did the best that I could do.”

Age and Tashia’s increasing needs – not to mention the presence of 16 grandchildren – led the Barbers to not renew their foster license this month. They have provided respite care for other foster families since their last regular placement, about two years ago. That experience went well, and when the time came to make a decision, Bonny figured, “what a good way to go out.”

The Barbers agree the challenges in fostering are outweighed by the benefits. Asked what they would say to someone thinking about becoming a foster parent, they agreed: “Go for it.”

“You have to be very open-minded. You (have) to have a lot of tolerance,” Malcolm said. “What is normal for you and I is not going to be normal for these kids.”