MYRTLE POINT — In 1976, Sharon Ross had time on her hands.
"My two oldest girls were getting ready to start school, and (for me) it was go back to college or start a day care," Ross said. "I had mentioned starting a day care, and someone said, 'You should try foster care.' I had never heard of foster care. So I made the call, and a week later we were certified. That was in 1976."
Since then, she hasn't had any time on her hands at all, because in the intervening years, Ross has provided a home to 105 children. After she retired from foster care last summer at the age of 65, staff and volunteers in the Oregon Department of Human Services' Coos and Curry County Foster Care and Adoption Program threw her a party in September, presenting her with a framed piece of artwork with the names of all her kids.
A few days after the party, Ross and a couple of DHS employees sat down with a reporter to talk about Ross' foster parenting career and the ongoing need for foster families.
"Foster care was very much different back then,' Ross said of her initial years. "I didn't know any other foster parents, and there were no trainings.
"I stumbled into it, and probably for the first 10 years, I stumbled my way through it."
In the 1980s, Ross helped start the local foster parents' organization. "I was asked there as a guest, and I left there as the president of the association," Ross said.
The group facilitates training for foster parents and provides support and advice. When children arrive at a foster home with nothing but the clothes on their back, as often happens, the group helps the foster family obtain whatever a child needs: clothing, bunk beds, music lessons, band instruments, sports equipment, team fees, and church camp scholarships. Some things, such as bike helmets, car seats and life jackets, are donated; other things are passed around from family to family.
The foster parents' group gets training from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Ever wished that kids came with an instruction manual for raising them? Foster parents have access to all sorts of training, from CPR classes to instruction in dealing with particular special needs. "I actually got to be a parent that got a 'manual' on how to raise kids successfully, and I'm pretty thankful for that," Ross said.
Over the course of "40 years and two husbands," as Ross puts it, she has adopted 18 kids.
But Ross is the first to say that families contemplating foster care shouldn't plan on fostering as a route to adoption. "Too doggone many kids are getting adopted," Ross said.
"We are not an adoption agency," agreed Monica Picatti, a DHS foster family certifier who has worked closely with Ross. The agency's goal is strengthening families so they can be reunited. Children are fostered with relatives whenever possible.
Whether she adopted them or not, Ross keeps in touch with nearly every kid she's fostered. "I don't have any choice," she joked. "They all know where I live."
"Some I see often, some I see sometimes, some I see more than my own birth kids. I have 59 grandkids and four great-grandkids."
Ross rattles off their accomplishments; this one is an attorney back East, that one is a happily married assistant engineering professor.
"They're almost all successful because they've trained themselves or gone to college and got a career, and they love what they do."
One foster son who found her after 21 years called her and said he wanted to meet her. She started to give him directions, and he said, "Mom, I'm in your driveway." She asked him how he had found the place. After all, the last time he'd been there, he'd been 4 years old.
The young man told Ross, "When you've only lived one good place, where you were loved and wanted, you never forget how to get there."
Of course, foster parenting wasn't a bed of roses, Ross said. "Good, bad, right or wrong, you just hang on. It's a ride, definitely a roller-coaster ride."
During her foster career, Ross weathered seven DHS investigations — a number that's not at all unusual, Picatti said. "Any time a kid reports anything on a foster parent, we're obligated to look into it," she said.
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Most allegations have to do with management of the funds foster parents receive, she said. Many allegations turn out to be unsubstantiated. "They're children, and they want to go home," Picatti said.
Ross mentored other foster parents who found themselves under DHS scrutiny. "I told them, 'There's a system in place, and if you do what you're trained to do, the system will take care of you and get you through it,'" Ross said.
"Every time it happened it was like, 'Don't take my kids away.' If you love those kids, you're going to fight to keep them with you."
Ross said her own attitude toward troubled families evolved over her time as a foster parent. After seeing kids who had suffered terrible abuse, she began to feel judgmental toward their parents. "They don't need their kids back," she thought.
"Then a couple asked to go to church with me, and I took them to church, and then I just started looking at them differently, like, 'I'm not perfect.'
"It hit me: 'You have a family, you have a dad who taught you right from wrong. He didn't come home drunk every night, he stayed married. You had family values and a life. We didn't have a picture-perfect family, but all the basics were there, and they were good.'
"'You make good choices because you were taught from a very early age: Don't steal, don't lie, marry somebody you love, don't chase around, get training, get something that makes you happy.' Just those kind of things, and I made good choices.
"A lot of these kids come into care with one mom and 40 dads. Everybody is dad. That could have been me, if I'd come out of the same background. And I fell in love with almost all my moms from that point on. I still visit with those moms, some more so than others. Some have changed, some haven't."
The most kids Ross fostered at once in her five-bedroom house in Myrtle Point was 13 siblings, whom she took on because she thought it was important to keep siblings together. "I say to caseworkers all the time: 'They've lost everything else; all they have is each other. Why are they not together?'"
Being a foster family was sometimes a source of frustration for Ross' own kids, who frequently clashed with their foster siblings. "They're kids, and when the war's on, it's on," Ross said ruefully. "And I'm not always the best referee."
Foster parents sometimes take on the task of mentoring not only the child but also the child's biological family. That can start with supervised visits, move on to shared activities like swimming or bowling, and continue as an ongoing relationship even after the child moves back home, if all the parties want it.
Locally, about 70 families are fostering children related to them, and 60 other families are fostering unrelated children. Only about 30 homes are actively accepting children.
That's not enough. In the North Bend DHS office, Sue Thornton coordinates the Growing Resources and Alliances through Collaborative Efforts (GRACE) Project, tasked with recruiting new foster families. The goal is to find not just more families but a variety of types of households, so there's a good fit for each child. There's also a need for respite caregivers who can give foster families a break.
The foster parents group mentors newcomers. "We tell people, 'You see that little car you came in with? In two years, you'll be driving a van. In five years, you'll be on your second van," Ross joked.
"You can always tell the ones that are going to stay. They trade in their car for a van."
With her nest empty except for one 6-year-old daughter, Ross has moved to a ranch near Powers. "It's so peaceful," she said. "The animals talk back to you, but they're different from kids. You can't tell what they're saying, so it's OK."
But she misses the camaraderie of the foster parents' group.
"I am so proud of the foster parents in Coos, and the bond we built, the lions and tigers and bears that we chased," she said.
"We did it as a team, we held each other up, and when you have that comradeship, it leaves a void when you walk away from it."