By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Raymond and Earline Bowman, of Woodstock, look at their wall photos of children they have fostered over the years. The Bowmans have taken in more than 300 children as foster parents over a span of four decades. They are being honored by Children's Services of Virginia Inc. at a Sept. 8 event. Dennis Grundman/Daily
WOODSTOCK -- Can people retire from parenting?
Maybe once they've raised more than 300 children.
Woodstock couple Raymond and Earline Bowman say the time has come to hang up the titles they took on four decades ago as foster parents.
Children's Services of Virginia Inc., a private foster-parenting agency, plans to honor the Bowmans at an event Sept. 8. The Bowmans have worked with the agency for 15 years and, before that, with various social services departments, taking on as many as six or seven foster children at a time.
It will take 20 new families to replace the Bowmans, according to Ralph Berry, a foster parent trainer with Children's Services of Virginia Inc.
Asked recently why they've done it for so long, Mrs. Bowman said "'Cause mother can't resist."
"Big hearts," Bowman chimed in.
"And the social workers call and say 'Earline, I have this sweet little' --" Mrs. Bowman said.
The Bowmans have lived in a large house on a farm in Woodstock for decades. The couple also raised their own biological children, all of whom are now grown up, while taking care of foster children.
Bowman, 69, runs a farm and his own trucking business. Mrs. Bowman, 68, worked as a teacher for Shenandoah County. The Bowmans started working as foster parents after a social worker in Shenandoah County asked Earline, then a teacher, if she was interested. Mrs. Bowman said she hadn't thought about it before, though her mother had been a foster parent.
After some further explanation by the social worker, Mrs. Bowman said she'd "give it a shot."
The couple's first foster child was a 16-year-old girl who stayed with them until she graduated from high school, Earline said.
"It was eye-opening, wasn't it?" Mrs. Bowman asked her husband.
"Each one's different," he said.
Children can form bonds with their foster parents and the other youths.
Mrs. Bowman recalled the day a social worker came to take one of her foster children -- a 3-year-old she'd brought in at 5 months old, weighing just 5 pounds. She said that's a long time to leave a small child with anyone because they get attached.
When someone had adopted the younger child, she said her boy came up to her and asked "Momma, are they gonna come and take me away, too?"
"You really don't realize, because they're so young, you don't tell them," Mrs. Bowman said. "My older children knew, but he didn't."
The average child put in foster care in the United States stays for about a year, Berry said. Approximately 60 percent return home, 6 percent go to live with other relatives and 33 percent have their parental rights terminated.
Mrs. Bowman lauded Children's Services for working well with the couple in placing children. CSV sends a social worker to their home every two weeks. The agency doesn't inundate them with requests to take more children, she said.
Children usually enter the foster care system because they suffered abuse and neglect in their home, Berry said. Half of the children placed in foster homes by CSV from 2004 to 2008 were adopted by those parents, according to Berry.
Berry recalled the first child CSV placed with the couple -- a pregnant, 15-year-old girl. The weekend passed and the child, Berry and the couple went to court for what is called a "five-day hearing." Berry said the girl asked if she would have to return home.
"Just spending the weekend at the Bowmans' place, she realized this was a safer place for her and her eventual baby," Berry said.
The girl stayed with the Bowmans until she turned 18, got married and moved to the Richmond area, they said.
"This girl had been out of school for a year and a half because mom needed [her] to take care of the younger kids because mom had more important things to do and so this young lady had tried to enroll herself in school," Berry said.
Most of the children the Bowmans have taken in were teenagers. Foster children can stay longer even after they turn 18. But, as Mrs. Bowman said, they're "chomping at the bit" to leave at 18 years old.
"If [teenagers] come with too much luggage that they're carrying around, sometimes it's very hard to work with them because they've never been in a home that feeds you or, if they have been fed, it's been peanut butter and jelly and they have to fix it themselves," Mrs. Bowman said.
A few children stayed as long as six to seven years with the Bowmans. That's not typical.
"In foster care, a year is a long time," Mrs. Bowman said.
"The kids miss their mom and dad even though they're the ones who abused or neglected them, so most of them want to go home, although as the kids get older, more of the teenagers are able to process that this might be a better place," Berry said.
Some of their former foster children keep in touch with the Bowmans, calling near the holidays. Some have also called them when they needed help, Mrs. Bowman said.
When asked about the rewards of foster parenting, she jokingly said "no sleep."
"Gray hairs," Bowman remarked.
But the Bowmans said they know a need exists for foster parents.
There are 533,000 foster children in the country but only 133,000 foster parents, Berry said.
"If someone ever mentions or doesn't think they're a good foster parent but would make a good foster parent, I usually suggest that they call Ralph, sign up and take the classes," Mrs. Bowman said. "They do educate us pretty much before we become foster parents."
Training continues even after a person or couple become foster parents. The Bowmans attended classes every month.
"So we are looking for families who are not just going to provide a bed and meals but are gonna provide therapy for the children, take them to all their appointments, help them catch up with their school work 'cause all of the kids are behind, so Raymond and Earline have done that and beyond," Berry said.
Contact Children's Services of Virginia at its main office in Winchester at 667-0116 or visit www.childrensservicesofva.com for more information on how to become a foster parent.