Nearly two years ago, the Ventura County Department of Children's Services launched an aggressive radio, television and print ad campaign to attract a new population of would-be foster parents. Single people, senior citizens and dual-career couples were encouraged to "foster the future" by opening their homes to a traumatized child.
Until then, the majority of foster families had fit a fairly typical profile: a married couple, with a working husband and a wife at home caring for the children. But times had changed and the county's beleaguered foster care system could no longer rely solely on traditional families to meet its needs.
"Ideally, we'd still like that nuclear family. But, unfortunately, that's in the past. Life isn't like that anymore," said Diana Caskey, Ventura County's foster home recruiter. "Now, if we only looked to those families to provide foster care, we'd be in even worse shape than we are."
Below are the stories of three non-traditional foster families that responded to the county's call and how their lives changed when they decided to take a child into their homes.
The Hammetter Family: Retired but Still Teaching
One reason 65-year-old Arlene Hammetter said she never married is that the right person never came along. On the other hand, what she told prospective suitors probably didn't help.
"The first thing I always said was that I wanted loads and loads of kids," she said. "I never had a chance."
Hammetter may have remained single, but she got her wish anyway. For 10 years, she was surrounded by children as an elementary teacher at Sheridan Way School and Elmhurst School, both in Ventura. For the next 20 years, until her retirement two years ago, she was principal at each of the schools.
Then there were the children who became her own. In 1967, when it was still uncommon, Hammetter became the first single woman in Ventura County to adopt children. She raised her two sons, now 24 and 25, in the three-bedroom Ventura house where she lives today, purchased 20 years ago at a fraction of its present value.
"Someone I once dated came by to see me after I got the boys and the house, and I still remember the insulted look he had on his face," Hammetter said, laughing at the memory. "He said, 'Why, you didn't even need a man!' "
After her retirement, Hammetter became active in several charitable organizations, including the Catholic Detention Ministry, whose members go into juvenile halls and jails several times a week to provide friendship and help. At the urging of former school colleagues, she agreed to volunteer her services as chairman of the Portola School library. She also became a consultant testing Ventura kindergartners for school readiness.
But Hammetter still believed that something was missing.
"I always loved having children in the house--except when they were teen-agers--and I'd always wanted to have some girls, too," she said. "So even though I knew I was too old to adopt a child, that's when I thought that maybe I could be a foster parent."
Last month, only a few weeks after she completed her application and a county course required of all prospective foster parents, Hammetter's phone rang. A 10-year-old boy had been taken from his single mother after social workers learned that he had been home alone during the day and had been seriously neglected.
Even though Hammetter had said she would prefer having girls, the social worker on the phone asked if she would be willing to take the boy for a while. Hammetter didn't have to think long. She said she would give it a try.
When the boy arrived at her door, there was not instant bonding between them. "He was angry and didn't want to be here, and he made that very clear. For a little boy, he was very distrustful," she said. "But I just looked at him and said, 'Look, I'm a friend, and you need a friend and a home right now. So let's just make the best of it.' "
During the next few weeks, Hammetter said she realized how many adjustments she would have to make with a young child in her home again. Preparing meals at regular times, finding time to read stories to him and seeing to it that little things got done--such as making certain he had a bath at night--all took some getting used to. But slowly, she said, the two formed a friendship.
"He loved to read, and he made me explain who Shakespeare was. He went out in the garden and collected all the snails and made a snail farm. And when I talked to him about the water shortage," she recalled, "he said to me, 'What you need is a well.' When I told him he was right, he went outside with a shovel and dug and dug and dug. It was during one of the worst times for him, and so it helped him get a lot of frustration out."