Friend Family at Disneyland

The Friend family posed for a group photo during a trip to Disneyland in 2008. Top row, L-R:  Dominick, Izzy, Jordan, Karen (grandma), Dan (grandpa), Zac, Vance, Laura - Bottom row: Thomas, Lucas

Vance and Laura Friend are not your average parents. They live in Apache Junction. She is a teacher, and he is a firefighter. And over the last 10 years, they have had 16 kids – 3 of them are their biological children, and 13 were foster children.

But the Friends are not your average foster parents, either. While many families shy away from older kids and teens, believing the myths and misperceptions about teens in foster care, the Friends have opened their hearts and their home to them. According to them, “It just made sense.”

In the Beginning

“We had always thought about adopting,” shared Laura in a recent interview with The News. After having their own children (Jordan, Zac and Lucas), the Friends decided the time was right to adopt a younger sister for the family. “But, once we got done with all the certifications and we were able to adopt, they didn’t have anybody who met our criteria,” said Vance.

“So then, Gillian from CPS [Child Protective Services] called and asked if we would be willing to foster Chris and Sarah [brother and sister, ages 4 and 3]. She thought it would only be for 90 days. That turned into a year and a half.”

“I remember being little, and when everything was happening, it was really bad,” reminisced Sarah, now 18. “Me and Chris said that we were going to live in a cardboard box together. It sounded like a great idea at the time.”

Luckily, they did not have to experience the reality of their proposed solution; when the Friends heard that the close-knit siblings were physically ill from the stress of being separated in the foster care shelters, they decided to make room for two. They quickly became attached to the children and loved them as their own.

As a first time foster mom, Laura worked to build a relationship with the siblings’ biological mother, making scrapbooks of activities and events in the lives of their foster children and making sure they stayed in touch with their mother and two additional siblings. When Chris and Sarah were eventually reunited with their biological family, they continued to spend frequent weekends with the Friends and joined them on their camping trips and annual vacations. “If you look through our family photos, it doesn’t look like they ever left,” said Laura.

Ten years later, Chris and Sarah’s mom “had some more issues,” and the children, now teenagers, ended up back in the custody of Child Protective Services (CPS). With no chance of family reunification this time, the Friends welcomed them back and eventually adopted them – while continuing to foster other kids.

Foster Teens

Nearly half of Arizona’s 3,422 teens in foster care (as of July 24, 2019) reside in shelters or group homes. There are many myths about teenagers that dissuade families from opening their homes to them. One common misperception is that teens were placed in care because of behavior problems. In reality, most children in foster care were placed there because of the actions of their biological parents or legal guardians – through no fault of their own.

Many people also believe that teens are too old to want or need a family, but just like every other person, teens need family to wish them a happy birthday, celebrate milestones, provide a safe space for counsel and reassurance and help guide their transition to adulthood.

For the Friends, however, fostering teens was a practical decision. As their own children grew older, it “just made sense to take on older kids, because then they fit in with everything we like to do.” Vance explained, “We’ve had some foster kids with rough backgrounds, but we’re a very active family, and I think kids like that. They like playing ultimate Frisbee in the front yard; they like going to the beach, and Rocky Point and up to the cabin. These were experiences that they probably didn’t see growing up, but they were just things that our family always did – so they became a part of it.”

Hiking with Friends

Family hike, L-R: Vance, Zac, Chris, Sarah, Lucas

“Just like any teenager, they want to be accepted and know that they are cared about,” added Laura.

Austin, now 25 and one of a three-sibling group who joined the Friend’s extended family as teens, agreed, “As foster kids, you have a background – otherwise, you wouldn’t be in that situation. For me and my two brothers, I think doing all those things definitely helped keep our minds off of that, so the troubles weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been. I think there were tendencies I wanted to fall into, but I was never given the chance, so that helped for sure.

“We were definitely blessed as far as the process was concerned, because we went to a shelter and then a group home. You’ve got a bunch of one of the two genders in the same area, and they just live there. Sometimes those kids never see a foster family; they age right out of the shelter. We actually witnessed that while we were there.

“But we got blessed with this family and with our case manager, because we went from the shelter to the group home, then our case manager got switched to Gillian. She called us immediately, and the next week, we were meeting people.”

At one point, the Friends had eight children living in their home, including their three biological kids – plus Chris and Sarah, who were back with their mom at the time, but frequently visited. All of the kids were in junior high or high school at the time.

“We were all stair-steps,” Jordan commented. Now age 28, with a family of her own, she is the oldest of the Friend’s biological children and is currently in the process of being approved as a foster parent, herself. “It was hard, but it was also real nice, because we had our friends real close.”

The Friends assert that accepting a new foster child was always a family decision, including current foster children as well as their biological children. Having the consensus of everyone in the family ensured an easier transition for the newcomer. “There was only one time – about a 9 month period – when the family said no to fostering another child,” said Vance. “There was just a lot going on at that point.”

“I think [fostering] helped me and my two biological brothers get a better sense of how other people live,” added Jordan. I feel like it made us better people, because we were able to get along with other kids from different places and different backgrounds.”

“And we’re still in contact with all but one,” said Laura.

Advice

We always run into people who say, ‘I couldn’t do [fostering]. I would get too emotionally attached,’” Vance related. “And I tell them, ‘Then you should do it, because that’s what the kids need – someone who’s going to invest in them – the time, the attachment, the love…”

“We’re the adults, so we can take it,” agreed Laura. “We can take the hit on the emotions; they’re the ones who need someone to stand up for them. You might only have that kid for a month. You might have them for a year and a half. They might stay forever. But if you’ve been thinking about it, take that leap of faith.”

“Regardless of how you look at it, [group homes and shelters] can be very demeaning. You almost feel like property,” added Austin. “And being in a home where you are individually loved and cared for is a big thing. It’s a big moment, no matter how long or short it is. If it’s only a month, it is a month they will never forget for their entire life.”

The Friends also recommend, when possible, facilitating an ongoing relationship between the child and his/her family. “Anytime it was safe for the child, we would try to foster that, because it’s important,” explained Laura. “We have custody of them, but we invite their family to things like graduation and other events. We didn’t tell them where we lived, of course. And as the children were growing up, we would make that decision as to whether the biological parent could have their cell phone number or whether the cell phone contact would come through my phone. With each kid, we would have that option – and we have had a couple where it’s not in the best interest of the child, and CPS or DCS [Department of Child Safety] would tell us that it’s not ok.

“There’s also kids who can be adopted out of the foster system. If you’re not somebody who wants to take that chance on getting a child and then returning them to their families – which is the ultimate goal – there are kids in the foster system who are ready to be adopted.

“There are so many kids out there who are in group homes who never get a good family experience. Know what your family strengths are, ask questions about the kids, meet the kids, talk to their case worker and decide which kid would work better for your family. Just take that chance and do it.

“All of our kids did not end up perfect; all of the stories did not end up perfect, but we don’t regret any of them or any of the things that we did. It was worth it, and we think our biological kids are better off for it, and all of our kids are better off for it.”

DCS is currently seeking foster families for all school-age children, as well as sibling groups.

To learn more about fostering teens, call 877-543-7633 or visit change2lives.com.

#WeAreAJ

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