GRAND LAKE —Inside Jessica and Chistian Smollecks’ home, a 4-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother play in the living room. They’re engaged in the games young children often play, leaping recliner chair to recliner chair, pretending they’re astronauts on spaceships. The girl squeals with joy and the boy dives to the ground. A chair begins to tip.
“Whoa, it’s falling back,” Jessica cautioned the boy. She helps him steady the chair.
“We parent natural consequences,” she said. “We explain things, and intervene in immediate danger, but when you figure it out you’re better off in the long run.”
The little boy’s and little girl’s names cannot be used in this story to protect their identities. They came to the Smolleck home as foster children just two day before Christmas. Removed a state away from their parents’ home, they were convinced Santa Claus would never find them. But with a little help from neighbors, the children awoke on Christmas morning to a pile of presents wrapped by the tree. With each gift, the boy asked with astonishment, “is this from Santa?”
It was supposed to be a week placement, but it turned into something more long-term. Jessica started graduate school last January, but had to quit a few weeks later because it was too much. She has always loved children and doesn’t complain.
“Life’s changed just a little bit,” Jessica said with a laugh. “This was supposed to be my year for me, but God had another plan.”
An elementary and special education teacher, Jessica had hoped to have the year off after an emotional struggle with infertility. She and Christian had spent years trying to have children of their own. Jessica had seven miscarriages in six years. They began looking into adoption, and their Denver-based agency suggested they try fostering.
The couple discussed it during the eight-hour drive to Moab for a weekend camping trip. They worried about becoming attached to the children they fostered, only to have them removed and returned to a tumultuous situation. But they wanted children in their lives. After weighing the pros and cons, they decided to move forward.
They had their paperwork ready in three weeks. They went through the typical screening processes with Grand County Social Services — fingerprints, background checks and a home study. Caseworkers interviewed the couple together and also asked them questions separately. Then, after 27 hours of training for their initial certification and an additional 20 hours of parenting education, the Smollecks were certified foster parents. But they didn’t get a placement right away.
“Six months went by, and we weren’t really thinking about it,” Jessica said. “Then we got a phone call – ‘you’re getting a kid tonight. She’ll be there in two hours.’”
It was 10 p.m., and the Smollecks were in the middle of renovating their house. When the 4-year-old girl arrived two hours later, only one of their two bedrooms was available.
They set up the little girl in their room and slept on the couch. Traumatized and afraid, the little girl asked if the Smollecks’ dog Callie could sleep with her.
“I tried to convince her that Callie’s a dog, she might not stay there. She doesn’t understand,” Jessica said.
The little girl asked Callie to stay, and the dog slept by her side the entire night.
“Callie’s definitely a huge part of it — she’s the icebreaker,” Jessica said. “She lets them lay on her, pet her, and when they’re scared or traumatized, or something happens to their parents that’s scary, having a dog that will let them pet her and isn’t an adult telling them what to do, it’s very comforting for them.”
That first placement was three years ago. The Smollecks have had seven placements since, fostering a total of 10 children. Their ages have ranged from 28 days to 14 years. Their longest placement was six months. Their shortest placement was overnight.
The little boy and little girl who came to the Smollecks’ shortly before Christmas and continue to fill their home with laughter are among their longest placements. Their bedroom is filled with neatly organized toys, decorated with colorful drawings and photographs of the children at home with their parents, and furnished with sleek bunk beds – donated by the couple’s friends.
safety and a caring place
Jessica, now 32, and Christian, now 31, are high school sweethearts. Originally from Pennsylvania, they came to Colorado on their honeymoon in 2004 and never left.
Christian now works for a local carpentry business. As he arrives home from work, the kids help set the table while Jessica prepares dinner – roast beef, green beans and baked potatoes. The kids argue over whether kids or adults get the big plates. Once that’s settled, they deliberate over which colors of plates they want. Callie calmly sits below the kitchen table.
The Smollecks don’t introduce themselves as foster parents. The kids’ situation is on a need-to-know basis. Their cases are protected by the state.
The Smollecks entered the program hoping to foster to adopt, but the chances are slim. The goal of the foster system is to return youngsters home to their own families. Parents have a year from the time children are removed from their home to undergo treatment plans, find employment, resolve legal issues and secure reliable housing. If that doesn’t happen, children are typically placed with parents’ family members.
