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Putnam couple find foster parenting rewarding

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Richard and Debbie Burch can tell you exactly where they met.

"We met at the Holiday Inn in Charleston," Richard said.

"At W.T. Apples," she added.

"I cooked," Richard said. "Debbie waited tables."

The pair have been married for 29 years. Part of the secret to their long marriage, they say, is they both believe strongly in family. They love being parents.

Debbie, 50, is a registered nurse. Richard, 51, dabbles in real estate and rental properties -- he fixes up old houses and turns them into rental units.

But those are just day jobs for their regular occupations as foster parents.

Sitting at their dining room table while their two boys, Matthew, 9, and Peyton, 4, watch cartoons in the next room, the Burches talk about the 13 foster children who have stayed with them.

"Some of the older kids, we still see them," Richard said proudly. "They're not just kids we kept; they're our kids. We're part of their lives. They're part of ours."

Their first foster child, a teen named C.J., recently got married.

"To a very nice girl," Richard added.

Getting started

The Burches began taking foster children into their home about seven years ago, though it was something they had considered for a while.

Richard grew up in New York. His family moved to Kanawha County when he was a teenager, then to South Carolina after he and Debbie married. The couple followed.

While Richard worked in food management and Debbie started nursing jobs, they began a family. They had a boy, Richard, and a girl, Rachel.

The idea of becoming a foster family, they say, came from Debbie's job. Working as a home health nurse, one of her clients was an elderly couple.

"They had like 20 foster kids," Debbie said.

It seemed like something the Burches could do, as a family.

Richard said they found a neighborhood child in tough circumstances and took him in -- unofficially.

"We'd get permission to take him with us on vacation, things like that," he said. "That's pretty much how it all got started."

But their involvement with fostering children in South Carolina didn't go much beyond that.

Richard said, "I'd say that's where we got indoctrinated, but it was almost a decade before we got back into it."

Return and tragedy

The Burches didn't stay in South Carolina. Following the death of Richard's father, his family began to set out on their own. In 1999, the couple brought their kids back to West Virginia to be close to Debbie's family.

What was a happy return turned tragic a year later when 13-year-old Richard died suddenly while at school.

Twelve years later, they still feel his loss. Their son's death isn't something they feel comfortable casually discussing in their dining room.

"He had a heart condition," Richard said. "The story was in the newspaper."

And that's all they want to say about it, except that the loss of their son eventually spurred them to consider opening their home to other children.

Learning to parent again

"Even when we decided that was what we wanted to do," Debbie said, "it took a while."

Richard laughed and listed what he could remember off the top of his head. "Background checks, classes, home inspections and visits."

Some of that is still ongoing.

The Burches said they love what they do, but they don't want to make it sound easy. You can do it, they said. A lot of people who don't think they can handle it can, they said, but it's not just taking a couple of classes and surviving a credit report.

"You have to learn how to parent in a completely different way," Richard said.

"You see things you never expected to see," Debbie said.

Foster children come to them from every kind of background imaginable. Sometimes they're from troubled or negligent homes.

"Sometimes it's just the kids who are troubled," Richard said. "They don't get along with their parents. They won't listen. They're runaways."

After seven years, they say they've seen or heard just about everything. They've fostered junior high-age kids with tattoos. They've fostered older kids who've never washed their own hair or knew to cut up their food to eat it.

Once, Richard had to explain to a 14-year-old why he couldn't smoke in the house -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

"They come from a lot of dysfunction," Debbie said. "What's normal for you might not be normal for them."

"There's a lack of structure, and you have to inject discipline," Richard added.

She agreed, then said, "But you have to work with them."

Richard nodded. "You can't judge. You just have to deal with it."

Both said they got a lot of support from foster child advocates like Children's Home Society and Mission West Virginia.

Other challenges and rewards

Fostering children also sometimes means having to deal with the families the children come from. Some children come from places where they have no one. Others have parents or grandparents who've lost custody rights and want their children or grandchildren back.

"Sometimes they want to blame you for taking their kids away, when, really, you had nothing to do with it," Richard said.

Other times, the family understands that this is all to help the children and maybe them.

Fostering children, they say, can be chaotic, but that's true whether the kids are their own or not. Kids are noisy by nature, but some of the kids they've seen have come with health issues and there may be counseling sessions or legal matters to deal with.

If there's any real hazard to being a foster family, they said, it's wanting to do more. The Burches' two sons came to them as foster children.

"Matthew was 4 when he came to us," Richard said. "He was only supposed to be temporary. We weren't really considering adoption as something we even wanted to do."

But after a couple of weeks of living under the Burches' roof, the preschooler came to Richard and said, "I have a problem. I don't know where I belong."

"That destroyed me," Richard said.

A couple of weeks turned into six months. Matthew told them he knew where he belonged now -- with them.

"We didn't adopt Matthew," Richard said. "He adopted us."

Foster families needed

There are about 4,000 children in West Virginia's foster care system, according to Mission West Virginia's FrameWorks program.

About 1,000 of these children are legally eligible for adoption. Many of these children are older, have brothers and sisters, are of a racial or ethnic minority or have behavioral and/or emotional issues.

Children's Home Society of West Virginia also says there has been a drastic decline in the number of foster families in the state, largely because they are adopting foster children.

The society considers adoption a great outcome, but the trend toward adoption reduces the number of foster families because many who adopt don't continue to take in foster children. The number of children in foster care remains about the same, while the number of foster parents grows smaller.

For information about fostering a child or adoption, contact Mission West Virginia at 304-562-0723 (www.missionwv.org) or Children's Home Society of West Virginia at 304-346-0795 (www.childhswv.org).

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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