Editor's note: To protect their privacy, the Ledger-Enquirer isn't depicting Cassandra, identifying her last name or the names of her children.
Carlene and Dondi Hydrick of Pine Mountain have fostered 62 children during the past eight years.
When she is asked why they continue to be foster parents despite clearly doing more than their fair share, Carlene likes to tell her version of the Starfish Story: "There are thousands of starfish on the beach, and a little boy is throwing them into the ocean. A man tells him, 'Son, there are miles and miles of these. You can't make a difference.' And the boy picks up one and throws it into the ocean and says, 'I just made a difference for that one.'"
To show that difference, Carlene agreed to tell her fostering story, highlighted this spring by the reunion of a LaGrange woman named Cassandra with her four daughters.
According to statistics provided by the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, there were 8,547 children in the state receiving foster care in February 2014 and 330 in Muscogee County on April 29, 2014. Georgia has followed the national trend of significantly reducing the number of children in foster care. On the last day of fiscal year 2003, there were 13,578 children in Georgia and 509,986 children in the U.S. in foster care. By the last day of fiscal year 2012, the state number had dropped by 44 percent to 7,671 and the national number had dropped by 22 percent to 397,122.
"We try to really focus on keeping the children in their home," said Jessica Bryan, a social services case manager in the Meriwether County DFCS office. "It's always first and foremost. If we can put services in the home, we can help those parents be more independent."
Still, the need for more foster parents is great. As of April 9, about 32 percent of the foster children in Georgia were placed in a foster home outside of their region because not enough were available locally.
"There is always a need for families who can help provide homes for these children in or near their hometowns," Bryan said. "A foster child's life is disrupted enough without the added chance that they will have to move from their community and families and adjust to a new school, friends, sports, clubs, church, etc."
Folks such as the Hydricks are addressing that need. Carlene, 50, and Dondi, 54, a Special Ops dog trainer at Fort Benning, have two biological daughters, ages 32 and 25, and two adopted sons, ages 7 and 6. Carlene and Dondi talked about becoming foster parents while they lived in South Carolina, but they held off until she went on a mission trip in 2006 to Houston, where she helped disadvantaged children. So she was more attuned to such a need when she returned home, and she and Dondi heeded the South Carolina ad campaign calling for more foster parents. The need was so urgent, they received their first placement call the day after they contacted the Department of Social Services.
They fostered that brother-sister pair, a 4-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, for three years.
"I learned a lot about the foster system, testifying in court, and being a voice for the children who are placed in our home because of those two sweet kids," Carlene said.
After moving to Pine Mountain in 2012, Carlene and Dondi continued being foster parents.
"Many of these children come in needing to learn how to function as part of a family, learning that there are house rules, understanding expectations, and having respect for themselves and others," Carlene said.
The longest period of time they've gone without a foster child in their home the past eight years is 2½ weeks, with the exception of the six months it took to get licensed in Georgia after moving from South Carolina. Their shortest foster stint was 23 hours. A 2-day-old baby was brought from the hospital at 4 p.m., and at 3 p.m. the next day, the grandmother brought an attorney and left with the baby. Their longest stint was three years and two months with their first two foster children.
Cassandra's aunt instigated the process that led to DFCS taking away her daughters -- ages 3 months, 15 months, 2½ years and 6 years -- in September 2012. The aunt accused Cassandra, 30, of going to clubs while she left her children at home.
Her mother died 2½ years ago, and she said her two siblings didn't stick up for her, so Cassandra had to defend herself against her aunt's allegations during the hearing at the courthouse in Greenville.
"They said it was neglect," she said. "They said I was mentally unstable, but it wasn't proven."
"When her children were taken away," Carlene said, "everybody she knew disowned her, because they think you must be a horrible, terrible, awful person if DFCS takes your children. The kicker is they have to pay child support while their child is in the care of DFCS."
Cassandra's children arrived at the Hydricks' home later that month. Foster children often arrive with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. Carlene keeps a room full of toys and books. She uses the stipend from DFCS to buy clothes she would be proud to put on her own children.
"I'm a very frugal shopper, but these foster children wear Gymboree and Children's Place clothes," she said. "They don't wear Walmart clothes, and we don't eat at McDonald's. I want them to know there's something better for them out there."