“I think there’s a large misconception that people who do it do it for the money. I’ve had people ask me if I’m going to quit my job. In my opinion, it’s not a money-maker,” Jessica said. “The money we get helps subsidize the cost of taking on extra people in your home – food, clothes, diapers.”
The boy and girl giggled.
“You guys don’t need diapers, you came potty-trained,” Jessica said.
“Only babies!” the little girl said.
“We’ve had a good network of friends that gives us everything we need,” Jessica said. “Even strangers who might find out through the grapevine.”
Grand County Social Services doesn’t have data on foster children or foster cases in the county, but the number is low. Still, the county needs more foster families, and the Smollecks, the only foster family in the area, hope more families will step up to help. Social Services will sometimes bring them children from other counties or, in the case of their current placement, from a different state.
Jessica said potential foster parents have a misconception their house has to be clean all the time, or that social services will always be there lurking over their shoulders.
“But they don’t care if dirty laundry is out and dishes are in the sink,” she said. “You’re providing a safe home and a safe place for these kids, that’s number one. You don’t need a big house, you don’t need a lot of toys, you don’t need a fancy car to drive them around. You just need to provide safety and a caring place.”
The children have space to leap from chair to chair, roll on the floor, and play games in the living room, which is adjacent to the kitchen. When dinner is ready, they join the Smollecks at the table for dinner.
“I don’t want a potato, blah,” the boy said.
“Alright, well, that’s what’s for dinner,” Jessica said. She speaks calmly and patiently.
“Our rule is you have to try it, and if you don’t like it that’s fine,” she said. “But most kids who come to us aren’t exposed to a lot of different foods or fresh foods. So we really encourage trying new things.”
After eating dinner with at least one serving of vegetables, the kids get dessert. Tonight it’s ice cream sandwiches.
“I think with any kids, and foster kids especially, consistency is the biggest thing,” Christian said.
Some kids open the cupboard and are amazed by the amount of food, even when the Smollecks think it’s a little bare.
“We’ve had kids who have hoarded food because they’re worried they won’t get fed again,” Jessica said. “There’s always a period of not being sure why they’re here, or what’s going to happen. As the routine kicks in, they go to school, they understand they’re going to be fed, they are taken care of. Then the trust comes.”
When the little boy and girl first arrived, they didn’t understand how to play outside. The wind confused them. Christian had to show them how to play outdoors and be kids.
He said that every placement has its own unique challenges. But it’s also rewarding.
Not in it alone
When foster children arrive, they’ve often been removed from their homes abruptly, under extreme circumstances or in traumatic situations. The kids usually don’t come with everything they need – sometimes they’re not wearing shoes. They’re usually hungry and tired. According to Jessica, they’re often very ill.
“You make do with what you have,” she said. “We’re like first-time parents, but it’s over and over again sometimes.”
“And we get five minutes, not nine months,” Christian said.
But the Smollecks agree that Grand County Social Services have provided ample support. When the couple didn’t have enough money in their checking account to buy food during a placement, Social Services gave them a gift card for groceries to hold them over until the next payday.
“I feel like they have our back,” Jessica said.
Social Services has taught the couple about compassion and understanding for other people’s situations, Jessica said. Often the parents of foster children’s come from lower socioeconomic status. They may have fallen on hard times, or developed few life skills. They may have become parents at a young age with no support system. Social Services does its best to keep the parents involved with their children, even while they’re staying at a foster home. In most cases the parents still get to visit their children. They can see them at their dance recitals and soccer games. But visitation is limited and supervised.
In the Smollecks’ experience, parents are grateful to the couple for fostering their children. But they’re also anxious to get them back.
“In every placement that we’ve ever had, we’ve never doubted that the parents love the kids,” Jessica said.
When foster kids ask what’s going to happen, the Smollecks explain it’s not up for them to decide, their job is to keep them safe.
“The most important thing is to love unconditionally,” Jessica said. “They might only be in your home for a short time, but you care for them and love them.”
“We’ve had kids who have hoarded food because they’re worried they won’t get fed again. There’s always a period of not being sure why they’re here, or what’s going to happen. As the routine kicks in, they go to school, they understand they’re going to be fed, they are taken care of. Then the trust comes.”
— Jessica Smollecks