The following long-form feature story was written for “Multiplatform Story Production” during my senior year.
Sonia Waller: The Heart and Soul of a Foster Mom
By Marlee Middlebrooks
Birth of a fostering
As a small girl, born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, one of four sisters, she remembers coming home to do schoolwork with the help of her mom’s long-term partner in the house he owned. A conservative household it was, where morals and values were strictly upheld by her mother, according to Sonia Waller. The structure of the household started with her mom’s boyfriend, the breadwinner, and flowed from there; and although, Waller and her sisters flourished in school, getting good grades, staying out of trouble, it was the abuse her mother endured that reminds her that, “I very well could have been a foster kid. People just didn’t know because there were no signs,” she recalls.
This inspires Waller to continue to foster within her home she tells me as we sit across one another at her kitchen table in her small dining room in Athens, Georgia. She drinks from a bottle of water in between reliving memories as her television plays softly in the background.
Believing that it takes a village to raise children, Waller has had five placements in her time as a foster parent since 2015, but a total of seven children have resided with her. The first four placements she had were during her time as a foster parent through the Division of Family and Children Services, DFCS. She is now a foster parent through Bethany Christian Services, a private agency, because she feels this is a better fit for her. Currently, she has one placement. Nonetheless, the training is similar for parents who foster through DFCS or through private agencies, and before Waller became a foster parent, the process she had to endure was extensive.
According to Bindi Avrett, regional manager for Bethany Christian Services, foster parents begin with an informational meeting or orientation. Next, they partake in a 24-hour training course called Impact. From there, they must undergo several steps that include but are not limited to a finger print check, a DFCS history check in Georgia and any state lived in within the last five years, a medical exam including a drug screen and a reference check. Moreover, they must become certified in CPR and first aid, and their home is checked to make sure it meets the state’s safety standards. After three home visits are complete, a home study is written which Avrett says is a “25-35-page narrative that talks about their childhood, marriage, home, parenting, finances, and more. It is very invasive.”
Annually, foster parents are reevaluated. There is another home walk through. Their DFCS history is checked again. Their finances are checked again. They must meet required training hours. For Bethany Christian Services, primary foster parents must meet 20 training hours annually, and secondary foster parents must meet 15 training hours annually. Still, no process has deterred Waller from being essential to meeting the needs of children in the state of Georgia. And each time she gets a new child, she flashes back to what it was like when she was a kid.
“I can remember that I needed someone. I can think back because I know exactly,” she says, and then, she corrects herself. “Not exactly what they went through, but similar.” She continues to describe her childhood. “He owned the house we lived in. He owned his home. He owned the houses on each side of us. He had a moving company. He worked for corporate America. He had money.” But the clearest detail Waller recalls is that her mom’s boyfriend fought her mom. “It went on for years, and she tolerated it.”
So now, each time she gets a mid-day email or even the times in the past when she has gotten a phone call at 2 o’clock in the morning—“We have a child that came into care. Here’s what we know as of right now.”—and she accepts, and then, the child shows up to her door with just a garbage bag filled with clothes, she says feelings emerge. She learned that she had to deal with her childhood. “Wow, I’m 50 years old,” she realized. “I have to do some work on myself.”
Placing a placement
Sitting in her on home, Waller calls herself as a stranger, a stranger to every new child she is about to meet. Stand offish is the word she uses to describe many of the children who first come into her home. Because many times they come in the middle of the night, “you know they’re not sleeping,” she states confidently, so she stays up with them and tries to attend to their immediate needs.
A child may come into the custody of DFCS for several reasons including but not limited to reports of physical, verbal or substance abuse, neglect, domestic violence in the home, etc., according to Avrett. Additionally, reports may be filed by neighbors, friends, family members, hospital employees, school employees, daycare facilities, etc.
Once DFCS removes a child from the home, they will see if there is a DFCS foster home available where the child may be placed. If so, they will reach out immediately to these families no matter the time of day. If not, they will defer to Child Placing Agencies, CPA’s, also known as private agencies such as Bethany Christian Services. From there, a representative from the private agency will see if any families within their agency would be a good match, should they have any families available.