They also experienced life in ways that didn't seem possible in their home environment. The Hydricks took Cassandra's children to the beach, Six Flags and the Georgia Aquarium, and the 6-year-old participated in cheerleading and basketball.
Cassandra was allowed to visit her daughters for two hours each week at the Division of Family and Children Services office in Meriwether County. During their initial visits, Carlene sensed hostility from Cassandra.
"She wouldn't look at me or address me, so I couldn't deal with her initially," Cassandra said. "That's what I told DFACS. I can't be where she is. I can't take the children to the visit and be in the room where she is. If y'all are going to let her in the room, I'm going to give you the children to y'all at the door, and then I'm going to leave. We're supposed to go through the back door and they're supposed to go through the front door. I'm the easiest person to have a problem with, in her face with her children."
Visits often can be teary, especially the first couple of months, Carlene said, "But children are very resilient. They just come to accept that this is the way their life works right now. More often than not, children in foster care already have had the experience of being in and out of homes."
Carlene sensed Cassandra's anger at the situation being directed at her.
"I had her children living in my home and I was the easiest person to be angry with," Carlene said. "She saw me every week with her children doing the things that she could not do. She watched as I loaded them up and took them to a place they called home but not a place where she was living. She had to watch as they came to rely on me to meet their needs."
And she had to hear her children call that woman "Mama." Cassandra's daughters started calling her Mama about six months into their foster stay.
"In spite of our best efforts to change it, they started to call us Mama and Daddy," Carlene said. "They were just babies and they needed to feel like they belonged. We were the adults in their lives who were caring for them and that is the typical label that goes along with that role. That is what they heard our children call us, so it just happens."
Understandable, yes. Bearable, not so much.
"I cannot imagine one of my children calling somebody else Mama and I had to listen to it," Carlene said. "That's why I commend Cassandra. As sad as it was, she took it in stride."
Cassandra figured, "Because she took my place for a year and a half, my children trusted her. So why not let them call her Mama? They knew I still was their real mama."
When one of her adopted sons asked her why the foster children were calling her Mama, Carlene explained, "These children are here because they can't be at their house and they need somebody to be their mama and daddy now."
Here's what she tells the foster children when they arrive: "While you're here, I do all the stuff that a mama is supposed to do. We all have jobs in life. Everybody has a role, and my job is to be here and do all the mommy things. Your job is to be here and do good in school and get along with everybody else and be part of this family."
And here's what she tells the foster children if they ask why they were taken away from their parents:
"Sometimes adults make bad decisions, and the sad part of that is that sometimes it's not just the adult that pays the price. Sometimes children end up in bad circumstances, but the good part of it is that you got to come stay with me and I got to meet you."
Foster parents must have 20 hours of initial training, plus annual renewal training.
DFCS sends an official to check on the foster children once a month and another official for checking on the foster parents and their home, Carlene said.
Georgia allows more interaction between the biological and foster parents than South Carolina does.
"South Carolina keeps it separate; they only want them to know we exist," Carlene said. "Georgia encourages that the foster family and the biological family work together. In Georgia's experience, it has been that the children do better when they see that adults can get along."
Ironically, Cassandra's effort to find appropriate housing for her children took her from Manchester to LaGrange in February 2013, but that meant she couldn't get the transportation she needed to attend the visits. That's when Carlene started driving to LaGrange to pick her up and taking her to the DFCS office for the visits. And their icy relationship melted into a compassionate partnership to benefit those girls. Soon, DFCS permitted them to conduct the visits in LaGrange alone. Carlene was considered the supervisor.
They met at Granger Park in LaGrange or at a Burger King and chatted as the children played.
Cassandra used to "cry and carry on" when it was time to end the visits, Carlene said, but she stopped when reminded that "it upsets the kids."
Cassandra's oldest daughter asked her, "Mommy, don't you love us anymore?" She replied through her tears, "I never stopped loving you."
Through 18 months of willpower and prayer, Cassandra said, she did what DFCS required to get her daughters back. She passed drug tests and mental health assessments. She attended sessions for counseling, anger management and substance abuse. She secured a job and stable housing. She now works the third shift at a Waffle House in LaGrange.
