Foster Care: A Special Kind of Love

Around Valentine’s Day, the world thinks of love. Usually that love is romantic love. But there are many forms of love. There’s the love people share as friends; there’s the love of families. And families can take on many forms. Being a foster parent is one way of showing love to a child who desperately needs the love of a good parent.

The National Youth Advocate Program is a nationwide youth advocacy organization that specializes in foster care and therapeutic services programs. The representatives provide mental health services and foster care services to children and families. The National Youth Advocate Program has been operating in West Virginia since 1982, and has an office in Martinsburg. There are also in Parkersburg, Fairmont, and Wheeling.

Children are usually referred through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. These children are victims of abuse and neglect, abandonment, or otherwise do not have a safe home to live in. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has foster homes. In the event that these homes are full, specialized foster care agencies are contacted to secure a home for the child to live in. Children range in age from birth to 18 years old and come from all socioeconomic demographics or racial or cultural groups.

Sara Westendorff is the licensing coordinator in Martinsburg, and responsible for recruiting, training, and licensing foster homes in Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan counties. She works with community groups, businesses, and social media to recruit for foster parents.

She says the need for foster parents or adoptive parents is apparent in West Virginia.  “In 2012, (the last year for which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has statistics), 4,591 children were victims of maltreatment or neglect in West Virginia,” she said. “Over fifty percent suffered neglect, thirty-four percent suffered physical abuse, twenty-eight percent suffered emotional abuse, and five percent suffered sexual abuse.”

She added that as of September 2012, 4,825 children were in foster care in West Virginia. In 2012, 1,143 children were legally free for adoption and awaiting care. And 632 children were adopted from the foster care system.

These statistics were cited from Child Welfare Outcomes 2009- 2012, Report to Congress U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foster parents need to provide a loving, caring home for these special children.  Children become a part of the family.  Westendorff said, “Our foster parents choose to bond with a foster child in spite of the knowledge that they won’t be in that child’s life forever. Our foster parents choose to smooth out the wrinkles on that piece of paper. They make sure the child receive appropriate medical and mental health services. They make education a priority.”

Foster parents ensure that the child develops appropriate social relationships with friends and peers. They give the child a safe, stable, nurturing home. They serve as role models for biological parents. In a variety of ways, they are helping the biological parents so that the child can go home.

Westendorff added, “This is true love. Loving a child in spite of the knowledge that they might be gone tomorrow because it is good for the child, their family, and their community.”

Currently, there are three children in foster care in the immediate area. At least ten have achieved adoption with foster families in the last five years. The NYAP receives referrals for foster care constantly. 

Westendorff said there are more children in need than there are foster homes available.  “We are in need of foster homes to serve older youth, sibling groups, and drug affected infants.  We also have an older youth that has been accepted to a job preparation program so that she can develop adult life skills and be successful in the future.”

There have been many success stories. Jennifer Holben and her husband have had 23 foster children in their home at varying times over the last decade. She said March will be their ten-year anniversary of taking in their first foster child to join their family of two of their own children.

“My husband and I love children,” Holben said. “He had a customer who was talking about international adoption.  We started looking into it and found out about all the children in the U.S. who need homes. We wanted to help out here in the U.S.”

They took special training and learned first aid and CPR. They took crisis prevention and other training. Then, they took in a two-year old girl, and later welcomed her newborn sister who only weighed four pounds when born. The baby was addicted to heroin.

That was six years ago. Today, those girls are their adopted children, who are part of a family that includes their two biological children and two current foster children.

“The father lost his rights,” Holben explained. “And the mother relinquished her rights. We filed to adopt them and went through the 45-day waiting period.  It felt like much longer.”

There are drawbacks, like loving children that might leave. Many of the children return to their biological parents once the parents get their life together.  However, there are a lot of pros to the cons.

She said there’s a special kind of love that doesn’t have a price tag. If they have take in a baby for a year, they are the ones up with it at night, but they get to see it take its first steps, or maybe first words.  It’s always hard when the children leave, but she wouldn’t trade the experience. 

“You always cry. People ask why we do it. It’s hard to explain.  The saying is parenting is the hardest thing to do. I say being a foster parent is the hardest. We have had kids with us a while that leave and we run into them a year later, and they call me mom or call my husband daddy. That outweighs the pain.”

She said foster parents have to know going into it that they will likely have the children for a short time. These kids have been abused in some way or neglected. She said they come with issues, and every one is different.

“I’d recommend being a foster parent,” said Holben. “The reward is so great watching kids grow and succeed and knowing you were part of it.”

Of course, the foster parents are supervised.  Westendorff completes an in-depth analysis of the home in terms of background checks, references, and interviews with all family members. About 30 hours of training is given to prospective foster parents. They have to take continuing education courses.

And personnel monitor the children by meeting with them. Westendorff said, “As a specialized agency, we provide a lot of services ‘in house.’ We have a treatment coordinator that meets with each child twice a month in the foster home or at school to monitor their case. This treatment coordinator acts as a liaison with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and Child Protective Services. This person ensures that any services that the child needs are provided to them. We also have licensed therapists within our agency so a child can receive counseling quickly and effectively.”

Services are also provided to the biological parents, such as counseling, parenting education, or adult life skills education. The ultimate best goal would be to reunite the children with their biological parents. Over sixty percent of children spend less than a year in foster care.  All services are done with direction from Child Protective Services workers assigned to the case.

The National Youth Advocate Program was founded in 1978 by Dr. Mubarak Awad. Dr. Awad’s father was killed in 1948 in the Israeli-Arab War. He grew up in orphanages in Jerusalem before moving to the United States to attend college in Ohio. In 1978, Dr. Awad observed that children were being institutionalized at an alarming rate. He began to create programs in Ohio to keep children in their communities because of a belief that children are best served in their communities. Today, the National Youth Advocate Program operates in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, and South Carolina.

For more information about the National Youth Advocate Program, call (304) 596-2390 or log onto  The local office is located at 1314 Edwin Miller Blvd., Suite 103, Martinsburg, WV 25404. 

Photo: The Holben Family with foster child obscured for privacy.