‘Just a bunch of love’: What it’s like to be a foster parent in Philadelphia

The city urgently needs more fostering. We spoke with two women who are doing the work.

Stephanie Laws (left) and her foster daughter, Anahi

Stephanie Laws (left) and her foster daughter, Anahi

Courtesy Stephanie Laws
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Updated 1:17 p.m.

A few months ago, Philadelphia put out an “urgent call” to the population: the city needs more foster parents.

In Philly, more than 5,000 youth are currently in foster care, per data from the Department of Human Services. Most of those children ultimately reunite with their biological families, and another 600 are adopted every year.

But the city says it needs more people to help with the transition — and fast. In March, DHS announced it needed at least 300 additional families to foster Philadelphia kids. This was the first major recruitment of foster parents in the city in more than a decade.

To illuminate the challenges and rewards of participating in the program, Billy Penn spoke with two women who’ve taken up the mantle of foster motherhood.

Fostering children in Philly is a uniquely rewarding and challenging experience, per Stephanie Laws, whose kids are pictured here.

Fostering children in Philly is a uniquely rewarding and challenging experience, per Stephanie Laws, whose kids are pictured here.

Courtesy Stephanie Laws

Being treated like family

Aishah Holman, a 41-year-old house manager at Eagleville Hospital, has just about reached the limit on fostering children — she’s raising five all on her own.

Before that, Holman put her biological daughter and another adopted son through college. On Mother’s Day, all her children celebrated by taking her out to Texas Roadhouse.

For Holman, the experience is personal: she grew up in foster care, and she’s among the lucky ones who had a positive experience with it. When she had her daughter at 14 years old, her foster mother was supportive, and she helped teach her to become a parent.

“She treated both of us like family, so I decided to give back,” Holman said. “All the kids need somebody to love them.”

Like her experience growing up in the system, fostering children has been valuable for Holman. She’s embraced the happy moments: high school graduations, proms, senior nights.

It’s the little things

Indeed, being a foster parent seems to require the ability to rejoice in the small victories.

Stephanie Laws, a mother to two biological children and four foster kids, delights in her their perfect attendance and honor roll awards at school. Even being called “mom,” she said, feels special every time.

Four of Stephanie Laws's children: Fareed (left), Christa, Khyair and Brandt

Four of Stephanie Laws's children: Fareed (left), Christa, Khyair and Brandt

Courtesy Stephanie Laws

“For them to feel like they’re able to call you mom and talk to me and be comfortable in that manner, I embrace that a lot,” Laws said. “I just love that feeling, knowing that I’m doing something right.”

Laws said she’s often comforted by her foster children. She’ll be laying in bed with her husband, watching TV with a bowl of popcorn, when six children jump into bed with her to cuddle. “It’s just a bunch of love in my household,” she said.

The pressure of biological parents

But the years of care haven’t come without challenges, some of which are unique to foster parents.

Holman has had to deal with false allegations from biological parents — they’ve claimed her house was without food or running water, or that her children were unsafe — all in an effort to get their kids back.

“But DHS checks on your house all the time,” Holman said. “I still have them all, so in my house it’s just a joke.”

A couple months ago, Laws said one of her children lost the ability to contact their mother, when a psychiatric evaluation deemed her unfit to spend time with them. She decided to tell her children that their mother’s phone was broken, rather than admit the truth.

“That would just put more distress on our family, because the kids don’t know how to take that,” Laws said. “I just tell them, as soon as it gets repaired, she’ll contact us for another visit.”

Khyair (left), Stephanie Laws's biological son, and Christa, her foster daughter, are especially close.

Khyair (left), Stephanie Laws's biological son, and Christa, her foster daughter, are especially close.

Courtesy Stephanie Laws

Fostering requires navigating challenges like that one. But, “it’s no different from your own kids,” Laws said. “Being a foster parent has allowed me to give back tremendously to these four children.”

“I would just tell people to have patience,” Holman said. “It gets better with time. Their hard work might not seem like it pays off in the beginning, but it does.”

So what does it take to foster?

Personality-wise, of course, it helps to be flexible, loving, patient and open-minded. You should have a sense of humor, and you should be willing to welcome LGBTQ kids. This came up a few months back, when the city found out two of its affiliate foster care agencies were homophobic. (The city went on to halt placements with them.)

In its push for more parents, DHS offered a few guidelines:

  • You must be 21 or older
  • You need to get certified by the state (which requires an application, orientation, training and medical examination. It can take three to six months)
  • You can be single or married
  • You’ve got to have some place to live — rented and owned are both acceptable
  • You can’t have more than six kids (including your biological ones)

Find more info from DHS here.