Children in Kansas are removed from their homes every year because of family conflicts and disruptions. Some children just need a temporary safe place to stay, others a permanent home. In 2013, there were 25,012 reports of child abuse and neglect, 8,434 children in out-of-home care and 990 children awaiting adoption in the state of Kansas.
As of February, there were 36 foster homes in Leavenworth. Five of those were families on post. It’s an unfamiliar concept — military families fostering children — often thought impossible because of the transient nature of military life.
The Carlisles and Cellars are just two military families who have opened their homes to foster children. April Campana, now an Army spouse, knows first-hand the importance of a foster home.
The Carlisle Family: Children thrive with military traditions
Retired Lt. Col. Vincent Carlisle is an operations officer at the Mission Command Center of Excellence. His wife, Leslie, served as an Army aviator, then worked in a number of positions before becoming a stay-at-home mother.
The couple uses their learned military traditions and principles to raise their seven children, six of whom were adopted from foster care.
In 2010, the couple felt called to share their big home in Parkville, Mo., and do more than spend money on themselves, so they looked into adoption.
“There are children here needing homes,” Vincent said. “Missouri three years ago had 4,000 children needing adoption. Leslie and I talked about it, we prayed about it, and then we agreed to do it.”
Originally they planned to take in older children who were out of diapers and a few years younger than their son, Andrew, who was 15 at the time. That didn’t happen.
“They call you up when they have a need, not when they match your need,” Vincent said.
In July 2010, Aiden, then 3, and Zachary, 2, needed a family to support their specific needs. They stayed with the couple for a weekend and Leslie said she and Vincent immediately “fell in love.” The two children moved in the following Thursday and were adopted two years later in June 2012.
The Carlisles didn’t stop there. They still had room in their family to grow. They saw a flier for a group of four siblings. Sibling groups are common among foster children and difficult to place together. They talked about it and agreed to bring them in to observe. Again, they fell in love and adopted three of the four children. The adoption of Vanessa, now 14, Alie, 12, and Andrew, 11, was finalized in December 2012.
The difficult decision to not adopt the youngest of the four siblings was made for the overall family’s well being, Vincent and Leslie said.
“At some point you just have to let some go,” Leslie said. “Your job isn’t to save them all, it’s to save who you can.”
“You have to discern that by your ability; not theirs,” Vincent said.
The last to be adopted was Joshua, now 22 months old. He was born in May 2012 and is the biological half brother to Aiden and Zachary. Vincent and Leslie adopted him in November 2013.
Vincent said that keeping sibling groups together is important when applicable.
“The state’s already torn apart the mother and father bond,” Vincent said. “It’s taken down by the state. So the idea that they have to rupture their sibling bond is — I mean at some point these kids can’t bear all that trauma. So no matter how well you’re doing, you can be better by taking a sibling pair. Because whereas one kid with a sister moves into your house, they’re going to trust you at a certain level, but can you imagine if you say I’ll take the sister, too? Now the kid and the sister move into your house, you’ve got instant credibility. ‘We may not know who the heck you are. We may not even like you, but you’re giving us a chance to have our sister with us.’ That’s huge.”
Within a matter of a few years, the Carlisle family went from one son to seven children.
Vincent and Leslie said they had to make adjustments to accommodate their big family. They choose driving over flying, don’t eat out as much and spend less money on extracurricular activities.
A common question people ask them is how Alex adjusted from being an only child to big brother.
“They almost feel like we abused Alex by doing this, but Alex enjoys the dickens out of it,” Vincent said. “What he said was coming home now and having all these kids going ‘Alex is home! Alex is home!’ is the thrill of his life.”
For the siblings, it took some time to settle in to their new family. Vincent said the official change of their last name was crucial in their adaptation.
“It takes probably a good year, really to 18 months, because they have to learn to trust adults,” Leslie said. “Their past has demonstrated that you can’t trust adults so depending on trauma, some kids have an easier time trusting than others. So are your needs being met by the people who are supposed to be meeting them? It takes a while for a child to trust that you’re not going to abandon them and their needs.”
