By Jennifer Coburn
From foster mom to tireless advocate for foster families
[Editor’s note: May is National Foster Care Month]
When Lani Barnes first laid eyes on her foster child, she knew she was up to the tough road ahead. She and her husband Matt arrived at Rady Children’s Hospital and were introduced to a 3-month-old boy who was severely underweight, the size of a newborn.
Doctors told the couple the child was failing to thrive and would need to be fed every two hours. Her first thought: “It’s a good thing I’m Filipino,” she recalled. “Feeding people is innate, it’s what we do.”
Since then, Lani and Matt have opened their Talmadge home to three foster children, the most recent placement ending with the adoption of Jaxon, a toddler who had been in their care since he was 2 months old.
Lani said that each child came to her from different biological family circumstances, but they shared one thing in common – they thrived in the loving care of a stable family.
She has no shortage of family love to give the children she has fostered. She has 50 first cousins as both of her parents come from sibling sets of nine. At family reunions, her foster children receive both lumpia and hugs in generous portions.
Her family rallied behind her when she was experiencing difficulty becoming pregnant.
“I had this longing to be a mother,” Barnes said. “We tried for many years and even tried a round of fertility treatments, but the effects on my body were negative. It seemed like every other person I knew was pregnant and my ache grew.”
Lani wanted to do something positive with that ache, so she started quietly visiting the Angels Foster Family website and wondered if she and Matt should foster a young child. Even though her husband expressed concerns about the unknowns of fostering, on their ninth wedding anniversary, the couple decided to attend one of the monthly orientation at Angels. The meeting was geared toward helping people decide whether or not fostering is right for them.
“After the meeting, we thought, this is doable, let’s make a difference in a child’s life,” she recalled.
There are several reasons they chose to be foster families through Angels. They wanted to help a child under 5 years old. The couple also liked the philosophy that children should be with one foster family until they are reunified with their biological families or find a “forever family” through adoption.
The agency also asks families to foster one child – or sibling set – at a time so the children get the focused attention they deserve. And the couple saw that there was great support for families.
“I couldn’t have gotten through it without my caseworker,” Lani said.
As thorough as she found the screening, training and support at Angels, she did make one suggestion to the staff regarding the difficulty with transitions.
“When my first baby was reunified with his family, I was so happy for him because his mother did what she needed to do to get her son back, but at the same time, I felt a deep loss and wanted to talk to another foster mother who could understand this grief,” she explained.
“Friends and family are wonderful, but only someone who has gone through this could really understand how I felt.”
Despite the fact that her first two reunifications were smooth – she still maintains relationships with the children and their biological families – Lani said it’s helpful to lean on others who have shared the experience of fostering a child and saying goodbye.
The organization took her suggestion to heart and created a new position that would provide foster parents with additional support in the form of a seasoned foster parent who could provide both expertise and experience.
In 2015, after completing her last foster placement, Lani started a full-time career with Angels. She not only helps to recruit wonderful new families, but provides additional support to foster families in the form of informal and formal support groups, connecting new foster families with experienced foster families and providing that extra support along with their case manager.
“I’ve walked through this process and now want to help other families do the same,” she said. “If a family makes the decision to care for a young foster child, Angels is going to do their best to take care of them.”
For more information about how to be a foster parent, or how to support foster children, visit angelsfoster.org.
— Jennifer Coburn is a writer and author from San Diego.