Six-month-old Joshua plays on a blanket as Janet Tanner looks on. He looks up and grins with joy, waving bright plastic keys in his hand.
“What is it about those keys they all love,” she says, smiling back at him.
She has become quite attached to the nearly hairless, toothless addition to their family, and she’d do just about anything for him. That’s a good thing, because she has to do everything for him.
Joshua arrived at the Tanners’ Preston Hollow house several weeks earlier in the middle of the night. Carried in by a sleepy Child Protective Services worker, he came with nothing but the clothes he had on. The caseworker told Janet and her husband Rick what she knew, which at that point amounted to little more than his name. Then she left them with their newest temporary son.
In the two and a half years the Tanners have been foster parents, it’s become a familiar routine: The phone rings, they’re told about a young child in need and, within hours, the child is living with them.
What’s it like to live that way, being short-term parents to children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused?
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Janet says. “When a baby comes here, he’s been removed from every person and everything he’s known, and you don’t know his routine, you don’t know what comforts him, you don’t know what he likes or dislikes.”
From the moment the foster children arrive, the Tanners do their best to care for them as if they were their own. They take cues from the babies to learn their needs. They try to learn their schedules, or more likely, give them one for the first time.
Like most foster parents, the Tanners are licensed to both foster and adopt. So if parental rights are terminated and no family members take the children, they have the choice of adopting them.
That’s how it happened with Chance, their 3-year-old son. They fostered him for 21 months, the longest of any baby they’ve cared for. When his birth parents’ rights were finally terminated, the Tanners jumped at the chance to adopt him. After all, they had long since fallen in love with him, and they were the only family he knew.
In total, they’ve fostered 10 babies, with no plans to stop and an open mind for adopting more. They try to schedule two weeks of vacation between babies each year, but otherwise their home includes their 8-year-old birth son, Jonathan, Chance, and a foster child who could be anywhere from newborn to 5 years old.
Chance has some hearing and speech problems, but otherwise is as happy and energetic as most 3-year-olds. Jonathan, whom Janet home-schools, has had health problems since birth. And the babies they foster almost always have special medical and emotional needs.
Janet works from home about 20 hours per week. Rick also works from home, keeping full-time hours as an engineer. They say that helps in many ways, because they’re always there with the kids. Then again, they say, they’re always at home with the kids.
“It can be difficult when your kids need attention, and you’re trying to talk to customers,” Rick says. “It gets pretty hectic.”
“You can be very tired at the end of the day,” Janet says. Both use remarkable restraint in describing daily life with young children. Then again, they may simply be too tired for verbosity.
Of course, any parent with small children will tell you that hard work and little sleep is just part of the job. What the Tanners do for their children, be they fostered, natural or adopted, is what most any parents with three kids do. The difference is, they do it with no idea how long the foster child will be around. Someone could take him away in a week, or a year. Or they might be the only parents he ever knows.
Who would volunteer for such a life? Someone who felt they were destined to care for other people’s children.
“It’s funny, because I really never was into babies that much when I was younger,” she says. “But I feel like God called us for it.”
One important source of encouragement and replenishment for the Tanners is their involvement in Foster & Adoptive Parents of North Texas. Janet serves as the group’s president.
“It’s really important to keep foster parents healthy, to keep them from burning out,” she says. “It’s a wonderful group, and we’re truly each other’s support.”
When the couple first thought of fostering, both agreed it would be too hard to let go of a child they had cared for. But later, when Janet heard about Dallas-area kids being sent all over the state due to a lack of foster homes, her concern for children took over her concern for her own feelings.
“Something touched me,” she says. “I called my husband, and God seemed to change our hearts. We called the number, got some information in the mail and started classes.”
The process of letting go, she has learned, is not as hard as she feared. “The secret is learning to keep it more about the children than about us,” Janet says. “We feel we’re here to heal them and take care of them until they can hopefully go back to their family.”
After one leaves, “you have to believe they’re in a good place and doing OK,” she says. Though it’s hard not knowing how they’re doing, “too much knowledge isn’t always a good thing.”
And before long, they’re ready to welcome another child into their home.
“I miss it,” she says, “and just knowing there are so many out there in need makes me want to take another one.”
One look at the numbers will tell you just how great that need is. In Dallas County, almost 4,000 children are under the care of the state, and fewer than 400 foster homes are licensed to house them. The huge difference between those numbers is what keeps the Tanners doing what they do.
“We as a society say we’ll take care of these kids who don’t have anyone, but so few people really do,” she says. “It’s a big responsibility — even bigger to take care of someone else’s child than your own. But we love doing it. And it feels really good to help them.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.