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Opening heart and home

Dan BurkhartKitty Vaars (right) was Lori Hardle's foster mother. The two sit in front of Rood Center, where Vaars works.
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For her first 15 years, Lori Hardle often wondered if she would ever meet her parents’ expectations.

As a teen, she would consume alcohol and stay out all hours of the night with questionable friends – a tactic Hardle employed because she never felt adequate in the eyes of her deeply religious and rigid family.

She felt so guilty and was so wracked with the thought of being a failure, she eventually ran away. After living on the fringes of society for months, she ended up in protective custody.



It was the best thing that could have happened to her at the time, she says.

“I was a bit of a rebel,” Hardle, now 22, admits.




“(My household) was overly restrictive to the point that I felt like a complete failure,” says Hardle, who was partying and drinking heavily by age 14 because, she says, that was the only way she could deal with the emotional abuse and unrealistic standards she was held to.

She says she was occasionally kept in a shed because her parents didn’t know how to deal with her.

“If forgiveness was there, she never knew it,” says Kitty Vaars, the woman who took Hardle under her wing as a foster mother.

Though Hardle escaped from her seemingly overbearing parents, feelings of guilt stayed with her for years. She says she only recently came to terms with them.

“It was definitely a hard decision to make,” Hardle says about severing ties with her parents.

She spoke from the steps of Rood Administrative Center, where Vaars is a social worker for Child Protective Services, the county/state agency responsible for placing children whose parents cannot take care of them because of abuse or neglect.

Unlike many teens rebelling against a perceived dictatorial home, Hardle felt tremendous guilt about leaving her family.

“I thought I was doing irreparable damage (to my family) and creating a worse situation,” she says.

Hardle, a secretary for a local propane company who attends Sierra College, spent more than four years as a foster child – one of the hundreds of Nevada County youth who find themselves, for a variety of reasons, in need of a home.

The need for foster parents, say social workers and child advocates in and out of Nevada County, has always been great, despite the county’s small population base.

“The need is huge,” says Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a statewide agency that represents private social service agencies’ interests to the Legislature and provides foster care training for private, nonprofit foster agencies. “The need is particularly great for older kids, the ones aged 12-17.”

According to the nonprofit group, the majority of California’s children placed in foster agencies come from Child Protective Services. The number of children in foster homes varies every day, but Schroeder says there are tens of thousands in California.

“With rare exceptions, you can say most foster children come through the court system, and what we do is try to find a good match, a match so that the family can meet the needs of the child. Foster care placement should be seen as a transition that will lead to reunification with their birth family, adoption or placement with relatives,” Schroeder says.

In Nevada County, Child Protective Services receives about 100 referrals of child abuse or neglect per month, says Sandy Boyd, program manager for CPS. But a referral does not automatically ensure the child will be placed in a new home or in protected custody, she adds.

Of those approximately 100 monthly referrals, less than 10 percent are situations in which children are taken from the home and placed in foster care, a perception most people don’t understand.

“People always perceive that we’re constantly taking children out of homes, but it’s a rare thing,” Boyd says.

In order to remove a child, there must be documented proof that parents or guardians are abusing children. If a child is living in a dirty home, for example, that won’t guarantee he or she will be removed.

“We intervene when something happens, but, unfortunately, that’s the law (that children can’t often be removed). And it’s a policy I agree with because I don’t think families should be subjected to subjective government intervention. We can’t gamble and say, ‘Well, I’m going to bet that this child will be abused,'” Boyd says.

Once a child is deemed eligible for foster care, Boyd works with a web of state and privately licensed agencies to place the child or children with relatives or other individuals who have completed state-mandated foster training sessions.

Sierra Adoption Services in Grass Valley is one of a handful of nonprofit foster family agencies that provide training for potential guardians.

To become a foster parent, Sierra Adoption Services requires each family member to take 18 hours of free training in such areas as conflict resolution and parenting skills.

Sierra Adoption Services provides foster care for children in Nevada, Placer, Yuba and Sacramento counties, representing about 6,000 foster children, according to Sue Wilkes, adoptions and foster care supervisor for Sierra Adoption Services in Grass Valley.

The Grass Valley office represents 80 local foster families, 10 of which are active.

