Fostering was a natural fit for Hollie and Paul Zimmerman. They talked about adoption early on in their relationship and quickly decided that fostering was the route they wanted to take because of how many local kids needed support.
“I wanted to be that final landing spot for kids so they didn’t have to go anywhere else,” Hollie said. “We felt like God was leading us down this path.”
The Zimmermans adopted the kids they fostered, but that’s not an expectation that Centre County Children and Youth Services has for foster parents, according to Assistant Director Leah Raker. The goal is to temporarily place kids in a home until it is safe for them to return to their family. But when reunification isn’t possible, permanent placements need to be determined.
The numbers fluctuate, but as of April, there were 59 children in the Centre County foster care system, Raker said. Of those, 34 are in foster homes in the county, 15 are in group homes or residential facilities under the care of the county and 10 have been placed in foster homes outside of the county because of the lack of available foster homes in the county.
“It’s important that kids have stability and permanency as soon as possible,” Raker said.
Just about five years ago, the Zimmermans started the process to become foster parents. Emma, 4, joined the family at birth through a private adoption, but about a year later their family of three grew. They received a call from CYS asking if they would be interested in fostering a newborn boy, Derrick.
The Bellefonte couple has seen how the opioid crisis in Centre County affects kids. Derrick went through opioid withdrawal as an infant and would shake and scream uncontrollably for hours. They felt helpless at first but were able to get the support they needed to learn how to calm him.
Not long after the Zimmermans started fostering Derrick, his half-sister Destiny came into the picture. Destiny, 17, visited the Zimmermans on weekends and then moved in about two years ago. She was officially adopted in November.
One of the most difficult things for the family was adjusting to the age differences.
“We had never parented a teenager, so it was a very steep learning curve,” Paul said.
It was also a difficult transition for Destiny. She entered the foster care system at 13 and lived in a group home for more than two years before moving in with the Zimmermans.
“It’s definitely very hard; you’re always kind of wondering where you’re going to end up,” Destiny said. “ The uncertainty of it is honestly the worst part.”
In the group home, Destiny said she struggled with not having any privacy or freedom. She even said she felt unsafe at times. At school she was often bullied by other students for being in the system.
It took some time for Destiny to get past the stigma foster kids have as being bad or problem kids. She said she still has worries about messing up and going back into the system.
Once kids pass age 7, Raker said it gets more difficult to place them in foster homes. Currently, 23 are younger than 7 years old and 36 are older.
“Every kid deserves the best life they can – a safe stable environment were they can laugh and play and not have to worry about anything else, where they can grow and achieve their full potential,” Paul said.
Foster parents can say no to a placement. If they feel like they can’t meet the child’s needs or give them the necessary support for their trauma, Paul said it’s better that they don’t accept the placement and let CYS find foster parents who can.
For prospective foster parents, Paul said “you’re not expected to be a therapist. You have a defined role – to provide love and a stable environment.” The kids have access to many resources, including therapy and case workers to help out in various situations.