Susan Betcke and her children, Elena and Carlos, pose in Disney-themed Ohana (“family”) shirts during a party to celebrate the children’s adoption in May. Betcke has been a foster parent for Catholic Charities for seven years, and adopted her son and daughter after fostering them for 16 months.

Susan Betcke and her children, Elena and Carlos, pose in Disney-themed Ohana (“family”) shirts during a party to celebrate the children’s adoption in May. Betcke has been a foster parent for Catholic Charities for seven years, and adopted her son and daughter after fostering them for 16 months.

An ornamental stone in Susan Betcke’s home is decorated with the names of each child she has fostered for the last seven years. The keepsake is also adorned with drawings of things the children’s favorite things, like animals and hobbies.

There are currently 27 names on the stone, a reminder of the lives Betcke has helped to change as a foster mother with Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care and Adoption Services.

I have always loved children and have been working with children since I was 11 or 12. I was babysitting, working in the church’s nursery. I’ve also gone to help out at camps, worked in daycares and now currently work in schools. It’s been on my heart to be a parent, and as a single woman, the best way to do that is adoption,” said Betcke.

“It’s been on my heart to reach kids who need homes. I see the need of older children needing families, needing homes and needing love, and needing people to accept them where they’re at,” she said.

Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care program provides temporary and safe care for children who have been removed from their birth parents the court.

Children come to the program through referrals from county children and youth agencies, and range in age from newborn to 18.

“These are kids who have suffered some kind of abuse and/or neglect, so they might have some developmental or physical delays, and we train to our families to care for the children at their developmental age rather than their chronological age,” said Kelly Bolton, program director.

Catholic Charities places 20-30 foster children into loving homes each year, through both short-time and long-term care. Most of the children are part of a sibling group.

“We have a critical need for foster families to provide for the children in our area, and who are willing to help children through school placement, counseling and care for certain physical or developmental needs,” Bolton said.

Foster parents can be single people or married couples, provided they are over 21, have steady income and a reliable vehicle, and obtain required state and federal clearances. They are not required to be Catholic. In fact, the majority of foster parents in Catholic Charities’ program are not Catholic, Bolton said.

“A foster parent is a giant part of our team. Without them, we’re not taking placements and we’re not helping children. We need to make sure they feel supported to be able to make a difference in a child’s life,” she said.

The Benefit of Catholic Charities

Betcke said she was drawn to Catholic Charities’ foster care program because of the personal and one-on-one assistance it provides.

“They were able to give the attention that I needed,” she said. “Any time I had a question or a concern, I would have an immediate phone call or response in an e-mail, or somebody coming to my house. It was easy to have contact with the caseworkers there at the office.”

Catholic Charities trains and certifies foster parents prior to placement, educating them on potential behavioral issues and offering practical advice for real-life situations.

Once a child is placed, licensed staff make routine in-home visits and are available 24/7.

“We are an on-call service. If there is any problem or concern, at any time of day or night, families can speak to us immediately,” Bolton said.

Catholic Charities offers group training, which allows foster parents to come together and share ideas and experiences.

“Those are people who are going to understand what you’re going through,” Betcke said. “We’re meeting on a monthly basis with people who really do understand where our hearts are and what this is all about.”

The ages and length of stay of the foster children are as various as their backgrounds, interests and personalities.

Betcke has fostered children for as little as one day to as long as 15 months. The children placed in her care have been as young as 12 months and as old as 12 years.

She has a soft spot for sibling groups.

“Most of the time when I say yes to a placement, it’s to a sibling group,” she said.

Some have experienced severe trauma and others have struggle socially, “but with work and effort and time, those things change,” she remarked.

She’s seen the growth first-hand. The first siblings she welcome into her home were four sisters who grew up a few blocks from her home in Harrisburg. The oldest is now in high school, and she passes Betcke’s house every day on her way to school.

“She always make a point to say hi,” and has “talked about her memories of her time when she was at my home. It was only for ten days, but it was a meaningful ten days for her,” Betcke said.

Positive Influences in a Child’s Life

“My primary role is to make sure that the kids feel safe and loved in the time that they’re with me, and that I help them to become the best person that they could possibly be,” said Betcke.

On May 15 of this year, she adopted siblings she had fostered for more than a year: Carlos, 7, and Elena, 10.

“They are both very bright children. Carlos loves to play with Legos, he loves to draw, and he loves to red Dogman books…. Elena loves to work with children. She has thoroughly enjoyed equine therapy and her time with horses. They have both enjoyed sports: Judo, basketball. Carlos is playing baseball. Elena is involved in the Girls on the Run. They have become a part of not just my life, but the lives of all of my friends and family. It’s been a joy to have them,” Betcke said.

No every foster child becomes eligible for adoption, however. But that doesn’t make a foster parents’ role any less significant

“The program is child-focused. Every child comes into the program with the goal of returning home or returning to kinship. The goal is to put the family back together once the issues are resolved,” Bolton said. “Foster families have to be willing to allow communication and visitation between the child and the birth family. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it isn’t easy. We want them to understand that even if a child returns home and adoption is not possible, that child has gained so much from being with them.”

Betcke acknowledged it’s difficult to say goodbye to a child you’ve loved and welcomed into your home and family.

“But in the end, I know that during the time they were with me, they could experience love, they could experience safety and I was able to provide that for them. Even though it’s difficult, I know it’s going to help them in their future to have healthier relationships and to have had experiences in life that maybe they wouldn’t have had,” she said.

Knowing full-well the impact of foster care, Betcke welcomed four- and five-year old sisters into her home two weeks after adopting Carlos and Elena.

“Those two girls moved in and were part of our lives from the first day,” she said.

“I have five available beds in my home for foster children: two in one bedroom, which is where Carlos sleeps, and three in the other bedroom, which is where Elena sleeps. As long as I am able and God touches my heart to continue doing it, I will welcome children into my home,” she said.

Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care will begin a new training group for foster parents in September. Anyone interested in learning more about foster care, the program or the process should visit or call the program office at 717-564-7115.

“When I stood before the judge to adopt my children, I had a lengthy letter that I asked permission to read. One of the things I said is, ‘We are not perfect, but we are perfect for each other.’ We indeed do not need to be perfect to be foster parents,” Betcke remarked. “There is no amount of training that’s going to make you ready for every situation, but if you’re flexible, if you’re patient and if you’re willing to go with the flow, you can be an amazing foster parent.”

“I believe as much as I have given to each of the children that have been in my home, they have also given to me. They have taught me resiliency. They have taught me that life doesn’t have to be as sad as it seems. You can go on and you can still smile. You can still find joy in life,” Betcke said. “All of the things that these children have gone through, yet they love life and they keep smiling and keep learning to grow and share and be a part of a new family.”

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness