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Always room for one more. These foster parents open their doors, and their hearts, to children in need

By Ellen SteeseStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 1987

New York

There are a quarter of a million children now in foster care in the United States, in both families and institutions. That figure is down in recent years, not because the need is growing smaller, but because in 1980 many in the field adopted the policy of trying to keep families together as much as possible, notes Joyce Johnson at the Child Welfare League in Washington. There has also been a stepped-up effort to find permanent families for children who had to be placed, she adds. Still, there aren't enough foster parents to go around, and many are getting older and are not being replaced. The foster mothers featured below (all of whom got considerable help and support from their husbands) are involved in emergency foster care. They're willing to take in a child in the middle of the night, for short- or long-term care - and all have either adopted children themselves or have arranged for adoptions.

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About 90 percent of all foster children are placed through agencies that recruit volunteers. The three outstanding foster-care providers profiled here work directly through Special Services for Children, part of New York City's Human Resources Administration. On any particular day in New York, there are 18,000 children in care, according to spokeswoman Julie Suess. There are about 12,000 foster families, which is not enough. The agency is attempting to recruit 500 more. Special Services for Children, an agency for ``last resort'' placement, placed 972 children in the past year, says Ms. Suess.

WHEN you think of the phrase ``foster home,'' it has a kind of bleak ring to it. And of course there's a tragic story behind every foster child.

But there is nothing bleak about staying with Nancy Williams, a woman with such a generous, inclusive sense of family that you feel immensely cheered the minute you walk in her door.

She sits you down in her neat, homey living room, where there are framed pictures of family on the end tables under all the oversized lamps, and where all the furniture is covered with plastic. Two beautiful three-year-old girls, who have met some three days before, are romping ecstatically about the room, as if they had known each other for ages.

``I usually put so much in my children,'' says Mrs. Williams, who has a sweet voice and shoulder-length gray hair. ``I don't treat them as little strangers, little boarders. They come right in as my children.''

The two little girls are calling themselves NeNe and TeTe, she explains, her arms around both of them, giving each a little pat or two on the tum as they're introduced. The girls are wearing lavender coveralls; Miss NeNe is a vigorous and self-assured young lady who has lived with Mrs. Williams for several months, while TeTe, her sidekick and shadow, is a recent arrival, and slender. ``I hope she can stay, because she's very delicate and undernourished,'' says Mrs. Williams. ``So was NeNe when she came, and look at how plump she is now....''

Mrs. Williams has been a foster mother for 28 years. At the moment, she is taking care of three other older girls besides NeNe and TeTe. She takes emergency and short-term cases, plus she has mothered a whole family of four foster children, all of whom are now grown and married, with good jobs. She has never had children of her own, ``but I tell you it's the greatest satisfaction, taking care of children who really needed it,'' she says.

Being a foster parent is a job for a diplomat.

``I work so hard to get them straightened out, to get at their sad feelings,'' Mrs. Williams says in her sweet voice. ``And no matter how much love you try to give them, they come into a strange home, and sometimes they've been through so much they can't trust anyone.''

Any mother is full of tales of her children's doings, but there are a lot more stories when you have so many children. Mrs. Williams tells of one little girl who wanted to attend her old school, but ``there was really no home for her to go back to,'' she says. ``I thought, `What can I do for this child? I must do something.'''

So she offered her $5 for every 100 percent she got in school and the little girl did so well that Mrs. Williams jokes about having to ``get a job to support her....''

`SHE didn't like anyone. She would not eat. She's a welfare child from a welfare hotel. You have to fight to get to the bathroom. You have to fight to get something to eat. She came here ready to fight! I had to convince her there's no fighting in this house. There's no fighting here.''