Waller, a 50-year-old single woman with a heart for raising children opens her home daily to fostering. Whenever a new child is placed with her, the stranger relationship sets in and fear is overwhelming, she often asks a question like, “You think it would be helpful if you talked to mom?,” “Let’s call her,” she says. During the day, she comforts a different way. They take a trip to the grocery store together. They get in the car and drive to the store. They walk down the aisles, and they find their favorite food. Then, they check out and go back home to make it, together. It’s a process.
Waller also finds ways to keep the kids busy. Whether it be girl scouts, reading clubs, swimming or other activities, she says that it is vital to keep them being kids. “A lot of kids that come into care,” she pauses, “they’re no longer kids. They’ve been doing things that adults should be taking care of.” Eventually, they will open up and share about their home life—‘I’m gone because mom did this.’—to which Waller so softly and motherly says just like she would tell any of her foster children, “Baby, don’t worry about that. That’s grown people’s business.”
The first family
A foster parent can foster multiple children at one time. A DFCS foster parent can have up to 6 and a private agency parent can have up to 3 children in their home at any given time, dependent upon other circumstances. These children may or may not be related. The need for foster parents is grave; therefore, allowing for multiple children in one home is positive. “There aren’t enough homes period for the number of children in foster care,” says Avrett.
Waller has had her share of children in her home ranging from ages 4 to age 17. She has had single children and sibling groups. She has had them all, but one placement that stands out vividly is her very first placement—a three sibling group: a 4-, a 6- and a 9-year old.
This sibling group, particularly, presented various challenges for Waller in her role as a foster mom. Meshing three children’s upbringings into the ebb and flow of her home was not easy. “They had been taking care of themselves for many years, so if I said something, it was like talking to the wall,” Waller says. But it was her constant encounter with mealtime that reminded her how difficult each moment throughout this process can be.
“As I was preparing food for them, the 9-year-old would want to go in the kitchen,” Waller says as she glances behind me, directly into her small kitchenette. “I would say, ‘No Honey, go play. I’ll do the food.’ But, she wouldn’t go play. She would stand there and watch me. She was very concerned about making sure they ate.”
Waller assured me that she assured the child that her siblings would eat, but no amount of assurance would make the small girl leave the small area. “She would stay and watch me cook. When I got through cooking, she made the plates. I wanted her to be a part. You have to let them do what they need to do. After a while… she takes a breath… two months maybe, she’d go play.”
“‘Ms. Sonia, Is the food ready? It’ll be ready in a few minutes.’ She had to know that I was going to feed them,” Waller says.
A balanced life
Waller is not just a foster parent. She is a mom, a sister, a daughter, a Christian, a church-goer, a volunteer and a friend. She volunteers every Monday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at The Sparrow’s Nest, a Christian ministry center in Athens, Georgia, where she works in the clothes closet among other areas. More than this, Waller finds that the best way to keep herself reenergized in her daily life is through walking.
Usually sporting a sweat suit during the cooler months, Waller can be found walking laps around the trails at a local park such as Bishop Park. She walks among the trees as the leaves slowly turn from green to yellow and then fall in the brisk wind. She may start out slow and then pick up the pace before slowing back down for a time to cool off. Looking to her left and to her right, into the trees, the cars zooming by in the background do not seem to faze her, neither do the other people passing by.
“I walk because it relaxes me. It calms me. It keeps everything balanced. For me, when I’m walking, I’m in my own, little world. It’s my own, personal time away for Sonia, and we all need that. It helps me to be a better foster parent,” she says in between strides. “Walking is good for the body. Walking is good for the mind, too. You’ve got to be able to unwind after a long day so you won’t take your frustrations out on your foster children. You have to be able to let go,” she says as she rounds the corner of the trail.
As she slows her pace and prepares to stop for the afternoon, she reflects on what is possibly the most important reason she ever began to foster. “I’m mediating on God, the goodness of God and what He has done for me in my life,” she says in between a few small breaths. Though, she no longer sits at her dining room table, her sentiment and attitude never waver from what she said from inside the safety and comfort of her home. “I’m going to do this until The Lord tells me I can’t do it anymore.”