DC foster mom Donna Flenory lost count of just how many children—mostly older youth—have called her house their home. Regardless, each time a new teenager is placed in her home, she has the same thought:
“I’ve got a new baby!”
This excitement, her passion for child advocacy and her selfless nature are just a few of the reasons the Children’s Law Center (CLC) team loves partnering with her.
In honor of National Foster Care Month, we are highlighting Ms. Flenory as one of many amazing foster parents—parents who provide CLC clients with a home as our team works to reunify them with birth parents, to find them a home with kin or friends, prepare them for independence, or to finalize an adoption.
Love and Discipline at the Same Time
She didn’t know it at the time, but growing up, Ms. Flenory’s grandmother was preparing her to become a foster parent. When she was only eight years old, Ms. Flenory’s mother died. Her grandmother raised her and her sisters—but they weren’t the only kids in the home. Any time a relative, no matter how distant, needed a brief respite and whenever one of their children was acting out, the child was sent to Grandma’s house.
“My grandmother had a gift of disciplining and loving at the same time,” Ms. Flenory remembers. “I’ve lost count of how many teenagers she nurtured. Being raised with so many other children, and seeing the love there, prepared me to become a foster parent before I even thought about becoming a foster parent.”
Ms. Flenory first started working with difficult youth through her church. In 2000, she participated in a pilot program through Child and Family Services Agency to foster older youth.
Though the program eventually ended, Ms. Flenory’s passion for fostering has not. She has opened her home more than 50 times throughout the past 18 years.
She’s Never Had an Empty Nest
Ms. Flenory herself shares her grandmother’s gift of love and discipline, which is how she manages her (often full) household.
She always focuses on what a child truly needs and wants.
For example, she recalls Marcus*, a teen who loved her banana cinnamon pancakes and could eat more than 10 at a time—but did not love chores. When he refused to help out around the house, she hinted that she might be too tired to make the pancakes. Suddenly, Marcus was all about helping with housework, and Ms. Flenory was more than happy to make his favorite meal. She knows that foster children need that degree of normalcy and parenting, too.
From tough love when a child is acting out in school or making huge batches of a teen’s favorite treat to helping a child communicate with her incarcerated parent, Flenory works to make sure every child’s unique needs are met.
“Every child has a different personality and a unique history,” Ms. Flenory says. “You have to start fresh with every child. By the time a 16 or 17-year-old child gets to me, they’ve often been on their own for a long time. You have to find the balance of giving them the support they need and accepting their personalities, while also preparing them for the real world.”
Should I Foster?
When asked what the secret is behind her ability to successfully foster children for close to 20 years, Ms. Flenory answers that you have to know yourself and ask yourself the tough questions: What do you have to bring to a child’s life? What are you willing to give up to truly focus on this child? Why do you want to foster?
When you have those answers—and there’s something tugging at your heart to foster—then it’s time to explore your options. Go to an orientation, talk with a foster parent and learn more about what the right choice is for you.
“Being a foster parent can really change your life in some awesome ways,” Ms. Flenory reminisces. “I was so excited the first time I helped a child prepare for prom, their high school graduation, and being able to share those experiences with a child. I’ve changed and grown for the better.”
Their bond stays true—Ms. Flenory stays in touch with many of her foster children, even when the child returns to their family or begins their life as an independent adult.
Each year, hundreds of children enter DC’s foster care system. While CLC attorneys work with each child to set them on a path for long term success—foster parents give them a loving, stable home. A supportive, attentive, patient, consistent foster parent who understands each child’s needs is vital to helping children navigate the difficult realities of being in legal limbo and away from homes, families and communities.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality’s sake