Foster father wears 2 hats

Posted: Sunday, June 18, 2000

There are Father's Day cards for almost every kind of father. But finding one to fit Keith Carter is no small task.

Carter and his wife, Jeanie, have three adult children of whom they are the biological parents, Dionne, Destinea and Chris.

"He's a great dad," Destinea said. "He always came to all the basketball games and was the loudest guy in the crowd. He was very supportive."

But it isn't just his own three children that Carter cheers. Over the past nine years, he and Jeanie have been foster parents to more than 10 children. They provide foster care through Alaska's Division of Family and Youth Services and are therapeutic foster parents with Central Peninsula Counseling Services.

During the last school year, Carter, a commercial fisher and mechanic, also was involved in "shadowing," a program that provides one-on-one assistance for kids in school.

As therapeutic foster parents, the Carters work with children with intense needs and become part of a treatment team that includes mental health providers, ministers, attorneys, medical doctors and extended family members.

"Keith and Jeanie are super therapeutic foster people," said Karen Ruebsamen, director of children's services for Central Peninsula Counseling Services. "(Carter) is patient and doesn't react to situations. He doesn't excite the situation. Instead, he has a calming effect.

"He doesn't say too much to kids. He doesn't lecture. He just says it and that's it," Ruebsamen said. "He chooses his words wisely and does not go on and on."

As a "shadow," Carter worked with school administrators and teachers to provide stable boundaries for children unable to maintain them on their own. He said "shadowing" can be frustrating, but the reward is being able to help kids stay in school.

"In the end, if they learn anything, that's the benefit. That's the purpose of this whole thing -- to keep them in school," Keith said.

Katie Stafford, supervisor of the ongoing unit for Family and Youth Services, also praised Carter's contributions.

"He and his wife have been foster parents for a number of years and have worked with some very high-needs children," Stafford said.

"It's hard to separate Keith and Jeanie," Stafford said. "They offer a lot of love and support. You couldn't say one could do it without the other. They have a great partnership and are really nice people."

Some of the Carters' foster children face challenges of alcohol-related problems, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Some have behavioral problems.

Becoming foster parents also required the commitment of the Carters' children.

"When we started foster parenting, we had children at home," Keith said. "Our kids weren't really too thrilled with it at first, but they're very supportive of it now. They know this is what we do. "

The impact has been long-term. Dionne and Destinea provide respite care when their parents need to get away by themselves. Son Chris lives in Missouri and also works with special needs children.

"It's been a part of our lives for so long that it's really normal to help out," said the Carters' youngest child, Destinea, 21.

Carter said the reward of foster parenting is knowing his family had an impact on the lives of the children that have lived in their home. The hard part is letting them go.

"It's inevitable that they'll leave," Keith said. "You can't prepare for it. And hopefully things work out so they can go back to their homes. The only way you can prepare for it is if you're hardened to it, but that's impossible.

"Sometimes (foster parenting) is a 24-hour a day job. If they're having problems, you're having problems. You get attached to them.

"That's the hardest part."

Being a temporary family sharpens the focus of the impact for which the Carters aim.

"I tell Keith we planted a seed and that hopefully someone else will water it," Jeanie said.

Destinea also is mindful of the role her family hopes to play on the lives of her foster siblings.

"Hopefully they come out of the house having some love they never had before," she said.

Now that she no longer lives at home, Destinea said, she is able to see her parents in a different way.

"It's interesting to see (my parents) with little kids when you're older," she said. "(My dad) loves little kids. He's a goofball with them, and they all laugh at him. I think it's neat."

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