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April is Child Abuse Prevention month and three local families are doing their part to help children of neglect and abuse find help and loving homes.
Each of the families have not only fostered children but have made their homes permanent fixtures in the life of several children by making the decision to legally adopt. For Mike and Tracy Crossfield the decision to adopt was an easy one.
“I didn’t want biological children,” Tracy Crossfield said. “The idea of being pregnant was not pleasant to me. There was never an issue of raising children.”
The Crossfield’s said their approach was to start with foster kids that could be adopted.
“They told me right up front that moving in would not be a temporary thing,” daughter Chelsea Crossfield, 16, said.
For Sharron and Tony Wheatley the experience has included adoption and approximately 20 foster children.
“We look at all of them as our children,” Sharron Wheatley said. “Whether they are here permanently or for a little while, we think of all of them as our children.”
George and Caroline Harnden have invited 22 children into their home over the last 17 years, six of whom were adopted into a family which also includes five biological children of George and Caroline.
“There are just so many children who need and are deserving of love out there,” George Harnden said.
Like the Crossfields, both the Wheatleys and Harndens have a story to tell regarding their decision to become foster parents.
For the Wheatleys, Sharron originally had the idea to adopt.
“We each already had children of our own,” she said. “I knew that a lot of kids are out there without homes and I thought it would be a good idea. I talked to friends from church who had adopted and decided to look into it.”
“The day she told me she wanted to adopt I thought she was crazy,” Tony Wheatley said. “She finally talked me into it.”
After making the decision to foster children the couple began the process to become approved.
“We called social services,” Sharron Wheatley said. “We had to go through a series of classes lasting from six to 10 weeks. During those classes they tell you everything you need to know from the horror stories to the best case situations. They want you to be prepared for anything.”
Tony Wheatley said the process includes a thorough background check and home inspections.
“We continue to go to classes every year, it is part of the process.” Sharron Wheatley said.
For George and Caroline Harnden the decision to adopt was much more difficult.
“I was pregnant with child 17 years ago,” Caroline Harnden said. “She was born with a serious birth defect and died shortly after being born. About a year later, we felt like we wanted to adopt.”
“When Laura was born, and I saw her lying there with her birth defect, God put the love of all children into my heart,” George Harnden said. “After a year of grieving for her loss we decided to get involved in helping other children.”
For the couple this involved sitting down and having a family meeting with their children.
“We got the whole family together and told them what we wanted to do,” Caroline said.
For daughter Angela Mitchell the decision was a good one.
“It was great because at the time I was the only girl, and they adopted practically all girls, it was exciting to have sisters,” Mitchell said.
Daughter Jessica Harnden, 17, was one of the children brought into the Harnden home. Adopted at three years of age, she was severely malnourished when she arrived.
“Jessica was malnourished, she was in pretty bad shape physically, she couldn’t even talk,” George Harnden said. “The first thing we did was get home speech therapy for her, we worked with her quite a bit. The little girl who couldn’t even talk when she came to us can now sing like an angel.”
Jessica doesn’t remember much of those early years.
“I don’t really remember my dad and I only have vague memories of my mother,” Jessica said. “I was three when I came to my family. I am where I am because of God.”
Jessica helps George at adoption fairs to get the message out about adopting children.
“She shares her testimony with everyone,” he said. “We do adoption fairs region-wide. Wherever they have them we go.”
George gave a recent heartwarming story regarding families looking to adopt.
“We went to a fair recently, during our most recent winter storm and there were couples there in their 20s, 30s and 40s willing to weather the storm because they want to adopt children so badly,” he said.
Daughter Molly Harnden tells a similar story.
“I am much better and much happier now that I am not in the same situation. My family treats me much better and I have two lovely nieces,” she said.
Unlike Jessica, Molly was old enough to remember her situation.
“My biological dad was an alcoholic, my mom was essentially a stripper,” she said. “My dad dumped me off at social services.”
The Harndens tried to not only adopt Molly but her brother as well.
“I got separated, they tried to adopt my brother as well but he went to another home,” she said.
Brothers Thomas and Sam Crossfield were lucky enough not to be separated. Both described their current family as “great” and “awesome.”
Thomas remembers that life wasn’t always so great.
“It was bad, the biggest problem is they (birth parents) locked us in the closet,” he said. “They (Crossfields) are much nicer to us and show us more respect.”
“There was a lot of neglect from my birth parents,” Chelsea Crossfield said. “I didn’t really have a childhood. I am more mature in some ways than other kids and less than others.”
Chelsea described her birth parents as being present but generally not involved in their lives.
“I had two biological brothers I had to raise,” she said. “We never really did anything as a family, no family dinners, no real family environment.”
Chelsea said that her initial contact with the foster system was not positive.
“This is the longest I ever stayed in a home,” she said. “Most of the time it was six or seven months. I moved around quite a bit.”
Chelsea said that when she got to her first year anniversary in the Crossfield home she rebelled.
“I was so used to being out after a year that I thought the same thing would happen here but they just wouldn’t let go of me.”
“A lot of these kids come to us from homes where they have been abused and neglected,” Sharron Wheatley said. “Kids come to us in all shapes and sizes, what might be normal to you is not normal to them.”
Wheatley said that children have arrived in their homes with different ways of viewing the world.
“A lot of these parents are not really mentors to their kids,” she said. “They learn what they see at home. A lot of times we hear ‘no one ever taught me that’ from the kids we foster.”
“In many of these cases it is a generational issue, these kids are simply being taught what their parents and grandparents were taught,” Tony Wheatley said.
The Wheatleys have younger children. Two adopted daughters, Katie, 8, and Eva, 3 and an 18 month old foster daughter with some developmental issues.
“When she (foster daughter) first came to us she could not lift her head up,” Tony Wheatley said. “She has come a long way in a short period of time.”
Probably the most interesting thing about each of these families is that they are all true families. During our time at the Wheatley home, all of the children were playing quite closely with each other. This behavior was mimicked in the Crossfield home where the children played pretty closely with each other and the family pets.
“It is a family here,” Chelsea Crossfield said. “People look at us and can’t tell we are adopted. We are all so close. I’ll even nitpick at my little brothers.”
The Harndens, while older, displayed a close family unit during the interview.
“They all have a really close brother/sister type relationship,” George Harnden said. “It is very important to have a good family foundation. We have always kept the kids busy with family activities.”
For those interested in becoming foster parents there is a definite need in Spencer County. Victoria Case Kemper with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services said that there are currently 18 state based foster families in Spencer County affiliated with her agency and 3 private child care homes. Currently there are 23 children in the county in home care, which is defined as some form of foster care situation. Statewide there are 2,055 state based foster families and 2,205 private childcare providers for 7,477 children.
Kemper said that the foster process does take some time to complete.
“It is about a four to six month process which includes a 32 hour training class,” Kemper said. “Each year parents are required to perform 6-24 hours of ongoing training to remain an open home.”
In addition to classes the state performs background checks through the Kentucky State Police, home inspections to insure household chemicals, poisons, guns and other dangerous items are out of reach of children. The state also checks to make sure families are financially secure.
“People think that families foster in order to get money from the state,” she said. “But we make sure that families are financially secure prior to approving them. We require financial statements, bank records and credit references which show that a family can financially support the kids.”
For those who pass the qualifications though the journey is worth it.
“A lot of parents have misgivings but you just have to remember that a lot of their (foster children) issues are the same as any other kid,” Sharron Wheatley said.
“Every kid deserves a mom and a dad,” George Harnden said. “They need a chance to make it in life.”