Kentucky natives Chris and Joy Lanier have been inseparable ever since they performed a Christmas duet with their homeschool cohort — Joy was 9, and Chris was 12. And now, more than 30 years and three kids later, the couple still is just as charming.
There’s a tenderness to their Redmond home that’s palpable. There are little signs of love present everywhere. Photos of many different kids’ faces line the soft neutral walls and warm wooden bookshelves. Board games and drawings peek out from the trendy trimmings of the living room. And one of the upstairs bedrooms, though currently empty — other than the dog that often sleeps on the rug — has a wall decal with a Dr. Seuss quote that reads, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”
Chris and Joy have been in the Pacific Northwest for the past nine years, moving here because Chris accepted a job as the head of a sales team at Microsoft. Joy is a stay-at-home parent who raised and homeschooled all three biological children. As their children were getting older, the pair worried their kids were living in a bubble, sheltered from the difficult upbringing many other children face.
Joy grew up as a pastor’s daughter, traveling with her church’s ministry to underserved neighborhoods in Kentucky, and she became friends with a lot of the kids they visited. It made her more grateful for the privileges she had, and she wanted her own children to learn the same appreciation.
One day, during a movie night of Disney’s Earth to Echo, Joy’s heart melted for one of the characters who was a foster child, and it piqued her interest. What if they turned their house into a foster home?
“It seemed crazy at first — it takes a little bit of crazy to do it,” Joy said with a laugh. “We hadn’t thought of it before as something we would want to do.”
Chris was a little more hesitant. Joy would be a great foster mom, he said, but it might not come as naturally to him.
“She has a natural proclivity to care for people,” he said. “On an emotional level, it’s probably easier for her and harder for me. But on an intellectual level, I really came to the place that I felt like it was a good thing for our family.”
So, they brought up the idea to their kids. The girls, who were 12 and 17 at the time, were immediately excited — agreeing to share a bedroom so there would be a spare room for a foster child. Their son, on the other hand, took a little bit more convincing. But he eventually agreed it was an important cause.
In January 2015, the Laniers attended their first informational night about fostering, where they connected with a representative from Olive Crest, a national nonprofit organization with local offices dedicated to supporting foster kids and foster families. Around the same time, another ambassador from Olive Crest came to the Laniers’ church to talk about helping families in need, which helped cement their connection to the organization.
The Laniers decided to become licensed foster parents with Olive Crest as opposed to the state organization, the Department of Social and Health Services. Private organizations like Olive Crest make up about 35 percent of the licensed foster homes in Washington, so DSHS relies heavily on them as a means to house foster children. Because Olive Crest is a nonprofit charitable organization, it can offer support and resources that are sometimes limited through the state.
It took about nine months to get licensed, due to background checks, home inspections, vehicle inspections, and more, but Chris speculated it would have likely taken twice as long without assistance from Olive Crest.
Since then, the Laniers have shared their home with 14 children, ranging from 10 months to 10 years old. Some have been short stays to offer respite care for other foster families when they need a vacation or time to recharge, or long-term placements of close to a year.
Foster kids come from all sorts of situations where the state had to get involved, sometimes because of evidence of neglect or abuse. All of the foster kids the Laniers have had in their home were from drug-affected families, and were victims of neglect, they said.
Generally, foster children stay with a foster family until a living situation with a biological family member can be found, or the biological parents prove they are fit to care for their children.
“The thing I hear from people most is, ‘How do you give them back?’” Joy said. “It’s hard, because you see what they’re going home to, you see what they’re dealing with, and that’s probably the hardest part.”
Chris added: “You kind of have to come to the realization that you’re signing up for heartache. And why would you do that? Because the hope is that, at least some of the heartache, you get to shield the child from. You can’t eliminate it. They will have heartache themselves. But if in some capacity you can bear some of that for them, then it seems like a good investment. You have to take joy in that.”
“You kind of have to come to the realization that you’re signing up for heartache. And why would you do that? Because the hope is that, at least some of the heartache, you get to shield the child from. You can’t eliminate it.”
Joy said her hope is that even the foster kids who share their home briefly will take away positive influences and memories as tools for their future. And the kids who stay with the Laniers long-term will have them as a resource for life. The Laniers have had three foster kids who lived with them for an extended period and are still in contact with all three today.
“To me, it’s so important for these kids to not have people who just walk in and out of their lives,” Joy said. “We don’t want that if we can avoid it. We want to stay involved if the family is willing for us to, just for those kids to know that we love them.”
And aside from investing in the lives of kids, the Laniers also feel accomplished in their initial goal: to expand the worldview of their biological children. Their oldest daughter, Cailin, was especially affected by the experiences, and it may have influenced her career path. She had an internship at Olive Crest after graduating high school and now works at a sex-trafficking resource center while she finishes a degree at the University of Washington.
It’s families like the Laniers that make all the difference in a child’s life, said Olive Crest Pacific Northwest executive director Jeff Judy. He and his wife also are licensed foster parents. After having four biological kids of their own, they adopted an additional four children out of foster care.
To Judy, the most noteworthy aspect of the organization is the stability Olive Crest strives to offer in unstable situations. It is not an apples-to-apples comparison between the two organizations, as DSHS is the first line of contact when a child is removed from a home, and it’s often desperate for immediacy when placing a child. But as a result, kids are often moved from foster home to foster home before finding a place where they can comfortably stay long-term.
“For every one home that (foster children) get placed in with Olive Crest, they will circle through five homes with the state,” Judy said. “We’re working hard to bring a level of stability to the child’s experience by way of making sure that the families that are saying ‘yes’ to them are also a really good fit.”
Olive Crest also is more involved in the home than the state often has the capacity for, Judy said. The state mandates a home visit from a social worker every 90 days, but Olive Crest has implemented a best practice of visiting every 30 days.
Operational practices aside, there is a community that exists within Olive Crest that other institutions lack. Judy spoke highly of the multitude of activities year-round for foster families to come together, the emphasis on respite care to give existing foster families a break when they need it, and more.
The Laniers hope that others are encouraged by their experience to see the often-invisible reality facing foster children, and to consider becoming foster parents themselves.
“It’s hard to imagine a population that needs justice and support any more than small, innocent children who can’t fend for themselves,” Chris said. “There’s so many ways to be involved. Of course, becoming a foster parent is one way. And we’ve known single women who have become foster parents. I know a single man who is a foster parent who ended up adopting his foster child — as well as traditional and nontraditional couples. So, I don’t think there’s really any specific demographic that makes a better foster parent. But a willingness to help foster kids is really where it starts.”
Joy added that if someone can’t become a foster parent, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer, support foster families, or contribute in other ways. Joy served as the community involvement coordinator at Olive Crest until recently, planning events and communicating with other foster parents, and Chris has been on the Board of Trustees for the past 18 months.
“Whatever your skill is, there’s a way you can implement it,” she said.
But if you are considering becoming a foster parent, Joy has some advice to offer based on her experience.
“It’s not like we fixed anyone,” she said. “I think that’s kind of an assumption that I had in the beginning — that we would be able to fix some people, fix some kids. But it’s more walking their journey with them than fixing them. But I’m pretty sure that’s just a truth in life. We all need fixing, but we can’t fix each other.”