Nestled in the boughs of Judy and Julian Hutcheson's Christmas tree, amid the sparkling lights and holiday trinkets, hangs a special ornament.
The lights twinkle on this keepsake ornament, engraved with names of children who came to the Hutchesons three years ago needing a home.
Those children, who have since returned to a permanent home, were the couple's first foster children, forever a part of their lives.
"Each child that's come into our house, we've really fallen deeply in love with," said Mrs. Hutcheson, foster mother to nine children over the past three years. "They do become a real part of your family."
In Richmond County, there are 110 certified foster care homes, but more volunteers are needed to provide care for children who have been removed from their families, said Luera D. Lewis, a case manager with the Richmond County Department of Family and Children Services.
"All of our kids actually have a placement now," Ms. Lewis said of the 250 to 300 children in foster care in Richmond County. "Some homes tend to get overused. I'm always looking and the reason for that is there's such a great turnover. Ideally, I'd like to have about 150 (homes) total."
Many foster parents burn out from the volunteer job when they meet children they just can't help or whose behavior they can't handle.
But that hasn't happened with Virginia and William Hooker, who began taking in foster children 16 years ago after raising a son and daughter. The Hookers, Richmond County's foster parents of the year in 1989, have taken in about 80 children since then -- many of them unruly teens, children of different ethnic or racial groups, or mentally disabled children.
"There's a lot of rewards when you see the children grow up and when you know you've made a difference in their life," Mrs. Hooker said. "There's a lot of heartache. Children go home. We fall in love with them and it's hard when you lose a child when you've been really involved in their life."
Despite the heartaches, the Hookers have never considered closing their doors. The children who have passed through those doors before keep them open, she said.
"If they're old enough to know how to dial a phone, I teach them how to dial my number," said Mrs. Hooker, who will share Christmas with many former foster children.
The Hookers have also adopted five children, ranging from 5 to 21 years old. Four of them came to them as foster children.
"Scottie was my first," Mrs. Hooker said of her 15-year-old adoptive son. "We'd had him so long until we just couldn't do without him.
"Jeremy is a black child. We got him when he was 9 months old, and we adopted him when he was 4 years old. We just couldn't imagine life without Jeremy, we've had him so long," she said of the boy, who is now 8. "He was just my heart."
In fiscal 1996, about 19,000 children were placed in foster care in Georgia after they were removed from their homes because of physical or sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, neglect or other mistreatment. About 85 percent of those children were eventually reunited with their families, and the others were adopted or emancipated.
While these children are in state custody, it's crucial for them to have love, support and stability from another source, Ms. Lewis said.
"Foster care is a commitment. If you're a person who wants to make a difference in the life of a child, if you want to help a child to heal, I think foster care would be excellent for you as a person," she said. "You have to want to do it."
Foster parents are paid $10.70 a day per child to cover food, clothing and other expenses. The Department of Family and Children Services also pays the children's medical expenses and gives their foster parents $40 to buy Christmas gifts.
But most foster parents like the Hutchesons and Hookers spend from their own pockets to care for the children, and pay out much more in love, patience and caring.
"The day care gets more per week than I do," said Mrs. Hutcheson, who doesn't care about the money. "You have to do it because you're committed to children and you love it."
The Hutchesons, who have an infant son, considered becoming foster parents for eight years before making the commitment. Initially, Mrs. Hutcheson feared she wouldn't be able to let her foster children leave when it was time for them to reunite with their biological parents or other guardians.
"I think we considered too long," she says now.
"I was worried about the separation. You love the child, but you always know these children will probably leave your home," she said. Still, "when they drive out of your driveway, you're sitting there crying."
For 16 months, the Hutchesons have been foster parents for a pair of siblings. The children have regular visits with their biological family, but the state hasn't determined when they will leave the Hutchesons' home.
"I just cringe at the thought of my kids -- I call them my kids -- leaving," she said. "And I know at the same time that it's going to happen. My kids feel like they've got two sets of parents."
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