CARIBOU, Maine — When April and Chris Belyea of Caribou first became foster parents eight years ago, they knew they wanted to provide children in Aroostook County with a safe, loving home, all while helping them reunite with their biological families.
Since then the Belyeas have fostered nine children, most of whom were able to be reunited with their birth parents. The couple, who have two adult children of their own, have adopted two former foster children, who are now 7 and 2 years old.
“We have been blessed to work with incredible families who have gone through very difficult circumstances,” said April Belyea, who is a kindergarten teacher at Teague Park Elementary School in Caribou.
But while the experiences of caring for foster children have continually given the Belyeas many gratifying moments, they’ve faced challenges that result from the increased need for foster families in the state.
Currently there are 209 children from Aroostook County in foster care. Aroostook County is home to 128 licensed foster homes compared to 1,524 statewide. There are 2,224 kids in state custody throughout the state.
Sarah Hatt, an Aroostook County representative for Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, Inc. and the Kinship Program, said that when children do not have family members to turn to, caseworkers will place children in foster homes, with everyone’s goal being to reunite the children with their biological parents or guardians.
Hatt and her husband Blake have taken in six foster children over the past six years and adopted one. She noted that the prospect of becoming close with foster children and dealing with the emotional heartache of their departure often discourages many people who would otherwise be great foster parents.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘I couldn’t do it. It would break my heart,’” Hatt said. “But if that’s the only reason holding you back, you should take the leap. Sometimes our hearts need to be broken if we want to help others.”
Much of the heartbreak associated with foster care, April Belyea said, also comes from watching the struggles of the children’s biological parents. For instance, becoming a foster parent has given her a broader perspective on the challenges facing many people in recovery from substance use disorder.
Due to the lack of long-term substance use rehabilitation centers in Aroostook County, parents often must travel to southern areas of Maine to receive care. This situation leaves many foster children without the connections to their biological families that foster families strive to maintain.
“People have to go downstate for rehab services longer than 28 days,” April Belyea said. “It’s hard to help a child maintain a relationship with a parent who’s in Windham for treatment and it takes a toll on your entire family.”
Another major challenge with being foster parents in Aroostook County is the lack of enough childcare options to aid full-time working parents like the Belyeas. April Belyea noted that she and her husband have had to turn down foster placements in the past for that reason.
There is also a great need for families to serve as respite foster parents — those who are licensed to care for children temporarily in the event of an emergency, unexpected illness or if a foster parent must travel out of town for work.
“The need for foster families is so great that many of the respite families we had are now full-time foster parents,” April Belyea said.
Despite those challenges, the Belyeas have found many avenues to gain emotional support for themselves and help other families in similar situations. They have helped facilitate the monthly support groups held by Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and volunteered at foster family informational sessions sponsored by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
More recently, the couple has connected with other foster parents who attend the same church. They’ve been able to serve as mentors for newer foster parents and help them navigate the legal and emotional challenges.
“Knowing that we’re not alone in what we’re going through makes the hard times easier,” April Belyea said. “Foster children face challenges that not everyone understands, so it’s nice to have people who love and accept them, challenges and all.”
For the Belyea family, the most rewarding moments have involved seeing parents change their lives for the better and reunite with their children, all while knowing that being foster parents helped those children overcome the many personal obstacles involved.
“We get to see families restored, which is a beautiful thing,” April Belyea said. “As a teacher, I know how important it is for children to have a caring adult in their lives, but I understand that even more now from being a foster parent.”