One way to establish trust, Vincent said, was to establish a regimen, a daily schedule — something soldiers are used to enforcing.
“When they know this happens every Monday, this happens every Tuesday, this is what we do on Saturdays, then they start to trust you, and they start to thrive,” Vincent said. “Like most Army people, we’ve had to do that because you’re living away from home, family, you’re going overseas, you’re doing stuff, you’re living apart so you have to have structure in your life. The Army is well suited for this act of charity.”
The Carlisles credit their established routines for the rapid improvements in education, behavior and health the doctors have seen in their children. These include all-natural diets, strict bedtime schedules, physical exercise and religion.
“These children have never had somebody advocating for them, which is one of the reasons why they’ve been removed,” Vincent said. “No one’s really said to anybody outside the family that this kid needs this. Again, military is well suited because we understand advocating for others, because that’s what we do.”
When Andrew was first taken in, he thought two plus two was 38.
“I thought he was making a joke because at this point he’s in the fourth grade and what I realized very quickly was that he didn’t know what the numbers were,” Vincent said. “He didn’t know that they were sequential. For him, numbers were like art.”
Now in private school and working at home with his parents, Andrew is operating close to his fifth-grade level.
“Here’s another one I think comes from being in the military and being driven,” Vincent said. “We told these kids they’re going to get As, because school is the easiest job they’re ever going to get. All of their mouths dropped to the floor. They’re flabbergasted. Then we tell them, ‘look we’re going to help you. We’re going to help you be successful.’ They just light up. The fact that they’re seeing the changes is amazing given their ages.”
Leslie recommended for those considering fostering or adopting to look at sibling groups and older children who are often overlooked by families wanting newborns.
“These older children will touch your heart,” Vincent said. “There’s a honeymoon phase that can be seven to 10 days and then it goes to heck in a hand basket. That’s where the military is helpful. You understand these really bad behaviors are temporary.”
“Just like a biological child, they’re going to test you, but these children are going to test that trust that you’re trying to build,” Leslie said. “So it will get worse before it gets better.”
During the summer, the family is planning a vacation to Washington, D.C. They will ride a train east and fly back to give the children those transportation experiences. Vacations were an unfamiliar concept to the children.
“These are all things we take for granted, and you don’t realize that they’ve never had these experiences,” Vincent said.
The Cellars Family: A growing family
On a Friday evening, Allan, 6, can be found sitting at the dinner table with his sister, Estella, 1, and foster brother, 15 months, eating pizza and talking about his day and favorite cartoon with his mom and dad.
Farreh and Sgt. Terry Cellars, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 705th Military Police Internment and Resettlement Battalion, decided after years of trying to start a family, to try other options. After a series of highs and lows, Terry asked Farreh in 2008 during a deployment while she was living at Fort Bliss, Texas, if she would be interested in looking into the foster care system. When he returned three months later, they submitted their fostering application.
At 20 months old, Allan was placed in the Cellars’ home in November 2009. A month later, Terry deployed again.
For the Cellars, it was love at first sight, but for Allan it took longer to connect his new mother.
“They warned us when we first met him that he didn’t trust women because he had something like eight or nine other families that took him, but because of his medical conditions, they had given him back.”
Farreh said she knew their connection happened after a day at the zoo.
“That night when I put him to bed he wouldn’t let go of my arm,” Farreh said.
When Terry returned from deployment, he said Allan was upset with him for the time he was spending with Farreh.
“When I came back from deployment, we were watching a movie on the couch and me and her were hugging and he walks up to (us) and goes ‘share.’”
Allan was adopted in June 2011, and shortly after, they moved to Fort Leavenworth.
A frame hangs in the hallway with photos commemorating major events during Allan’s first year with the Cellars including the day he was adopted, when Terry returned from deployment and Christmas.
A year later, Allan was asking for a baby brother. Instead, he got a baby sister. A child-placing agency in Texas notified the Cellars that Allan had a birth sister, Estella, and asked if they would like to adopt her. They agreed and received approval from the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children for Child Protective Services to transfer Estella to Kansas.
