CLEVELAND — Keionna Johnston was the first. Fourteen years old, taken from her home and placed in foster care. Ebony Bonner took her in. The beginning wasn't easy.
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“Because I was a little wild when I first came into her care and she just taught me structure, how to carry myself as a lady, how to be a woman. She helped me out telling me what I need to do to succeed in life,” Keionna said.
Ebony Bonner fostered nineteen children over the last ten years, including raising four of her own.
“I've taken mostly teens in, and my advice would be they're going to come in with a whole lot of issues, and they don't know you, you don't know them. They have had a lot of losses and they have concerns about you and if you're going to end up being another loss,” Ebony said.
The rules are strict, but respectful in Ebony’s house. She says the most important thing she does is listen.
“She was a mother figure. She did everything for me. Whenever I needed to talk, she was there, whenever I needed to cry, she was there, whenever I needed to talk to my real family, she was there. She was there holding my hand the whole time. Yeah, that's my mom,” Keionna said.
Ebony learned how to be a foster parent through OhioGuidestone.
There is a desperate need for more parents like her to take in older children.
“We've recently had a lot of families wanting to become licensed foster parents who want zero to five and that's fine. Those kids also need placements. But those aren't the kids that are getting referred. It's the older kids,” says Debbie Gault, OhioGuidestone's director of foster care.
According to the Ohio office of Foster, Adoption and Kinship care, there are more than 16,000 children in Ohio’s foster care system. More than 9,000 live with foster parents, but Ohio only has 7,200 licensed foster families to fill this need.
“Just in Cuyahoga County alone, last month we had 87 referrals for kids. Now that's total, but most of those kids are eight and up and a lot of kids come in with their siblings. So we need families that will be willing to take more than one child because we all like to see the kids stay together. It's traumatic enough being removed from your family, but being separated from your siblings is just another trauma,” Gault said.
Another critical need is foster parents who will care for medically fragile children.
“You don't have to have any medical experience to foster kids with medically fragile issues. The hospitals, the doctors will teach you everything you need to know. We have a nurse on staff that will come to your home once a month and do a well-child check and be very supportive to you,” Gault said.
Ebony knew eventually her foster kids would leave. A stay could last three months, or in Keionna’s case, until she aged out of the system at 18.
Keionna is now 23 and studying to be a nurse. She plans to be a foster parent too. She still considers Ebony and the Bonner kids part of her family.
“My children have not suffered at all from me doing this. I have two children that I've already raised along with Kieonna. They were all close, they all graduated from high school together and they're off in college. So they haven't missed out on anything,” Ebony said.
How many of those 19 foster kids still call her mom?
“All of them. I take that back, one calls me grandma,” Ebony said. mom.
There’s a lot of paperwork involved in becoming a foster parent, including a background check and home inspection. Foster parents do get a financial stipend and it’s slightly higher for older children.
Gault says it’s very important for people to understand that fostering is a temporary situation. The goal is to get the child back to their parents, and the hope is that the foster parent will keep in touch as an added support system.
But sometimes it doesn’t work out.
About a quarter of OhioGuidestone foster children end up being adopted by their foster families.
In Ohio there are about 3,000 foster kids waiting for adoption, about 1,200 are over the age of 13.
To learn more about foster care through OhioGuidestone click HERE