254 children were neglected or abused and put into the foster care system in Adair County in 2021, said Rachel Priest, alternative care worker, investigator, licensing worker and subsidy worker of the Adair County Department of Social Services, Children’s Division.
254 children were put into the foster care system. Hundreds of families were investigated and assessed over a 90-day period. On top of this, there were 418 hotline reports and referrals, up to 11 months of court dates, and only 23 closed cases. This doesn’t include the children that were abused and neglected but went undetected, said Priest.
Elizabeth Wiles, Katrina Schmerold and Lexie Stratton are three of about 80 licensed foster parents in Adair County and have helped several of those 254 children feel safe, loved and cared for. Wiles is a mother of four biological children, Schmerold is a single mother and Stratton was a student at Truman State University just last year.
Elizabeth Wiles, assistant professor of justice systems at Truman, has been a foster parent for two years. Soon after getting her license, she, her husband and her four biological children welcomed a sibling set of three into their home during the height of COVID.
“Child abuse … rates were actually on the increase because people were so isolated and people were losing their jobs. That financial stress makes abuse and neglect go up,” said Wiles. “So we’re like, maybe this is a way we can help.”
They were excited to help out the community and wanted to take advantage of being in a position where they could care for several children. For quite some time, Wiles and her husband were caring for seven children at a time on top of each of them having full-time jobs.
Wiles said the children in her house were always having a blast. They were taken care of, loved and shown compassion every step of the way. After taking on seven children as well as some emergency placements at the same time, Wiles’ house was never quiet.
“It was never a dull moment, which I liked,” said Wiles. “Of course, it was also exhausting but it was also really fun and in a lot of ways because it was just so full… They’re full of love and cuteness, and they’re going to be full of sass too.”
They bought a big van right before they became foster parents and took many trips that helped the children feel like part of the family. While Wiles’ family has many incredible memories with their house full of joy, there were trying times as well.
Wiles mentioned times when they would have nine kids for a night for emergency placement because parents were coming from out of state. She said that there are times when foster parents wantneed to say no to placements, but if they don’t take in children, they might have to sleep on the Children’s Division office floor.
“But it’s like, we can do this, you know, it’s a sacrifice, but it’s nothing compared to what the children are going through,” said Wiles. “How traumatic would that be to just sleep on the floor of an office building because there’s no homes that can take you?”
The passion and care that Wiles and her family provide to these kids is something that brings them joy, and the great news is that if you aren’t ready to be a foster parent, there are other ways to help out. Wiles said campus organizations can do clothing drives, college students can host babysitting events for foster children and the community can provide toiletries and gently used clothes for the children in foster care.
“You don’t have to be a foster parent to help foster kids. There’s so many little things that you can do,” Wiles said. “It’s really fulfilling to know on a little level that you’ve made a difference in this child’s life.”
Another local foster parent is Katrina Schmerold, a single foster mother who has cared for many different children. Currently, Schmerold is doing respite care, which is when a person can temporarily watch another foster parent’s child to provide short-term relief of care. Schmerold said has known she has wanted to be a foster parent since she was a teenager.
Previously, Schmerold cared for two children for a year and occasionally took two others when she was able. As a single foster parent with a full-time job as a psychology professor at Truman, she had her hands full, but she said she gave everything to her foster kids.
Schmerold was enrolling her youngest foster children in preschool, some of which had a two year long waitlist. In doing this, she was able to form relationships with other foster parents as well as the teachers and they all constantly supported each other.
“A positive thing is with Kirksville, is it being more of a close-knit community,” said Schmerold. “The teachers are easy to get in contact with, you get to know people really quickly.”
Even when schedules clashed and times got tricky, Schmerold always found a way to make it work. There were even instances when she would have review days with her students and bring her two foster children with her. She said the students loved it and the kids had a fun time running around.
Schmerold also said there are issues in foster care with staff shortages, mental health shortages and hotline calls. She said the “Missouri Independent” wrote a story on how “Missouri caseworkers are ‘drowning’ as the Children’s Division is plagued by staff shortages.”
She said it is important to encourage Truman students to apply as caseworkers as well as for other internship opportunities that are offered to alleviate these staff shortages and to help put kids into safe and loving foster homes.
Additionally, Schmerold has noticed mental health services severely lacking in Kirksville. There aren’t many therapists in the area and the waitlists are astronomically long, she said.
“There is a huge lack of mental health services for children and adults here in Kirksville,” Schmerold said. “My children were on a waitlist for over seven to eight months before they finally got in to see a child therapist.”
Schmerold said anyone involved with children in the community should call the emergency hotline if they are concerned. Anyone, whether a student babysitting or a teacher working in schools can call. Even noticing neglected neighbors would constitute an emergency hotline call, she said.
Schmerold said a lot of times children may be coming to school hungry and dirty, in which case a hotline call can be made. There is a lot to be aware of as a foster parent, so caring for kids and having their best interests in mind saves them from a lot of turmoil later on.
The great thing about foster care is that you don’t have to be a professor or even a full time employee to take care of a foster child. This is the case with 23-year-old Lexie Stratton, a Truman graduate student at the time, who took on the role of being a foster parent to a 6-year-old.
After inquiring about being a foster parent in June, Stratton and her boyfriend became licensed foster parents and had a 6-year-old by the middle of August. She said the eight week licensure program does not cover all of the trials and excitements a foster parent might face, so making connections with other foster parents is crucial.
“[The class] definitely doesn’t prepare you for everything, or probably even half of the things. We definitely met a lot of people within the Adair community and that helped a lot,” said Stratton. “Foster families are a great support because they understand exactly what you’re going through. It’s craziness.”
Having experienced a difficult upbringing herself, Stratton felt called to take in children so they could have a better life. When she called to inquire about becoming a foster parent, there were eight newborn babies waiting to be placed in a foster home and that pushed her to become someone who could care for and love those children.
“It’s definitely cool watching kids heal, but it’s also cool seeing them make sibling relationships with other kids in my home,” said Stratton.
As a part-time Truman student at the time, Stratton had to juggle several graduate classes on top of caring for all of the needs of a 6-year-old child. She said some of her professors were understanding and worked with her, but others didn’t quite understand her situation.
“In some of my classes, I brought [the child] with me… but the professors in my major were just questioning of everything,” Stratton said. “I had a lot of negative comments about having to turn my camera off on Zoom.”
Stratton echoed the sentiments of Wiles, saying there are several ways to help out even if fostering a child is not possible. Respite care, donations and philanthropies for foster care systems, and babysitting are a few of several ways people can help foster children and their families. She also said it’s not required to have a lot of money to be a foster parent. You just have to have a steady income that supports your basic needs.
As for a career, there are many other ways to get a job in the foster care system that don’t require taking in children.
Since 2016, Priest has been helping families reunite as well as working the “behind the scenes” jobs that you don’t hear about as often.
One of her favorite parts of her job is helping reunite families and making children feel comfortable in the situations they are in.
“There are so many pros with this job – getting to see families reunify with each other and have a better relationship with each other in the family as well as connecting families to resources in the community to help better themselves if there is not an option to reunify with the parents,” Priest said. “It is a great feeling also to help the children find permanency in their own lives.”
On the other hand, Priest said, there are some hard parts that come along with the job. She said one of the toughest things for her is seeing the initial trauma the children carry with them when they are first brought into the foster care system.
Priest’s involvement with foster care stemmed from digging deeper after she graduated college and worked in prisons. She found that her heart was with the children who needed support in their lives, and that led her to the foster care system.
“I figured to stop the ongoing cycle in these children’s lives, it has to start with the children and not with the adults in prison,” Priest said. “I saw there was a high need for workers in the Children’s Division and applied. Since then I have loved my job, and the feedback from families is very rewarding.”
The foster care system needs support. From the nine children Wiles took in, to the lack of services for parents mentioned by Schmerold, there are countless ways to help, whether it be getting a license to become a foster parent or hosting a clothing drive through your student organization. Any small effort can cause a ripple effect and have a positive impact on everybody involved. These children need our help, and it’s important we use the resources we have to take care of those in our community.