She arrived in March 2013 and the adoption was finalized in January 2014.
Their newest foster child was placed in their home for what was to only be a few days. A year later, he is still living with them and his adoption will be finalized later this spring.
Terry said he recommends fostering children to his soldiers.
“I talk to my soldiers all the time about it,” Terry said. “I don’t ever get a reaction out of it, but I always talk to them about it.”
Managing paperwork and medical conditions can be challenging when fostering and adopting, Farreh said.
“I do what the doctors tell me to do and like I tell everyone — I get stressed just like everybody else especially with all the paperwork and all the stuff you’ve got to keep track of,” Farreh said. “You have to lock up their medicines and you’ve got to keep track of their medicines and doctor’s appointments and specialty appointments. Who goes to see what judge, what court and what attorney, what caseworker, and whose caseworker’s coming.”
When looking at the stresses of fostering, Farreh said she approaches it the same way she would a biological child.
“It’s stressful, but ... it’s no more stress than your own (biological) child,” Farreh said.
April Campana: A foster child who found a life-long home
At the age of 13, April Campana’s biological mother abused her. Knowing she deserved better, Campana notified authorities and entered the foster care system. From there, her journey could have gone two very different ways.
It all began when Campana disclosed to an aunt that her biological father was abusive. The aunt took Campana to the police to report the offense. She moved in with her biological mother and three months later a social worker discovered that Campana’s mother was also abusive. She was removed from the home and placed into foster care.
At the time, foster homes were limited. Campana said Laurie Cassler was hoping to foster younger children, but when she was told Campana needed an immediate home or she would be sent to a group home, she jumped on the opportunity.
In New York, like Kansas, the foster care system has a goal of reuniting families, so five months later, Campana moved back in with her biological mother. When she discovered that her mother’s live-in boyfriend was a convicted felon who molested his seven children, she called her social worker on the way to school.
“‘I need out. Take me,’” she said. “I was very stubborn. I wasn’t going to be treated badly anymore. So I called and said ‘I want out.’ They came and picked me up at the school.”
Unfortunately, a death in the family prevented Cassler from taking Campana back that day, so she was placed in a group home. For a shy and timid girl who was a peacemaker, she found the home challenging.
“The first day was very strange, because I had never been in a group home before,” Campana said. “I was assigned a bed. Any belongings that I did have with me were locked up in a room. And you know, at 13 years old you couldn’t figure why you didn’t have your things with you.”
The reason was theft. Children were known to take things from one another at the group home. Fights were also common.
“Nobody really had anything, so when you saw something — you wanted it,” Campana said.
On the fifth day, she got a visitor. It was Cassler. She wanted to see how Campana was doing. After her visit, it was just a few hours later Campana was called to the office.
“They said somebody is here to pick you up,” Campana said. “I couldn’t imagine who that was because I knew I wasn’t going back. It was my foster mom, and she decided that even though they were going through their trials at home, she didn’t want me there because she had seen (the group home) and for my personality, it was a very difficult place to be. So I went home with her that day.”
Two years later, Cassler and her husband asked Campana to join them at the dinner table.
“My mom said ‘Well, April, we have had some discussions, and we’ve decided we want you to be part of the family,’” Campana said. “I always crack up. There’s a scene in ‘The Blind Side’ where he says, ‘I thought I was part of the family.’ That’s exactly what I said.”
After being adopted, Campana went on to graduate high school with honors, earn a college degree, marry Maj. Frank Campana, currently with the Mission Command Training Program, and have two children, Mitchell, 18, and Leslie, 13.
Besides fostering animals and volunteering at the Fort Leavenworth Stray Facility, Campana is helping her daughter with the American Heritage Girls, Heritage Girls United Giving Service program. Chapters purchase red duffle bags and and collect donations to purchase items children may need when they go into the foster care system, such as basic toiletries, school supplies, teddy bears, blankets, and coloring books or journals to fill the bags. In May, American Heritage Girls will stuff and present 150 bags to the Leavenworth foster care system.