Though the process for becoming a foster parent isn’t a long and arduous process, it takes more than a few dollars and a roof to provide for children, Wilkes says. Families must be fingerprinted, their records must be run through the state Child Abuse Index hen the families must be interviewed and visited by social workers.

Families that take in foster children receive $600 to $800 a month for each child, though some children, depending on needs or their age, provide more for the people who take them in. Training and background checks usually take about three months, Wilkes says. Sierra Adoption Services allows each family to take up to three children, unless there are more siblings who wish to stay together with one family.

“It takes a strong willingness and commitment to take care of these children,” says Wilkes, who has two grown adopted children.

The ultimate goal, Wilkes and Boyd agree, is reunification with birth parents – if it’s at all possible.

If there is a silver lining to Lori Hardle’s saga, it’s life as she now knows it. She’s poised, has a successful job, and hopes one day to help children who grew up like herself.

Her life at Kitty and Dave Vaars’ home, while at times awkward, made her into the woman she is today. Hardle, like many of the 70 children fostered by the Vaars and the couple’s three biological children, learned strong values from her foster mother.

“Kids make mistakes. Give them roots and then give them wings,” Vaars says, noting that Hardle grew up the product of a loving and reputable, if strict, household before coming into the couple’s care.

“I felt like (Kitty and Dave) believed in me, and they gave me the ability to succeed. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to succeed,” Hardle says.

That success includes reconciliation with her parents, who now live in Utah. She contacts them and her 19-year-old biological brother regularly.

“I lucked out,” Hardle says. “I ended up with two families, both of whom I love very much.”

And though she isn’t technically Hardle’s mother, Vaars can’t help but exude some maternal pride over how the rebel she brought home has grown up.

“She is loving and generous, and I respect her,” Vaars says. “I am proud of her. I wish I could take credit for all of her good qualities.”

Over 27 years, Sherry Reafsnyder has taken in more than 500 foster children. She had her first foster child at 22, when she took in an 18-year-old. It’s been a rewarding life for the 48-year-old south county resident, but Reafsnyder doesn’t look at the foster care situation through rose-colored glasses, as she once did.

Still, she says, “You have to be an idealist, to believe that you can make a difference.”

Reafsnyder believes this – she took in her first foster child before she had biological ones of her own.

It’s important, Reafsnyder believes, to research as much as you can about the foster care system and the social workers responsible for placing children in homes.

“Not every child is a perfect child,” says Reafsnyder, who currently has six foster children, plus five biological children of her own. On several occasions, she has taken in children with severe emotional disorders, only to have them go back into the system when the two parties didn’t match.

It’s been a challenge, but one Reafsnyder readily meets. Once, she and her husband took in five deaf children. To communicate, Reafsnyder took classes in interpreter training at American River Junior College. She’s taken nutrition and psychology classes to better understand her foster children.

Reafsnyder, who will graduate with an English degree from California State University at Sacramento in December, has taken so many classes, she’s accumulated more than 60 additional credits toward graduation.

“It’s hard, but an education is something that I want, as long as it works out for the kids.

“I’m gaining more than I’m giving,” she says. “The only thing is, the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

The numbers on foster care

As of July 31, 2002:

— 68 children were placed in foster care homes, including guardianships, in Nevada County.

— Nevada County children were placed in foster care homes outside of Nevada County.

– Source: Child Protective

Services, Nevada County

Behavioral Health Department

A FOSTER CHILD SUCCESS STORY

Letter written by Lori Hardle to her foster parents shortly before her graduation from Nevada Union High School in 1998:

Kitty and Dave:

I had every intention to sit down and write this a month ago, but time has escaped me as it has a tendency to do (as you well know). Anyway, I want to thank you for all that you have done for me. Without you I don’t know where I would be right now, but I know that I couldn’t have straightened myself out without your help and support. I owe my 4.0 grade-point average and my student of the month (award) to you because you gave me the self-confidence and the motivation to do it. I owe the fact that I am driving today to you because you trusted me. I owe the fact that I am so close to graduating to you. Basically, you turned my whole life around. You are two of the sweetest, most caring, smartest and helpful people I know. I love you and will never, ever forget you. While I’m at it, I also want to thank you for all the wonderful Christmas and birthday presents.

I send all my love and best wishes. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Love always,

Lori


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