Sustainable Fostering

By Betsy Imes and Michelle Barclay

What began as a dream to build a “perfect farm family” has grown into a haven for ­­foster children in need of nurturing love and care.  After learning they were unable to have their own biological children, Lamar and Valerie Burkett adopted their first child through a private agency over 31 years ago, a six week old son they named John William. 

Burkett familyFour years later, John’s birth mother was pregnant again and she wanted this baby also adopted by the Burketts, which they readily agreed to do and keep the siblings together, so little Thomas joined their family.  Desiring to help a child with special needs (such as a physical disability), 4 week old Mary Catherine was adopted in 2001.  Although Mary Catherine was healthy, a biracial child at that time was considered special needs because the agency often had trouble finding parents for them.  The Burketts believed their family was complete after adopting Mary Catherine; however, a phone call that same year from the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) about a 4 month old foster child resulted in the Burketts becoming foster parents. This decision grew their vision of family into a bumper crop of more than 40 children in need of a loving home, with eight of these children now legally adopted into the Burkett family.

Lamar honorably served his country during the Vietnam War as part of the Naval Advisory Group in Saigon.  He currently manages the family farm near Omega, Georgia, and serves as Pastor of the Bridge Creek Primitive Baptist Church.   As a former Lead Advocate with the Adoptive & Foster Parent Association of Georgia, Lamar helped other foster parents with the complex process of resolving issues with DFCS.  He was appointed a member of the Child Welfare Reform Council in 2014 which recommended improvements to Georgia’s child welfare system.  As President of the Colquitt County Adoptive & Foster Parent Association, he oversees many activities including ongoing foster parent trainings, cookouts, and holiday events; the group also increases awareness of the needs of foster children in their community.  The association reminds others that anyone can serve foster children by helping foster families with practical needs such as sending a meal or providing childcare to offset the additional time constraints foster parents have with court hearings, therapist appointments, DFCS trainings, etc.  The entire community benefits when a foster child is given the care needed to overcome trauma. 

Valerie tirelessly works alongside her husband to provide exceptional care to each child placed with them through healthy attachments all children need.  As a stay at home mother, she makes the most of her opportunities to build close relationships with the children through home schooling, transporting them to appointments such as doctors and dentists as well as extracurricular activities including sporting events and 4H meetings.  By establishing consistent family routines for meals, bedtime and encouraging conversation, children know they are loved, have a sense of belonging and develop an ability to get along with others. Stable and committed relationships with supportive caregivers like Valerie and Lamar enable children to respond to adversity and learn to thrive.

Burkett family 2What advice do the Burketts offer anyone interested in becoming a foster parent?  “To always remember that foster children are not your own and belong with their birth family.  You should love them as though they are yours, but be prepared for the pain when they go back home.”  They also advise foster parents to build relationships with the birth families. In the DFCS caregiver practice model, Partnership Parenting, foster parents are trained to work with birth families and act as parenting mentors whenever possible. The Burketts started their journey as foster parents using this method long before it became an official practice model of the state. They even helped one young mother find a new home and have the means to pursue her education.  Today she is an EMT working toward becoming a paramedic. The Burketts’ adopted son, Thomas and his wife Amber are foster parents who also work closely with birth parents.  Amber continues to help with childcare for the children they previously fostered after they were returned home to their birth family.   

Ashley Burkett  Hog ShowOne foster child who came into the Burkett home at 11 years old loved football and enjoyed weight lifting.  After aging out of the system at 18, he decided to join the Army but the Burketts were not privy to any information about him while he served in Iraq because they were not considered family.  “He was just our child,” says Lamar and so they legally adopted him at the age of 20.  Today Jared is a highly trained Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) member at a federal prison.   One of their adopted daughters, Ashley, is the 2018 Overall Grand Champion of the Colquitt County hog show. Ashley came into foster care as a toddler and is now 17 years old.  This young lady mentors her 4 year old foster sister who is also interested in showing her own hog someday.  The older foster youth on the Burkett farm are given their own pigs to raise and place in various livestock shows.  “In our area of Georgia, not many African-American youth are involved in 4H” and the children from the Burkett family are well respected in the community for their skills in caring for their animals.  As 4H members, youth are taught life skills that build leadership, decision making, public speaking and teamwork. 

The word sustainable in farming refers to a method that allows for continual renewability and which enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.  By giving children in need a safe, loving home where their well-being is a priority, the Burkett foster family offers children and their biological families the opportunity to build better lives for themselves, and their community reaps the benefits of more stable families.

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