Foster Families: Meet The Berrys

Dennis and Natalie Berry with their children, Chase and Juliana, on their family farm in Garland County.
Dennis and Natalie Berry with their children, Chase and Juliana, on their family farm in Garland County.

On approach to the home of Dennis and Natalie Berry in Garland County, a child notices the roaming barnyard animals: chickens, turkeys, goats, pot bellied pigs.

At the door, the family dogs greet – one a tail wagger, the other a barker.

Come in, welcome, set down your bags. Are you hungry? Here’s the bedroom where you’ll sleep. Do you use a nightlight? Let me give you a quick tour of the house, then the other children will introduce you to the farm animals. Before dinner we clean up; soiled clothes go straight into the laundry. Here are stacks of pajamas, take your pick.

The first night’s dinner is familiar, comforting food; perhaps a Hot Pocket or pizza roll. Definitely ice cream for a treat. Who can be tense while eat- ing ice cream?

More than 170 children have come to the Berry foster home for a safe place to lay their heads until they can return home again, whether for a night, a week, or months.

The focus for initial hours and days is about softening the childrens’ stress, de-escalating fear, and acclimating them to the Berry’s busy lifestyle.

Because the Berrys do maintain their active routine. Whatever children are in their household, they bring them along – to luncheons, dinner parties, Razorback and Travelers games, church functions, the lake. They visit Florida or their Oklahoma farm to ride four- wheelers and motorcycles and chase cows.

The kids are often unaccustomed to the lifestyle. Some are surprised to sit night after night at a dinner table and be served a meal like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, green beans, and a big glass of milk.

Some kids don’t understand healthy attachment – an expression of love or support feels uncomfortable. Hygiene habits may be lax.

“These kids are not your biological children. They’ve been living in different circumstances and environments. They have a different set of expectations and a different way of accepting rules than our own children,” Dennis says.

“It takes them a while to understand. And so we really need to be attentive to what the kids’ needs are and to give them distance. We have to use a lot of grace with the children that come into our home.”

The Berrys went through training to become foster parents in 2007, when a relative was facing tough times and they wanted to care for her children should she lose custody. During the training, they felt stunned by the dire need for foster parents in Arkansas.

“We found out how bad the situation is. There were several thousand children in care and not nearly enough homes. And we said, How can we be so selfish to only take our nephew and nieces into care? So we told the Department of Children Family Services that once we completed training, we would take any children that they needed us to take.”

Fifteen years later, they’re still saying ”Yes” to the calls.

Typically the Berrys have one, two, or more siblings placed in their home for six to nine months or the life of the case.

“But there are so few homes and so few beds available, because a lot of foster homes are full already. So when the DCFS worker calls us, we’ll also take kids into care at night or for the weekend while the worker is calling other foster families, trying to find a more long-term placement.”

Dennis wants people to deeply consider opening their homes, particularly those in their 20s and 30s with youthful time and energy.

“The impact you can have on the kid, the hope you can give them. These kids are going to be in our community and they’re going to be part of our future. Do we want these kids to be struggling or do we want them to have the hope and the opportunity to see there’s another way to make their lives better?

“People need to understand that when DCFS calls you to take a child, they’re going to tell you about the children and the situation, and you’re going to be able to make an educated decision, not rushed, and decide whether you’re going to take that child or children,” he says. “The great part about being a foster parent is you have total control of when you say, ‘Yes, I’ll take the child,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’”

“Don’t feel rushed, don’t feel hurried about it, and do what’s right for you and your family. Unfortunately, so many kids have come into care and there’s not enough homes that those calls to take kids come quite often – while we’re sitting here talking about this need I’ve already had two texts asking if I will take in some kids.”

Dennis wants foster parents to be prepared and informed, so he helps with training and speaks to groups.

“I think for a family to go the distance, for a family to stay engaged in foster care, you have to really step into the role and trust and believe that DCFS will allow you to do everything you need to do as a parent to take care of that child.

“You are the parent. DCFS wants what’s best for the children. And as long as you’re doing what’s best for the children, they want you to do that for the child. They want you to enroll those kids in the Boys and Girls Club. They want you to enroll them in volleyball or baseball. As long as it’s what’s best for the children, we’re going to get the support of DCFS.

“And have a personal relationship with your DCFS workers. Show up at the DCFS office. They’re very appreciative of you. Sometimes they’re too busy to show that, and don’t take that personally. They need you, and they’re going to support you as best they can.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

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