Parents in Rural Kentucky Struggle to Help Their Foster Sons

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Morgan Hornsby

As dusk approaches, two brothers race their scooters from the tree to the back of their dad’s truck bed. The youngest of the two, Alex, wears a diaper while he tries to mimic his brother’s quick steps and easy glide. A shirtless Dawson does not let up. From her spot on the porch, their mother quips that only together would they have a complete outfit. She brings out extra clothing and jackets, preparing her boys for the cool air that marks the last minutes of playtime on their rural Kentucky farm.

“We’ve made a good life here,” Laura Webb said.

Laura and her husband Dewayne live on what they call a “pleasure farm.” It’s a white house tucked in the rolling green hills of South Central Kentucky with free-roaming chickens and a donkey named Lester. They have five biological children, four living in the house and one living in a white double-wide trailer half a mile down the road. In 2014, Laura and Dewayne completed training to be foster parents. A few months after they were certified, after several temporary placements, brothers Alex and Dawson became part of the Webb family.

“It hasn’t always been easy, but we have worked to build what we have,” Laura said.

In Kentucky, over 7,000 children are in out-of-home care. Laura and her family were among one of the 4,300 homes available to the state for their temporary placement.

Three years ago, Laura met a social worker at Junior Mart Food Store in Edmonson County with two empty cars seats in back of her white SUV. It was here she met Dawson and Alex. Later, she would call them her sons, but on this day, they were strangers she did not know much about. Due to state laws on confidentiality, foster parents are not permitted to know the conditions that warrant a child’s removal from their home or their medical histories.

From the food mart, Laura drove seven minutes to her home, introducing the boys to her family, the house, and their dog, a mutt lovingly referred to as Tater Tot Piss Pot. At the start, the boys were a challenge. Laura says that Alex, only a few months old then, cried every time she placed him in her arms. Instead, she kept him in the car seat he’d been in since birth, rocking the bulky carrier in her lap. Dawson was older, but still he cried.

“One time he did it for nine hours straight,” Laura said. “I didn’t know if it was going to get any better.

Three months after his arrival, Dawson was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder.

“He was in it longer,” said Laura of Dawson’s past living condition. “I guess that, right now, his life is split between here and there.”

Webb said that she was not entirely prepared for the severity of his condition. Like many foster parents, Laura and Dewayne went through a 12-week training program called Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), before their first placement. Here, she and Dewayne learned about dealing with common misbehavior, relationships with biological parents, paperwork and other requirements. Laura, who has a background in early childhood development, said that even she was not prepared to handle the remnants of trauma she saw in Dawson in particular.

“I felt like I was thrown to the wolves,” she said.

Angela Williams, a foster parent of children with trauma, also said she wasn’t completely prepared for the severity of the emotional needs of her foster children.

“So much of the training was about our own expectations, like reminding us this was temporary and not to get too attached,” Williams said.

When she noticed strange behavior of one of her foster children, she researched similar behaviors on the internet and speculated that he may have been abused. After her speculation was confirmed, the social worker helped Williams get the appropriate training and helped her child to get the appropriate care.

“It just would’ve been so much better for all of us, especially him, if I would have known the signs ahead of time,” Williams said. “Raising a child with a history of abuse requires a skill set you don’t just get from raising other kids.”

Dawson cries in his bed, as common with bedtime. Laura says that the calmness of the ritual throws Dawson into a state of chaos. Due to PTSD, Dawson operates at a higher level of stress, which causes him to react poorly to quiet, Laura says.

For Laura, one solution was therapeutic foster care, a temporary program for children with severe emotional or behavioral needs. Dawson was placed in one of these situations for six months, which helped, she said.

“I hated that I couldn’t give him what he needed, but it was reassuring that somebody else could, at least temporarily,” Laura said.

While he was away, Laura did what she could to educate herself on trauma. She went to an eight-week training course full of open discussion and real-life scenarios. Independently, she researched PTSD and RAD, which she said was only “skimmed on” in her initial training. On the wood paneling of the living room wall, she stuck a handmade behavior chart with stoplight colors to signify rewards or consequences. Above Dawson’s bed, she hung a feelings chart with emojis for him to express his emotions nonverbally.

Now, three years after his initial arrival, Dawson is back with the Webb family. He has biweekly therapy sessions and is learning how to read. Laura said in the time they’ve spent together, she has a better understanding of how to manage his behavior.

“When he has episodes, he creates chaos around him to match what’s inside. Now, I know that he gets the same feeling from riding on the four-wheeler or swinging on the swing set like Superman. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but we’re figuring it out.”

Since the arrival of Dawson and Alex, Laura has also helped her cousin Jessica Hawkes become a foster parent. Since then, Hawkes’ family has had over 20 placements and adopted a 13-year-old named Skylar.

“Watching Laura through the years didn’t make me think it’d be easy, but I knew it’d be worth it,” Jessica said.

Jessica and her family just moved to a home across the road from Laura so that they could raise their children together. Every Sunday afternoon, the families combine for an evening cookout, and on weekdays, the children can often be found swinging together under the tree in the Webb family backyard.

“I guess family is hard to define, but I know it’s here,” Jessica said.

In the Spring, Laura and Dewayne will adopt Dawson and Alex. Laura says that she is excited for the sense of permanency they will receive as they continue to work through the “rough patches” together.

“It’s messy, but we’re piecing it together. We’re a patchwork family,” Laura said.

Dawson looks towards the sky after a Sunday afternoon of being with his family. Since the court date in October, his mother does feel some hope for permanence and stability. Though she says there is no “magic wand” to learn about how to deal with Dawson’s trauma, they are learning together. “I guess we’ll be working at this for the rest of our lives, but I least I can be be sure it’ll us together.”
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