Feeling a little under the weather, 3-year-old Kayden was quietly thumbing through a picture book while 1-year-old Eric went from one toy to the next.
The smiling, bright-eyed Eric couldn’t sit still; he was too busy exploring, and he tried to stop and give Kayden a hug, but Kayden wasn’t in the mood.
The two boys were brought together by chance and through the love of Eudora couple Laura and Aman Reaka, who became foster parents three years ago.
“This little guy is crazy — crazy in a good way. He’s like me when I was little,” said Aman, 38, as he picked up Eric and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
The state is constantly looking for foster parents like the Reakas who can change the direction of a child’s life and affecting who they become as adults.
“It’s a unique opportunity and it can be a life-changing experience,” said Jim Kallinger, deputy secretary of Integrated Service Delivery for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
There are about 5,120 children in state custody and about 120 are in Douglas County. Most often, children who have been removed from their home and placed in foster care are vulnerable and disadvantaged. They may have experienced abuse, neglect or traumatizing situations.
“It’s not what the child did. It’s what was done to the child,” Kallinger said. “Most of these kids are your average kid who was maybe abused or neglected. In the majority of the cases, it’s neglect and neglect could be they are not getting three square meals a day or they are not getting proper medical attention.”
When children are removed from the home, Kallinger said about 30 percent are placed with relatives, 10 percent are placed in group homes, and 60 percent are placed with foster families.
There are 58 group homes in Kansas and four in Douglas County, and there are 2,480 licensed foster families, 53 in Douglas County. The goal is to keep children as close to home as possible, so they can go to the same school and be with friends.
Kallinger said foster care is only meant to be a temporary fix.
“We really try to keep the families together. That’s our goal. It’s not to take families apart but to keep them together,” Kallinger said. “If we do remove a child, the No. 1 priority is to reintegrate them back into the home.”
The average stay in foster care is 18 months.
While they hoped for adoption, Laura and Aman Reaka said they were aware that the priority was to reunite the children with their biological families. They learned that during the qualification process which included 30 hours of training, background checks and a home inspection.
“They try to get you to see the big picture. You just learn a lot about children who are in the welfare system,” said Laura Reaka, 44. “The bottom-line is what is in the best interests of the child.”
They became licensed in May 2009 for two children, and started receiving calls about a month later for placement. The Reakas, who both work full-time as graphic designers, opted for children who were age 4 or younger. Laura Reaka said she would get a call from a case worker who would divulge as much information as possible about the child, and then the couple would discuss it.
“It is extremely hard to get the call and listen to the story and have to say, ‘No,’” Laura Reaka said. “But, we knew it would be in the best interest of the child.”
On May 21, 2010, they received the call for Kayden, who was 20 months old at the time and underweight for his age. When they went to pick him up, he was playing with toys in the office.
“He was so special just from the moment we saw him,” Laura Reaka said.
The couple formed a relationship with Kayden’s biological mother and knew she was facing an uphill battle. “She had very severe problems that she had to deal with but we could see that she really loved him,” Laura Reaka said.
She relinquished her parental rights and the Reakas adopted Kayden in August.
Four months earlier, the Reakas received the call for Eric who was 4 months old at the time. “That was drastic. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, a baby,’” Laura Reaka said.
At first, they asked Kayden if Eric could sleep over and he agreed. Then, they asked if he could stay, and he shook his head and said, “Yes.”
A judge terminated the parental rights of Eric’s biological parents three months ago and the Reakas are in the process of adopting him as well.
“We feel just incredibly fortunate and blessed that the two placements that we’ve taken have ended up in a forever family,” Laura Reaka said. “We were prepared for it to be harder.”
Between July 2011 and March 2012, there were 633 adoptions of Kansas children in foster care. There currently are 862 children waiting to be adopted.
After 12 years of being a foster parent, Lisa Andrews, 47, of Lecompton is adopting her first child, a 9-year-old boy. She saw his picture on an adoption page called Looking for a Forever Home.
“There sat his picture and I fell in love with this kid. He had a big old huge grin,” she said. “It’s a new step for me.”
Andrews was a foster parent from 1989 to 1997 and then took a break. She became licensed again in 2008 after getting remarried and becoming an empty-nester.
“We have this five-bedroom house in the middle of nowhere and it’s just my husband and I and it’s like you know what this house needs love. It needs kids,” she said.
Since 2008, they’ve hosted 27 children. They currently have a 16-year-old, two 14-year-olds, and two 9-year-olds. She is licensed to take care of children ages 4 and older; she prefers teenagers.
“I’ve done raised my babies. No diapers. No 2 o’clock feedings and I didn’t want to get attached and then have to send them home. Teenagers are easier,” Andrews said.
That’s because she tends to stay in touch with them once they leave — either back to their biological homes or graduate from high school. She said many find jobs or go on to college and aspire to become attorneys and social workers to help kids like themselves. She invites them back for holidays and barbecues. Sometimes, they drop by to do laundry, get a good meal or just to talk.
Andrews said the stories can be heart-breaking. She has a girl now who has been in 47 placements including a psychiatric residential treatment facility. So far, she’s been with Andrews the longest and they are approaching the one-year mark.
“They are bounced around and moved around from one home to another so much that they’re sometimes six to eight months behind in school because they’ve been moved so much,” Andrews said.
She said most of the teenagers are in some sort of therapy and taking medications for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Among the issues that some have suffered: sexual abuse, physical abuse, malnourishment. Many suffer from drug and alcohol addictions.
“You have to have a lot of patience with these kids because not only are they coming into your house new, but you are dealing with their problems, their parents’ problems, the system’s problems and behavioral problems,” she said.
But, Andrews said the pros far outweigh cons when it comes to being a foster parent.
“At the end of the night when I get, “Good night mom. Love ya. See ya in the morning. Sleep well,’ I know I am doing something right.”
There are more than 5,000 children in state custody, and the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is always seeking foster families to help care for these kids.
To learn about becoming a foster parent or mentor, call 877-345-6787.