AGENCY — School pictures of 38 grinning children look out into Angie and Terry Hamm's living room, evidence of the years of work and love they've given to those who needed it most.
Their house — currently filled with five children, ages 7, 10, 10, 11 and 17 — has the atmosphere of a typical home, as one boy launches a ninja attack against Terry's chest, a shy, doe-eyed girl wiggles a tooth that's on the verge of falling out and another boy bursting with energy sneaks into the conversation to steal a hug from Angie.
The difference between the Hamm home and any other is that the five children are not their own; they're foster children.
Angie and Terry have been foster parents for the last 10 years, opening their home to 38 children. Soon, two more children will be added to the mix, bringing the total close to their record of housing eight children at once.
"It started after we had children in our classroom who were removed due to needing to go into foster care for whatever reason," said Angie, director of the preschool at Living Hope Bible Church in Eldon. "I think it just pulled on both of our heartstrings."
All of a sudden, children were plucked from their classrooms with no notice, sometimes not even able to clean out their lockers.
"They never had a chance to say goodbye," Terry, industrial technology teacher at Evans Middle School, said of a sibling group of five that was eventually split into five different counties. "They're just gone."
That was the deciding moment, Terry said.
"We said, 'Well, we have extra space and we definitely have the ability to work with kids,'" Angie said of their Agency home. "I think it's God's calling for us to help kids."
Finding a home difficult for teens, sibling groups
"We take in teenage girls because we got a couple of them and we were very successful in helping them transition into adulthood," Angie said. "Once you become known for being good at something, then they want you to stay in that area."
There are few foster homes willing to take teenagers and sibling groups. Out of Wapello County's 26 foster families, only five are willing to accept teenagers. And last year alone, 40 teens were referred into foster care in the county.
"I think teens scare a lot of people, especially if they haven't experienced that age in parenting," said Vivian Willemsen, Iowa KidsNet licensing and recruitment specialist. "Our kids have gone through a lot of trauma, so there's that sense of abandonment they feel; they have very low self-confidence. People find that a lot more challenging in teens. I'm not saying all of our teens are challenging; we have some that are like any other typical teen. But just because people don't have experience with teens, they can be put off by that."
The Hamms also take in sibling groups after witnessing brothers and sisters being wrenched apart.
"When the children are put in foster care, they're already taken away from their biological family," Angie said. "It's nice if they can stay with one or two siblings, because that gives them familiarity and comfort."
A lack of foster families willing to take in these two groups is a statewide phenomenon, Willemsen said.
"Another big part of that is to make sure they're in the same school," Willemsen said. "If there are no homes in Ottumwa, they have to go to Des Moines or Dubuque. They have to change schools, change everything."
Some teens, because there are so few foster families willing to take them in, end up in residential care.
"You can imagine that's not a very fun time if you're in high school, got removed, then you're put into a residential facility through no fault of your own," she said.
Iowa KidsNet's goal is to keep children within 20 miles of their original home so they can continue to have contact with their biological families. But often, especially with sibling groups and teenagers, this doesn't happen and the child is placed in a home three or four counties away.
Fusing a family
The children coming into the Hamm home haven't grown up with the same standards, ethical values, religious beliefs, nationalities or cultures.
"It's like a melting pot but, you know, our world is a melting pot," Angie said.
Strangely enough, Terry said, taking in several children is better than only one or two, because the children can play with each other, entertain each other and form a cohesive group.
"It's nice if you have some outfielders when you're playing softball," Angie laughed.
While the Hamms instill their own values in the children they take in, they remind them that they're allowed to have their own.
"What we try to do is we really try to provide a safe place for the children to live, we feed them good food and we throw in a little bit of fun, too, until they can be reunited," Angie said. "That's our philosophy of foster care."
There has been a shift in interaction with the biological parents in the last decade. Today, biological parents interact much more with the foster families. The push for this interaction is an effort to keep the family connected and "part of the child's identity," Willemsen said.
"It's good for the kids because then they don't think of it as 'us' and 'them,'" Angie said. "It's just 'everyone,' everyone working together to get to a common goal."
Misconceptions cloud positives of foster care
Foster care holds many stereotypes, Terry said, usually stemming from horror stories in the news about abuse or neglect.
"It's not really like that," Angie said. "Most foster families that we know are very nice people, very good people, very caring with children."
And foster families stick together, looking to each other for answers to problems. Once a month, foster parents can attend support groups for more information or help. The Hamms attend at least three a year.
"Foster parents are held to a higher standard than regular parents," Terry said. "Our rules are more strict, but generally it's stuff you should be doing anyway if you're a good parent."
While the home is filled with love, it's also very structured. Each child wakes up at a specific time, has his or her allotted time in the shower and a specific bedtime, depending on age and behavior.
They arrive un-structured, Terry said, therefore strict schedules and consequences are necessary.
"We give consequences, but it's to try to change their behavior for next time," Angie said.
Some children need more help than others.
"They've been let down and abandoned by everybody around them for whatever reason, whether it was their fault or not," Terry said. "So you've got to show them that no matter what you do, I may not like your behavior, but I like you and we're going to be there. We're going to keep you."
It's bittersweet to watch children leave their home and return to their biological families, the Hamms said. But they've become well-rounded individuals, Angie said, picking up a variety of skills, improving academically and participating in sports and activities during their time with the Hamms.
The difference in children from the moment they step through the door to the day they leave is "night and day," Terry said.
"It's sad because they've grown to like us and get to know us," Angie said. "But it's glad because they're going home. We miss 'em like crazy, but we know that's where they need to be and we help support that."
Shortage of foster families plagues Iowa
The need for more foster parents is huge, Angie said, especially for the two groups of children that are hardest to place: sibling groups and teenagers.
The shortest stay in the Hamm home has been one week; the longest: eight years.
"Kids that come to you have been through stressful situations," Terry said. "They carry baggage."
The children come from every background imaginable, Angie said, which does sometimes include drugs or abuse.
"The majority of the time ... it's something that's out of their control and it's usually not their fault," Angie said. "We don't judge the parents, we don't judge the families. We're here to give them a safe place to live, where they know they'll be well taken care of and well fed until they get reunited."
The most common reason children come into foster care, Willemsen said, is due to neglect.
"A major reason would probably be drug-related activities of the parents ... so they're neglecting the kids," she said. "And also when the economy goes down, reports of abuse and neglect go up."
If anyone has even the slightest interest in becoming a foster parent, Terry and Angie said as one, "Do it."
Foster care is flexible, they said, since foster parents can choose the age group they'd like in their home, say "yes" or "no" when they are called with a new child and they can even take breaks from being foster parents.
"If you really care about kids and enjoy being around kids, foster care is a good way to give back to your community and to society, for that matter," Angie said. "You help these children through a tough time in their life, and you make that much difference for the rest of their life."
Foster care in the numbers: • On March 31, 2012, there were approximately 6,100 Iowa children in foster care • As of September 2012, Iowa had approximately 2,300 foster families. • As of August 2012, 765 Iowa children were legally eligible for adoption, meaning their parental rights had been terminated. • In 2012, there were 68 referrals of children into foster care in Wapello County • Currently, Wapello County only has 26 foster families • In 2012, there were 40 referrals of teenagers into foster care in Wapello County • Currently, Wapello County only has five foster families willing to accept teenagers -- Information courtesy of Iowa KidsNet To become a foster family: Call 1-800-243-0756 or fill out an inquiry form on Iowa KidsNet's website, www.iowakidsnet.com.