First Posted: 1/15/2009
ST. PAULS -- They say it takes a village to raise a child.
Jackie Tatum of St. Pauls, though, has raised a village herself.
In the 17 years she and her husband Glenn have served as foster parents for the Robeson County Department of Social Services, Tatum figures she has provided a home for more than 100 children -- most of whom were suffering the physical and psychological wounds of an abusive home life.
Tatum offers a temporary safe harbor for these troubled children, giving them some semblance of calm until their natural parents can get their act together enough to reclaim the child.
“There's so much turmoil in their lives,” Tatum said. “I want them to see a normal family and how a normal family is supposed to live. We do all the things a family does, without all the drinking and drugs. I want them to see that you can live normally.”
Tatum is now housing two teenage girls, both of whom are attending St. Pauls High School. One has been with Tatum since January, and the other for about a month. Both are getting a heaping dose of the “normal” life Tatum has prescribed. Tatum allows the girls to go to the movies with friends -- as long as she knows the families of those friends -- and takes them to her church. She gives the girls chores and treats them as equals to her adopted 10-year-old son William, who was a foster child himself.
Tatum has taken in children of all ages, from babies on up to 17-year-olds. Sometimes, Tatum gets more than just the child in the bargain -- she gets the child's natural family.
“Some parents are granted visitation,” Tatum said. “I've worked with a lot of parents. I feel if parents get to know me, they're more comfortable in doing what they need to do to get these kids back. I look at it like 'that could be me.' And I would definitely want to know who has my child.
“Some parents, though, have been hostile,” she said. “I've had to tell some parents, 'I don't want your child,' because they automatically assume I want their child. I tell them my job is to love their child and keep their child until that child can get back to where he or she belongs.”
Room for more
Tatum was motivated to become a foster parent by her aunt, who served as a foster parent in Cumberland County.
After telling the DSS she was interested in the program, she was put through a gauntlet of classroom work to teach her how to deal with foster children, a criminal check by the State Bureau of Investigation, a background check through DSS and was fingerprinted.
“It seems like a lot of stuff to go through, but it's all for the childrens' sake,” Tatum said. “The 30 hours of schoolwork is especially important, because you're dealing with children who have so many issues. It's definitely worth it, and there is definitely a need for more foster families in Robeson County.”
Tatum is licensed to keep up to three foster children. She had been licensed for five, but found that to be a little too much, especially considering she had two children of her own in the home.
“My two natural children are adults now, but it created some hardships having all those foster children in the house with them,” Tatum said. “It was especially hard for my son. The foster kids would break one of his toys simply because they didn't have anything, and he'd have to go outside and walk around for a few hours to cool down.
“Both my son and daughter joked that they were never going to have children after being around so many kids,” Tatum said wryly. “But they did make me a grandmother, eventually. Now that they're grown, they realize how important foster families are to these kids.”
The need for foster parents is a North Carolina issue, said Sarah Anderson-Mims, Families for Kids coordinator for the state Division of Social Services.
“We really need more families,” Anderson-Mims said. “There are plenty of children. We want to get these kids out of an institution setting and into a family -- there really is no substitute for a family.”
Anderson-Mims said caring for foster kids brings rewards, though she admits those rewards aren't exactly monetary. She said the state recently increased the monthly allocation to foster families by $50 per child, but it's still not nearly enough.
“Typically, the allocation for a child up to 5 years old is just $365,” Anderson-Mims said. “It's $415 for kids 6 to 12, and $460 for kids 13 to 18. I think anyone would agree that's not very much.”
“If you want to become a foster parent for the money, then you've picked the wrong business,” Tatum said. “I make sure these kids have everything my own child does, which means I spend a heck of a lot more money than I get from the state. You've got to do this for the love.”
Tatum said she wouldn't trade the memories she's gained as a surrogate mother hen for “all the gold in the world.”
But her life with these children isn't a made-for-TV movie or After School Special. Problems do arise. There have been tough times and kids with hearts too tough for Tatum to touch.
“I've had to send some children back to DSS,” Tatum said. “I had a young man not too long ago that would do anything in the world I would ask him to, but he had been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. One day, I was gone and he blew up here, damaged my home and had my son by the throat when my daughter called and said he'd gone crazy. We called DSS and told them to come and get him. Sometimes you just don't see it until it's too late.”
Most heartbreaking is the vicious treadmill many of the children get trapped on -- sexual and physical abuse -- and they often visit the same degradations on their children.
“I've had a lot of contacts from the kids who have stayed with me,” Tatum said. “The sad part is not many have turned their lives around. I'm getting the kids of the children who have come through my home -- that's heart-wrenching.”
So, how does she do it? How does Tatum take these fragile, troubled children into her home, raise them as her own, then cut them loose to return to their families or become wards of the state?
She says it's not easy for her, or her adopted son, who's been in the same shoes as the children who pass through his home.
“He's seen so many children come and go that he doesn't let himself get too close to them,” Tatum said. “He knows they'll be leaving and another one will be coming in.
“Still, it's tough when they leave,” she said. “Each one takes a little part of me when they leave. But the way I look at is, when one leaves, there's another one who needs my help.”