“The first time I went (into foster care) it was a surprise,” Campana said. “So I went with the clothes on my back. No toothbrush, no pajamas, no nothing — just the clothes on my back.”
Campana said she thinks military couples fostering children is an amazing concept despite some challenges.
“OK, yes, they do PCS so that can be a drawback if you look at it that way, but showing these children any amount of normalcy and love and stability and just true family structure is better than none,” Campana said. “So if the family can foster for six months and the child is still not back with their (biological) family, it’s still better than to have not had that family setting.”
Looking back, she wonders how her life would be different if her mom, Laurie Cassler, didn’t return to get her from the group home.
“I don’t think I would have survived and thrived as well as I did,” Campana said. “My mom showed me that it was good to want more in life, and that it was important to hold your head up. One lesson she always taught me was to make sure in any situation you find in life you come out of it holding your head up and if you can do that, the rest is cake. Without that, I don’t know if I would have been able to make it as far as I did.”
Resources for those interested in fostering
Those interested in fostering must complete a course to be certified to take in foster children. In Kansas, this is a 30-hour pre-licenser training course called Partnering for Safety and Permanency — Model Approach for Partnerships in Parenting. PS-MAPP gives a general overview of the foster care system, parenting children in foster care and parenting children with histories of trauma. They are also required to take a first aid class, medication administration and universal precautions offered free of charge at KVC Health Systems.
KVC Health Systems, at 13 S. 5th St. in Leavenworth, is a child-placing agency with a state contract for case management.
Before licensing homes, KVC assesses homes to make sure they meet all safety standards approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. If approved, the agency submits the licensing paperwork to KDHE.
From there, KVC consultants work with families to determine their comfort level in parenting, which includes number of children they are willing to take at any given time, ages, and if they will take and support children with special physical or emotional needs.
The KVC admissions department calls foster homes when a child is available and asks if they are able and willing to take them.
Carrie Freeman, child placement supervisor at KVC, said it is always a goal to reunite children with their biological family, but under federal law, if a child is in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, they can pursue termination of parental rights.
“When a child comes in, we are always looking at plan B,” Freeman said. “If reintegration is not going to be able to occur, who are the adoptive resources? Are there relatives; if not, is the foster family they are already with willing to adopt? From the very get-go, we are asking the families if they are interested in adopting, so we know when termination is scheduled for parental rights.”
Freeman said the children they struggle placing are teenagers, large sibling groups and children with special needs.
She said that when working with military families, they are careful to plan around their timelines. Their goal would always be for the children to not have to move.
“We expect them to bring a child into their home, treat them like it is their child, and it’s heartbreaking to form an attachment with that child and for that child to leave,” Freeman said.
Despite the occasional move, Freeman said one of the big positives of military families fostering is the support.
“The military offers a lot of support,” Freeman said. “I think just the community on Fort Leavenworth is very close and supportive of one another.”
The one-on-one time with foster families Freeman said is important for foster children compared to a group home.
“I think you have parents who are able to devote more time to medical appointments, and making sure they have everything they need,” Freeman said. “The difference is a foster mom picking the child up in the family minivan compared to the bus the group home has to use, at the dinner table there’s four people compared to 15, and at the group homes it’s staff, it’s not mom and dad.”
Foster families must complete 16-24 hours a year of continuing education per household to maintain their fostering license. KVC offers networking, monthly support groups and training opportunities on a continual basis.
KVC’s 2014 16th Annual Resource Family Conference is April 25-26 at the Overland Park Marriott. This is an annual weekend gathering for children in foster care and their families. Parents attend workshops, earn continuing education hours and learn new strategies for handling family challenges, while their children enjoy fun activities all provided for free for those who register on KVC’s website at http://www.kvc.org/node/824.
For a list of all the child-placing agencies in Kansas visit Children’s Alliance of Kansas at http://childally.org/.