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Giving foster parents a much-needed break

John Anderton looks forward to the one weekend a month when he gets a break from being a full-time foster parent.

Respite caregivers, known as relief parents, take over for 48 hours, easing the burden on full-time foster parents who have taken in abused and neglected children.

“I think it’s essential, and we’re really grateful when it comes around,” Anderton said of the monthly breaks. “It gives the foster parents a much-deserved and much-needed break so they can catch their wind.”

Anderton and his wife, Lynn, provide full-time care for two boys, ages 12 and 13. They’ve served as both full-time foster parents and relief parents, opening their home in Sunny Valley north of Grants Pass to children recovering from traumatic experiences.

The couple work with Family Solutions, an agency that offers foster care, group homes and therapy in Jackson and Josephine counties.

In Oregon, there are 11,000 children in the foster care system. The state is grappling with a serious shortage of foster families, according to a 2018 state audit.

But people who can’t commit to being full-time foster parents can still help by offering respite care.

Relief parents must be at least 21 years old, pass a background check, have a bedroom available for a child and go through a training and certification process. They receive a stipend starting at $45 a day to cover costs such as food and activities.

The weekend breaks help full-time foster parents recharge, said Dustin Ratcliff, treatment foster care coordinator and mentoring program supervisor for Family Solutions.

“I don’t know how a foster parent could do it without it. It’s very essential,” he said.

Ratcliff said being a relief parent isn’t easy. Many of the kids served by Family Solutions have behavioral and emotional problems.

“You have to commit to training and ongoing training. This isn’t like, ‘Hey, I’d like to babysit for a few hours.’ You have to have a heart that can love a kid despite the abuse they’ll give you. But to give a kid space to decompress, and to give parents who are doing this 24 hours a day, seven days a week a window of time each month to decompress is enormously valuable,” Ratcliff said.

Grants Pass resident Terri Odle spent more than 20 years as a foster parent.

“I was going to stop being a foster parent altogether. It was too much for me to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But then I decided to do respite,” she said.

Odle serves as a relief parent for one to three weekends each month.

“It’s a perfect fit for me right now,” she said. “I have a lot of things I like to do. I still have time to do other things besides care for kids. Then when I do have kids, my attention is 100 percent on them.”

Odle said one of her favorite weekend activities with kids is to visit the Grants Pass YMCA, which has a large saltwater pool and a room with ping-pong, pool and video games.

Some kids enjoy going on long walks, and home-cooked meals are always a favorite. Odle’s specialties include spaghetti with meatballs, chicken and rice, pot roast and pork chops.

Odle said it feels good to help out foster parents and kids by providing weekend breaks.

“It’s very, very helpful, because it gives the foster parent time to do things they need to do, have a break and get energized. Kids are very difficult at times,” she said.

Odle said anyone who wants to be a relief parent needs plenty of patience and an ability to not take things personally. They also need to do it for the right reasons. Foster kids don’t bond with relief parents in the same way they bond with their full-time foster parents.

“You’ve got to realize you’re going into it because you care about kids and want them to be in a safe place,” Odle said. “You can’t go in expecting kids to love you.”

She said starting as a relief parent is a way to test the waters for people who may want to become full-time foster parents.

Odle said being a relief or full-time foster parent doesn’t work out for some people, but others find they love it.

John Anderton is in the latter category.

Abused as a child, he was determined not to abuse his own four children. He said he and his wife raised their sons, who are now successful adults, without harsh discipline.

They wanted to share their home with other kids who weren’t so lucky.

Anderton had past careers counseling adults and running a logging and sawmill company. He was looking for a change when a friend leaving a career as a long-haul trucker suggested they both try out jobs as foster parents.

Anderton said it’s easy for him to care about kids, even if they aren’t his own.

“They’re strangers for about a day,” he said of new arrivals. “The biggest key is to build rapport with a youth. Some kids are more shut down than others. Some immediately latch on and you have rapport.”

Anderton said he enjoys spending time with kids and lets their interests guide family activities. Fishing, playing video games and going to movies are perennial favorites.

He remembers one day when he had two foster kids and two kids visiting on a respite break. The kids washed and polished his car until it gleamed, then they all piled in to cruise down I-5 with Anderton at the wheel on their way to a Batman movie.

“It was a great day,” he said. “Those kids can eat a lot of popcorn.”

For more information about becoming a relief or full-time foster parent, see fosterplus.org.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune John Anderton sits in a bedroom of one of his foster kids inside his Sunny Valley home.