By the age of 10, Zoe Ball of Altoona had already been in three or four foster care homes. She doesn't remember the exact number.
She'd heard many promises that the foster care parents would adopt her, only to have her hopes die when the parents told her they just changed their minds.
So when Crystal and Donald Ball took her into their home and said they planned to adopt her, she didn't believe them, either.
"I tested them,'' Zoe said, describing how for the first week she behaved well then started doing destructive things like breaking toys, leaving gum on the seat of a new car and other things around the house.
The behavior finally stopped when the family got word that the court had set a date to finalize Zoe's adoption.
She knew the Balls wouldn't be sending her back.
Wanting to help is a reason to be involved
The reasons people want to be foster parents vary from one person to the next, but it really comes down to simple things like a love of children and a desire to keep kids safe, said foster care agency officials.
"One of the most common reasons is simply wanting to be able to help children in need of a safe, loving home,'' Sarah Harteis, family resource specialist with KidsPeace of Duncansville, said.
Foster care parents can be single people or married couples, looking to adopt a foster child or just care for the children on a temporary basis whether it be for a few weeks or longer but eventually returning the child to the birth parents, Harteis said.
In either case, the people are pre-screened with background and financials checks, plus home visits. They then attend weeks of training classes before children ever enter their homes, officials said.
Once foster care children begin coming to their home, the children may stay anywhere from several days to 18 months or more. Many times children will stay in foster care for six months to a year before they can return to their birth parents, said Ashley Saylor, the state director for Arrow Child & Family Ministries of Altoona. Going back home is possible if the parents can solve problems such as poor housing conditions or substance abuse issues, she said.
"Many times the goal for children placed through the child welfare system is to return to their birth family's home in a safe and timely manner,'' Saylor said. "However, if birth families are ultimately unable to provide a safe home to their child, great attempts are made to provide permanency through adoption.''
For more information on becoming a foster care parent, contact KidsPeace at 693-7708 or Arrow Child & Family Ministries at 201-9330.
- Mary Haley
Now Zoe is 17 and ready to enter the Army next year. She has been a loving part of the Ball family since the day she was adopted.
"Foster care kids may go through a lot more than other kinds of people, but we're strong and we keep on fighting,'' she said.
All across the Altoona area, foster care families are caring for children like Zoe who cannot live with their biological parents, whether it's for a short time or permanently.
Sometimes the children are returned to their parents if the parents can overcome their problems in the cases of substance abuse or mental health problems, officials said. But if the cases involve more serious issues such as child abuse and the children cannot be returned, often the foster care families will adopt the children themselves, they said.
Regis Butler of Martinsburg said he's used to coming downstairs to go to work and having his wife, Kim, tell him he has be quiet because there's a child sleeping in their spare bedroom.
Regis Butler admits he was hesitant to sign on to becoming a foster parent because he feared at some point one of the children he and his wife took in might falsely accuse him of physical or sexual abuse. It's one of the problems the couple was warned about before they became foster parents for Arrow Child & Family Ministries of Altoona.
"They put you through boot camp, basically,'' Regis Butler said. "They give you all the examples of what could happen.''
Kim Butler said she'd wanted to become a foster care parent for quite awhile.
"There are so many kids out there who don't have basic things, who have such horrible lives," said Butler, who with her husband raised a relative's nephew, which started the couple thinking about foster care.
They already had two biological daughters, Faith and Becca.
Both families have had some foster care children stay just briefly, called "respite care,'' and both families each have had one child who turned violent toward a family member and had to be removed immediately. But the Balls and the Butlers stressed that they are dealing with at-risk children, and overall the children have been very well-behaved, they said. They also said the agencies responded at once and handled the situation quickly.
The Balls said they got into foster care because they were unable to have children themselves. They saw a program on television about a foster care agency and checked it out. They have been caring for foster care children through KidsPeace of Duncansville since 2001.
They adopted their first foster care children, brothers Rusty and J.R., a year later. The boys were ages 6 and 11 respectively. Now they are 16 and 23. Since then, they've also adopted Zoe, and are in the process of adopting two other girls under the age of 10.
The Balls were vigorously screened like the Butlers before they were accepted into the foster care program. Like the Butlers, they were made aware that they could be open to false accusations, they said.
"These kids are very smart; that's true, they do stress that,'' Donald Ball said, although he added he wasn't too worried. He said the agency has profiles of all the children and it would know if the children have a history of making false claims in the past.
Crystal Ball said some people have asked her why she and her husband chose to adopt foster care children rather than babies from other countries such as China or Russia. She said they question why someone would want to take on children who might have problems coming from broken homes.
But Crystal said she thinks people should try to help children closer to home, especially the older children. Often people only want to adopt babies, especially female babies, leaving older male children in foster care until they reach adulthood, she said.
"Rather than go to other countries, there are so many kids in our area. Why not help the kids in your own backyard?'' she said.
The Butlers expressed similar sentiments, saying they want to help as many children as they can because they know there are a lot of children in bad home situations. That's the kind of thinking that led them to their Destiny, the foster care daughter they adopted at age 7. Destiny is now as much a daughter to them as Becca and Faith, the Butlers said.
"They fight and argue just like sisters,'' Kim said.