New Start: Foster care programs helping kids in TN, VA


Right now there are 772 kids in foster care in northeast Tennessee with more coming into the system every day.

But there are not enough families to take them in and now is the time to get involved.

May is national foster care month and Tuesday, News 5's Julie Newman met someone who has been through the system and she told me what a child really needs is someone who can see past the stigma of foster care.

"My father passed away when I was 4 years old and he had some drug problems and some alcohol problems, as did my birth mother, so for that reason I was in the custody of my grandparents and I experienced some abuse and neglect there," said Leanne Wallace.

She was 7-years-old when she entered the foster care system called TRACES- which stands for Tennessee Regional Alternative Care Environment. It's for higher need kids who also need therapy.

"I kicked the principal, I bit the guidance counselor, I ran away from school. I was a terror. Oh my gosh. But the people who were able to see past that, I think got to get a taste of who I really was beyond that," Wallace said.

The first person to see beyond that "bad behavior" was her case worker, Cindy Jenkins.

"We're very careful about how we match kids. So when kids come into custody and we're looking to place them, we're looking at all the families we have available and where does that child's needs fit with this family the best," Jenkins said.

The social worker placed Leanne in the care of a woman named Joan and they had an instant connection.

"And I remember that first weekend I was already asking if I could call her Mom because even though I couldn't yet pin-point it, I was already experiencing something that I had not yet experienced in my life," Leanne said.

Over the years, Joan gave Leanne not just a place to live, but a real home.

"It was nothing fancy, but I knew that this was a place of love and that I was loved here," she said.

Leanne grew up playing sports and going to prom and having what she called a "normal childhood."

But often times, kids in the foster system get a bad rap.

"There was a time when I was in 4th grade where I had a kid tell me they couldn't be friends with me because I was a foster kid," Wallace said.

It's an attitude social workers are working hard to change. Jenkins says all you need to become a foster parent is a willingness to open your heart and your home.

"Some people feel like I can't care for a kid that has all these needs, or I can't care for a kid that's been through an abusive situation, or that has been through a drug situation. And you hear about them on the news all the time. I hear people say all the time, 'Oh, that poor child! I wish I could do something.' Well you can, you can do a lot. You can step up and say, 'I'm going to be the one that helps,'" said Jenkins.

Leanne tells me she knows her life would not have turned out the same had it not been for her foster family and the people who placed her there.

"Everybody in this program worked hard to push and make sure that I didn't get left behind, that I didn't fall through the cracks. That they poured in the the goodness and the hope that they still saw in me," said Wallace.

Leanne's experience made such a difference in her life that she is now working with kids from tough backgrounds.

If you want to open your home to foster kids, Frontier Health has two programs.

In northeast Tennessee it's called TRACES. It serves the upper eight counties of the state. Learn more by clicking here.

In southwest Virginia, it's called VALUES serving Wise, Scott, and Lee counties, and the city of Norton. More information on that area is available here.