Interested in fostering?
For more information on becoming a foster parent, visit:
* Chambliss Center for Children at www.chamblisscenter.org/foster-care-chattanooga-tn
* Tennessee Department of Children’s Services at www.tn.gov/dcs/article/become-a-foster-Parent
Sixteen-year-old Abby is nervous.
She says she isn't, several times, and then keeps circling back to her mother in the lobby on the second floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse to ask a question.
Actually, Fran Quarles is not Abby's mother, at least not yet, not for another 30 minutes, which is why Abby is so full of anxious energy on this Wednesday morning.
For three years she and her younger brother, Kalob, have lived with Fran, her husband Joey, and their other three children, as foster children.
But today, the Quarles are adopting Abby and Kalob.
In a few minutes, the Circuit Court ceremony is over and the family scrambles to pose for photos behind the judge on the bench, with Fran picking up Kalob from his wheelchair and plopping him on Joey's shoulders.
Abby and Kalob are laughing, the Quarles family is beaming, the social workers are thrilled, and even Judge Neil Thomas has a smile on his normally serious face.
It is a very happy day, one that occurs all too rarely with foster children.
* * *
At any moment, there are about 800 children in the eight-county Chattanooga metro area in foster homes, according to Liz Blasbery, executive director for residential services at the Chambliss Center for Children. New ones can enter the system at any moment — if a police officer arrests a woman for DUI and she can't name anyone who can take care of the children in her car, then Chambliss or some similar agency may be contacted.
For foster parents, that may mean a phone call in the middle of the night and as little as 15 minutes to get ready to welcome an upset child who has never met them before and may not be accustomed to kind treatment from adults.
"Foster parents have to be flexible and willing to roll with it," Blasbery said, "able to pick up and figure the situation out when confronted with a crisis."
Chambliss is one of the smallest of 25 agencies statewide helping place foster children, with only 17 local families hosting children. But Blasbery said her biggest need is not just a foster home, but one willing to take multiple children from the same family, such as Abby and Kalob.
"When you think about the kids, their siblings are all they have," she said. "The thought of separating children from their siblings is an absolutely last resort."
Children come into the system through the Department of Child Protective Services. The state operates a hotline that receives calls from neighbors or relatives who suspect abuse or a schoolteacher who notices suspicious bruises. Depending on the nature of the complaint, a protective services worker goes to the home to investigate.
If CPS staffers believe they need to remove the child from the home, they need to get a judge's approval and, even then, the system pushes to reunite the family.
"They try to see if there is a way to put in services to the home to keep the family unit together," Blasbery said. If that is not possible, they look for family members, friends of family — people the children know.
But when that fails, the foster parents get the call.
Fran Quarles said it took her five years to convince her husband to be a foster parent.
"I told her I wanted to be a volunteer firefighter," Joey Quarles said recently in an interview at the couple's home in Soddy-Daisy. "She said, 'You're doing something to help other people, so now I want to do something to help other people.'"
Fran knew the foster care system firsthand.
She was raised by a single mom and rarely saw her dad.
"I was more of a wild child than he was," she said, looking at Joey. But her foster home experience was overwhelmingly positive. It was not until she began talking to members of a youth group at her church, The Gathering on Hixson Pike, that she realized other foster children were not so fortunate.
Kalob, who has cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus and needs a wheelchair, was their first foster child, along with two younger siblings. There wasn't room in their home for older sister Abby. Watching her drive away, leaving the rest of her family behind, was difficult, said Joey, who works as an advanced emergency medical technician and chaplain with Puckett EMS.
But her birth father eventually took the younger siblings back, and Abby joined Kalob at the Quarleses' home, where both spent the past three years.
Fostering was difficult at first, Joey said. Kalob's wheelchair was the wrong size and the cushion was infested with cockroaches.
"I'm not an emotional guy," he said. "But when these two came to live here, I would go into my room and cry. It physically hurt, what they've had to live through."
But the couple persevered. And now they have had eight foster children in three and a half years
"In the beginning, it's a learning curve for both sides," said Fran, a substitute teacher in Red Bank.
Chambliss provides training to the Quarleses and other prospective foster parents, Blasbery said.
Among the misconceptions are that parents need to be married — single moms or dads are welcome — that they need to own a house, or even have a sizable income.
"There is a lot more flexibility than people realize," she said.
There is also money, a $30-per-day stipend for children with no medical or behavioral issues, and $40 a day for those who need medical assistance.
"That is not an income for the family," Blasbery said. "The payments we provide are specifically to meet the additional expenses of a child placed in your home."
What's most important is personality.
"Having a sense of humor, being able to roll with what's going on," Blasbery said. "When a child is upset and taking things out on you, being able to say 'hey, this is not really about me, it is about what is going on in their lives.'"
Blasbery should know. Her father is longtime civic leader Pete Cooper, and their family fostered more than two dozen children while Blasbery was growing up. When her own children are a bit older, she said, she plans to follow his example.
"I would never say fostering is easy, but it is invaluable, not just to the children but to this community," she said. "There is a huge number of children who need stability, who need loving homes. We need adults to step up and really help them in this time of stress."
Sign Fran and Joey Quarles up for that list. Fran says they still have room for one or two foster children.
Joey remembers his concern when he first thought about parenting children who had been mistreated and might act out in his home.
"But then I thought, 'If I don't, who will?'" he said.
Added Fran, "Somebody has to be there for them."