When it comes to caring for area foster children, one Shawnee, Oklahoma, family makes community the priority. Brit and Amber Hembree provide guidance and support for children in their greatest time of need as foster parents through Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s FireLodge Children and Family Services.
FireLodge serves as a local community resource for confidential services geared toward youth and families. They place an emphasis on Native Americans to enhance, enrich and develop cultural awareness in the areas of health and wellness.
“Foster parents play a critical role in the Indian Child Welfare team,” said CPN Foster Care/Adoption Manager Kendra Lowden. “Not only are they providing physical care for Potawatomi children, they also show them love and nurturance while encouraging the relationships with important people in their lives.”
The Hembrees both grew up in the area and have long-term ties to the community. Brit is a Tribal member and descendent of the Ogee family. Amber is an elementary school teacher and library media specialist.
When her friends went out of town a few years ago, Amber agreed to babysit their foster child. The experience lead her to consider whether her own family could give back in the same way.
“I just kind of had a feeling of, ‘Okay, I think we can do more,’” she said.
Amber also had a personal experience with foster care that made an impression on her. When she was younger, her family took in younger relatives who had tragically lost both parents in a short amount of time.
Amber’s friend and neighbor encouraged her to reach out to Lowden, and she started the process to become a foster parent in 2020.
“That first conversation is important so that foster parents are educated about the process as well as how the child welfare system operates,” Lowden said.
“(The friend) just really spoke highly of CPN and the way they do things and their caseworkers,” Amber said. “We started the process and got our first placement in 2020.”
The start of the coronavirus pandemic nearly upended those plans with the Hembrees receiving their first foster care placement the same week pandemic closures began. They found a way to make everything work.
“We took in a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old that spring break week. I think it was March 18,” Amber said. “And then two days later, we found out schools were closed, daycares were closed, everything. So that was a very challenging five months, honestly.”
While the Hembree family cared for the two children’s day-to-day needs, the children’s biological mother successfully completed all the court’s requirements, and the children returned home.
“They went back to mom, and mom is doing amazing,” Amber said. “We went and saw them in January, so we still keep in contact with them.”
The visitation restrictions due to the pandemic were difficult for the children’s biological mother, and Hembree said she empathized with what the family was experiencing.
“Whatever happened, happened in her past before we knew her, but now those kids are her life, and she is doing wonderful,” she said.
Lowden said the Hembrees’ strong support of family, cultural and community ties make them great foster parents.
“They are very connected to the Potawatomi community and know the importance of cultural and family connections for their foster children,” Lowden said. “They have gone above and beyond to make sure all of their foster children have extra time to visit their parents, whether in person or virtually. This extra effort they make helps the children keep a strong relationship with their families.”
Near the end of 2021, the Hembree family was able to accept another placement for a 5-year-old boy. The child quickly adapted to the family’s routine from school to recreational activities, like camping.
For someone considering whether to foster, Amber advises the experience is rewarding despite the inevitable bumps. She suggests having measured expectations and to prepare for both highs and lows.
“It is challenging and everybody told me that, and I said, ‘I know it’s going to be,’ but you don’t really know until you’re actually living it,” she said. “Just go in with realistic expectations.”
Amber relies on her spiritual faith to weather the storms.
“I think people need patience and grace, mercy and prayer,” she said. “Sometimes people hear foster care and people talking about being a foster family, it’s kind of like there’s some excitement and you think, ‘Oh, that’d be really neat.’ But (there are times when) it’s hard.”
Amber added that respite care is another option for someone who is unsure they will be able to keep up with full-time foster care. Respite care is offered so the full-time caregiver can take a break.
“It’s a great way to still help and contribute to the lives of children in foster care if full-time foster care isn’t something that a family is comfortable with or can’t do at the time,” she said.
Amber said staff at CPN have always been supportive and responsive.
“Kendra has always been very quick, if I have questions, to get back with me,” Hembree said. “She’s just very easy to visit with about stuff.”
She said the consistency of having the same caseworker for the entire placement has made the process much easier for her family, something that high staff turnover at other agencies makes impossible.
“I’m in a Facebook group of (foster parents), and they say, ‘We’ve had three different caseworkers in the last six months,’” Amber said. “So, it’s nice to have one caseworker the whole time.”
Despite the challenges, she finds the positive impact on young people in the community one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
“I think being able to show them (support in) what is a really dark time and to know what it’s like to have someone that really cares about them during those times that are hard,” she said.
Amber has become more optimistic about child welfare after seeing the efficiency of CPN’s Tribal court system. It lays out its expectations and makes sure parents understand their obligations, she said.
“(The biological mother) was doing everything she was supposed to be doing,” Amber said. “We were taking those kids to the visit and seeing that the system is working the way it’s supposed to work when the parents are trying, which is wonderful.”
Hembree also appreciates the chance to stay in contact with the families she has met and relishes seeing the positive changes in their lives.
“Being able to build the relationship and keep it, I really enjoy still being able to go see (the children),” Amber said. “Being able to communicate with them and see how well they’re doing. And just to know that we helped by being able to take care of them while mom was trying to get back on track. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”
Lowden said the entire Hembree family has played a role in serving area children, and that commitment means more family reunifications are possible.
“Brit and Amber’s children have been amazing siblings and helped children feel welcome and loved,” Lowden said. “Brit and Amber opened their home with the intention to support children’s relationships with their birth families, and they have been very successful in doing so. I have loved getting to know their family over the last two years and feel very blessed to have people such as them to care for children in their most vulnerable time.”
Lowden hopes more families consider helping FireLodge.
“We love to answer questions and get to know more about the families who are deciding to open their hearts and homes to children in need,” Lowden said. “To be a foster parent, you must live in Oklahoma and be willing to support the reunification of children to their families.”
Lowden said there is a desperate need right now for families willing to adopt older children and large sibling sets.