Early last December, a few weeks before Christmas, Billings retirees Velma Jean and Roland Short greeted an unexpected arrival — a 2-day-old baby girl.
When Jean, an energetic 68-year-old, picked up the newborn at the hospital, the nurse gave her a terse summary of the infant’s history. The birthmother used methamphetamine, and the baby tested positive for the drug at birth.
“When the nurse told me she’s a meth baby, I had to turn away, because I had tears going down,” Jean said.
The couple cared for the infant for three months. Jean and her husband, who is 74, shared night feedings until the infant slept through the night.
The couple, who do emergency foster care for the state’s Children’s Protective Services, have had nearly 80 children temporarily placed in their home in the last 1-1/2 years. They can have up to six children at once.
Doing emergency foster care hasn’t changed how the couple celebrates holidays, but it makes it harder to predict who will join them at the table for holiday meals.
Through the end of November, Children’s Protective Services had placed 77 children into emergency foster care in Yellowstone County and another 49 children directly into a relative’s care. Of those 126 children, 15 of those cases were related to methamphetamine use.
The agency tries to keep four families in Yellowstone County willing to take emergency foster care placements, but only three handle the load at the moment.
During the 20 days a month the Shorts spend “on call,” children from newborns to 18-year-olds can arrive at any time of day.
Jean welcomes them outside her front door.
“The first thing I do is hug ’em,” she said.
The children who are old enough to have an idea of what’s going on, often arrive demoralized and disoriented, with their chins hanging down.
“Sometimes, they tell me their problems,” she said. “I just listen. I don’t give them any advice. I just listen.”
The Shorts have taken in young children who were left home alone and children who sat in the car while their parents got drunk.
Police picked up one 2-year-old who was walking down the street alone at 1 a.m. A 3-year-old was found during a drug bust. The smell of drugs clung to his clothes.
“You have to be ready for whatever comes in,” Jean said.
She keeps a supply of diapers and formula, bottles and sippy cups.
Three high chairs line the walls of the kitchen in the couple’s mobile home. Another two high chairs are tucked in a storage shed. Four cribs fill one bedroom.
The list of equipment includes six strollers, two bassinets, two playpens and assorted sizes of clothing. In October, she had six foster children; the oldest was 5.
While some children stay a single night, others stay much longer.
The infant born before last Christmas spent three months with them before being placed in foster care with a relative.
“She had such a smiley face when she woke up in the morning,” Jean said.
“She was just such a sweetheart. It broke my heart to let her go. I cried for days, but I do with all of them. I just keep a lot of Kleenexes around.”
This Christmas may bring another tearful farewell.
For the last six months, the couple has cared for twin toddlers. Sometime before Christmas, they expect the twins to be placed into a permanent home, a “forever family,” as Jean describes it.
“It’s going to be hard when these twins leave. We’ve gone through a lot together,” she said.
After months of coaxing, she was the one who heard them say their first words in July.
“I kept working on them every day, and, all the sudden, just boom.”
Their first word was “Mom.”
The twins have never known their birthmother.
“They’ve really really filled our hearts with a lot of love,” Jean said.
She and Roland have been married for 18 years.
Although Roland pictured himself in retirement sitting on a boat, fishing, he takes an active role in the children’s care. He has three grown children and a grandchild from a previous marriage, while she has three grown children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Her whole family just took to the twins, she said. Her son has a set of 13-year-old twins.
“They just had such smiley faces and their love and hugs. They love to curl up in your lap.”
Although caseworkers have told Jean she needs to learn how to let go, she’s not exactly sure how to do it.
She plans to write out a list of the twins’ likes and dislikes to help them get started with their new family. She has been reassured that the twins are going to a good home, and she hopes to be able to stay in contact with them.
Before Christmas, she expects the twins to get an afternoon visit with their new parents, a daylong visit and then an overnight visit with them before she has to say goodbye.
“When they put them in that car, there will be tears,” she said.
She’ll probably keep the Kleenex handy and be ready to greet the next children at her door.
Contact Donna Healy at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1292.