While she missed her daughter, she repeatedly told herself, "Keep your head up and just pray. Even though you're made with whoever, just keep your head up and pray. Being bitter is not going to get your anywhere. Every day is not smooth sailing. There were weeks on end that I cried. Holidays and birthdays were hard. But you have to humble yourself. I had to let a lot of people go who said they had my back but didn't, and I found God."
After DFCS took her four daughters away, Cassandra birthed a son, now 7 months old. Cassandra, her four daughters and one son now live with the son's father.
"He opened up his house and let me bring the girls home," Cassandra said. "The other two fathers are mad because I'm pursuing child support."
Carlene was joyful to see Cassandra reunited with her children. She also misses them.
"It's a little bit sad, particularly if they've been here for a very long time, because it changes the dynamic of our whole entire house," Carlene said. "But the happiness for those children to be able to go back far outweighs the little bit of sadness that we might have, because that's the place they need to be. To see the moms and dads, whoever it might be, to make those changes to meet the DFCS requirements and to be able to get their children back and to see how happy they are, I mean "
She got too choked up to finish the sentence.
And when she has to say farewell to children who called her Mama, she acknowledged, "It's not really easy, but you sort of guard your heart."
Carlene proudly emphasized that none of the 62 children she and Dondi fostered left their house for another foster home. Seven has returned to at least one of the biological parents, including Cassandra's four children, and the rest have been adopted or placed with a relative.
Carlene has stayed in touch with Cassandra through texting. The families also have visited each other a few times.
"She is a very smart, articulate woman who loves her kids," Carlene said. "Whatever troubles she may have had that brought DFCS into the picture, she was able to use that time to learn and grow and do what needed to be done to get her children back. I'm very glad she made choices that were right for her and her girls."
Privacy laws prevent Bryan, the DFCS case manager for Cassandra, from answering questions about the case, but she can express her opinion of Carlene as a foster mother.
"She is the biggest cheerleader for families while they work to resolve safety issues so their children can return home," Bryan said. "She understands that foster care is intended to be temporary, and she works tirelessly to provide the best home away from home for the children in her care."
Cassandra gushed about the positive impact Carlene has had on her.
"She is an awesome woman," Cassandra said. "I could her and text-cry to her anytime. She would call me or text me back until I vented everything I wanted out."
Carlene bought her children bunk beds, Cassandra said, to celebrate their coming home.
"That lady has a heart of gold," Cassandra said.
It took her oldest daughter a couple of days to get used to the idea of being back home with her mother.
"She wouldn't talk to me at first," Cassandra said. "That hurt so bad."
Cassandra struggled to find the words to describe her emotion when the girls finally returned. She settled on these: "It felt great. I fought for them for 18 months."
The Hydricks have had four foster children come and go since Cassandra was able to regain custody. She talked as a 4-year-old boy named B.B. finished his cereal and drew pictures in her kitchen.
"I said we were going to take a break, but we ended up accepting B.B. and his brother, who's 6," she said. "His brother actually got a pretty quick turnaround, was able to go to a family member, to an aunt or somebody. That's always the preferred place, with a family member."
The few times she gets overwhelmed and the phone rings again, Carlene said, "If we've had two or three foster children in the home and we could have another one, and they call, you're tired but you're like, 'Well, maybe one more wouldn't be bad.'"
But her phone keeps ringing with more need at the other end of the line.
"We had a call the other day," Carlene said. "There was 2-month-old, a 12-month-old and a 21-month-old. I mean, one right behind the other, and I said we can't do that right now."
But they continue being foster parents, Carlene said, because they continue to see the need.
"I know and my husband knows as long as we take children into our home, there are children being taken care of the way they should be taken care of," she said. "We can be a positive influence for those children, but also for all the people who see us with those children."
The Hydricks' home is certified to accommodate as many as six children. With their two adopted sons, that means they have room for four foster children at one time, unless they receive an emergency waiver for more.
She takes a photo of every foster child the first day they arrive. Those 62 photos remain on a computer file, but she intends to put them in an album to share if any of them come back for a visit as adults.
Or how about hanging them on her living room wall along with photos of her two biological daughters and two adopted sons?
"We need to do that for our foster children," she said, then added with a laugh, "but we don't have a big enough wall."
To learn more about becoming a foster parent, call 1-877-210-KIDS.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter