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Thanksgiving is sure to be a lively affair at the home of Amy and Steve Morrison. There will be lots of people and lots of food.
But then, it's that way every day.
"We do everything big and buffet style," Amy Morrison said of dinners at the holidays and during routine weeks.
The Morrisons are accustomed to the hustle and bustle because they not only have five children, they regularly welcome foster children into their Whitaker home.
In 2000, the family was pulled into the foster care system when a young relative needed placement.
"I know how it feels to sit in court and not be able to take them home," Mrs. Morrison, 38, said.
After getting the proper paperwork and clearances in order, the Morrisons became foster parents for the child and later adopted her.
Allegheny County Department of Human Services currently has approximately 120 foster families available for "out of home" placements, when they become necessary.
Each family receives a daily stipend of $18 to care for each child. A quarterly clothing allotment and medical coverage are also provided.
Denise Allen Brown, regional office director of the Adoption and Foster Care Division at Allegheny County Human Services, says it's a myth that foster parents get involved in the program for the money. "No one gets rich on $18 a day."
She said there is general misunderstanding about the true expense involved in becoming a foster parent.
Allegheny County works with foster parents who have a wide range of backgrounds, including doctors and homemakers.
Amy Morrison runs a home day care business; Steve Morrison works as a truck driver.
Getting certified to be a foster parent requires a criminal background check and a home inspection to ensure there is room for a child. Applicants must also present proof of financial stability. One thing not required is marriage.
"People are surprised that you can be single and become a foster parent," Ms. Allen Brown said. "We're fortunate to have a diverse pool of individuals who have opened their homes and hearts to assist children.
"The Morrisons are one of those families who make you smile and wonder how they do it."
Currently, there are 787 children placed with family members in what is called "kinship" foster care. Another 701 children are living with foster families unrelated to them.
Ms. Allen Brown reports there is always need for foster parents.
"They are our lifeline," she said.
But, according to her, the number of foster care cases is dropping thanks to programs designed to provide family support before an out-of-home placement is necessary.
The county's "Family Group Decision Making" program, for example, brings together extended family members and biological parents to develop their own plan to improve a child's living conditions.
To date, the Morrisons have welcomed more than 25 children into their home.
The couple was honored in May as Outstanding Foster Parents of the Year by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The award recognized the couple for their ability to meet the "physical, social and practical" needs of foster children along with their compassion toward birth parents.
Mrs. Morrison admits it's difficult to say goodbye to the children when they leave her care. But she knows her role is only temporary.
The family rarely has contact with the children once they leave, but they keep picture of each one and plan to display them on a wall in their home.
The Morrison family includes Steve and Amy's biological children Stephen Jr., 19; Jessica, 18, a student at Community College of Allegheny County; and Elizabeth, 16, a junior at West Mifflin Area High School. Brittany, 15, a sophomore, and Isaiah, 2, were adopted out of foster care.
Placements can come in the middle of the night and last anywhere from seven days to seven months or more, Mrs. Morrison said.
Since 2007, the Morrisons have focused on helping younger children. They currently have two foster children, age 1 and 4, in their care.
Mrs. Morrison admits her own five children have sacrificed a lot of over the years for the foster children. But she believes the experience will help them become responsible adults. She said they have all seen the devastating effect of drug use and unplanned pregnancy.
"They know what not to do with children and have learned lots of patience and empathy," she said.
This Thanksgiving, she is especially thankful the family is all together again. Eldest son Stephen is back from Florida, where he earned an associate's degree.
"Next we'll be thankful when he gets a job," she said with a laugh.
The family is also eager to see extended family. Ms. Morrison's parents, sister, brother and numerous aunts and uncles all live within blocks of her home.
The extra hands are helpful, and not just on holidays.
"Our foster kids are always right there with us," she said. "We always have fun. I think it's good for them to have a happy time.
"For us, Thanksgiving is about being together. It's a time to celebrate and be thankful."
Mrs. Morrison said she doesn't worry about place settings or matching china. The family eats on paper plates to save time with clean-up so they can get on to the traditional board games to played after dinner.
"It doesn't have to be perfect. But, it's perfect for us," she said.
For more information about foster care opportunities, call the Foster Care division of the county's Office of Children, Youth and Families at 412-473-2400.
First Published November 25, 2009 12:00 am