- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) - When she handed over her first foster child, still an infant, it felt like someone reached into Vanessa Rea’s chest, pulled out her heart and tore it in pieces.

No one can be prepared for that moment, no matter the classes taken or books read. She and her husband, Joe, spent several months caring for their first foster child. Suddenly, just a few months ago, the time came for reunification with the birth family.

That is what foster parenting is about. The program exists as a temporary haven for children whose mothers are unfit for motherhood at the time. The goal is for the program to rehabilitate the mother and return the child, or children.

It doesn’t make the moment any easier for the foster parents.

“You know you are going to have your heart broken,” Vanessa said. “But I wouldn’t change anything. It is the greatest decision we have ever made.”

The Reas are one of several foster parents in Houston County. Currently there are about 140 children in foster care in the county. The number rises and falls on any given day with reunifications and new foster children. It is not uncommon for social workers and foster parents to be contacted at 2 a.m. for an emergency placement. The child could be in the home for a few days or much, much longer.

The Reas currently have a foster child - an inquisitive, gorgeous, smiling little girl - who just turned one. She has been theirs for 10 months. The Reas have been married for about six years and do not have children of their own, so their experience has taught them a lot about themselves.

“You never know how selfish you are until you have children,” Vanessa said. “You don’t realize before how you are always thinking about yourself. It has taught me to love in a way I have never loved before.”

The Reas considered becoming foster parents for about a year before contacting the local Department of Human Resources. Vanessa interacted with many children in foster care in her previous job. When Vanessa was able to stay home full-time, they began the process.

It can take a long time to go through the process, but it doesn’t have to. Joe said the Reas began the process in January of last year and were through in May. They had a criminal background check, filled out reams of paperwork, submitted to a few interviews and attended several classes.

Then, the call came.

Vanessa was at the hospital visiting a relative when they told her a foster child was coming.

“When Vanessa called she was crying,” Joe recalled. “I thought, what’s happened at the hospital. Finally, she said ‘No, no. We have a baby.

“It is really intimidating. It is scary. You’re happy, you’re crying. You’re sleepless. It is everything you would experience as if it is your own child, and that’s how it should be,” Joe said.

Birth parent involvement ranges from significantly involved to not involved at all. Many birth parents attend doctors’ appointments, school conferences and other events. The interaction can be awkward at times.

“It is important to take a step back and try to understand the parents’ situation,” Joe said.

The Reas are licensed to care for children between birth and three years. They expect to increase the range of age as they become more experienced. They are also adoptive, meaning they are eligible to adopt children if a birth parent gives up parental rights.

Foster parenting also includes regular visits from DHR case workers. Parents are free to return a child if the situation becomes untenable. Foster parents receive some financial assistance from the state to care for the children.

The Reas said foster parenting isn’t easy, but it is fulfilling.

“It is rewarding and challenging at the same time,” Vanessa said. “You have to be able to go through the trenches.”

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