Judy Schrader answered the emergency call from the Spotsylvania Department of Social Services.
There was a girl, a student at Chancellor High School, just a few blocks from the Schraders’ home, who needed a place to go right away. Her mother had become incapacitated and couldn’t take care of her. The problem was, there were no available foster homes in the county and the girl had burst into tears when told she might have to leave her friends as well as her family and go to a home in Louisa County.
All six bedrooms in the Schraders’ house were occupied—they were already fostering five other kids. But did they have room for one more?
Judy called her husband, Kent, and explained the situation.
“None of the girls want to share their rooms,” she told him. “What can we do?”
“He said, ‘There’s only thing we can do,’ and I thought he was going to say she’d have to go,” Judy remembered.
Instead, Kent said, “We’ll have to turn the dining room into a bedroom.”
And that’s what they did.
The Schraders have fostered a total of 79 kids—ranging in age from 3 months to 18 years old—in 20 years.
“We just round it to 80,” Kent Schrader, a mortgage loan officer, joked.
Of those 79, they keep in touch through visits, phone calls, text messages and emails with 30. They ended up adopting five, to add to their three biological children—even though they had no intention of adopting when they started their fostering journey.
“We know how bad the need is,” Kent said. “We have six bedrooms here—if one is empty, it should be filled. We’re a solution if there’s a problem.”
The Schraders started fostering in 1998. It was something they’d talked about for a while, but the impetus came when their daughter Diana’s friend was on the verge of being placed in foster care.
“Social services had been to her house,” Judy said. “Diana told everyone, ‘Don’t worry, my parents will take her.’”
They wanted this to be true, so they attended a RAFFT—Resource Adoptive Foster Families Team—training class that very evening. While prevention services worked to keep Diana’s friend with her family, the Schraders received their first foster placement very soon after they finished training.
And it was a challenging one. The girl had experienced sexual abuse and it became clear that she needed to be placed with trained therapeutic caregivers. Still, the Schraders had grown close to her and their kids saw her as a sibling.
“It was really heartbreaking [when she left],” Judy said. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this again.’”
But soon the phone was ringing again. There was a sibling group—ages 3, 8 and 11—who needed to leave an abusive foster home.
“They were getting out of the car and here comes this adorable 3-year-old,” Judy said. “And the first thing he says to me is, ‘Get the hell out of my way you mother-[expletive].’”
But at night, she said, he would tell her he was afraid to close his eyes because “that’s when the monsters come.” He’d lie in bed holding his eyelids open with his fingers.
“Will this be my bed tomorrow?” he’d ask. And, “Why did it take you so long to find me? I was waiting for you for 100 years.”
The Schraders fell in love with the boy and his siblings and ended up adopting all three. They bought a bigger van, moved to a bigger house and Judy quit her job so she could be at home with the bigger family.
“We’ve learned that space, resources and time can be divided, but love multiplies,” Kent said.
And they kept fostering. In 20 years, there have only been two weeks when they didn’t have foster kids—a term they don’t even like.
“The kids come in and they’re part of our family right away,” Kent said. “They’re not ‘foster kids,’ they’re just kids.”
Sometimes Judy would get calls about placements and wouldn’t be able to reach Kent in advance to let him know, so there would be a new face around the table when he got home in the evening.
“I’d just say hello and introduce myself,” he said. “Later, I’d have to ask Judy if they lived here now or if they were just a friend of one of the other kids.”
For the last 10 years, the Schraders have taken mostly teenagers and have been told they’re one of the only families in the county who will accept that age group.
The teenagers have experienced more years of trauma and may present more challenges, but the Schraders said they gave each kid a fresh start and didn’t treat him or her as “a bad kid.”
“They’re not in trouble with us when they come,” Judy said. “That makes a huge difference to them. Kids who are known for trouble, we’ve had none with.”
Kent said he’s learned that younger kids need physical safety while older kids need emotional guidance and attention. And they can be the most fun.
“You would be amazed at how involved they are with you,” Judy said. “I would have thought they would isolate themselves.”
The Schraders adopted their second sibling group of two when both of the children were teenagers. The oldest was 18 and signed for herself to be adopted.
Kent said he never knew that you could adopt an adult.
“Eighteen-year-olds aren’t meant to live without their parents,” Judy said. “Where are they going to go for Thanksgiving? Christmas? They need somewhere they can come home to.”
When kids reach the age of 18, they are legally adults and can “age out” of foster care, although a recent program—Fostering Futures—allows them to continue to receive services through the age of 21, if they wish.
The prospects for kids who age out of the system without achieving permanency—reunification with their families, adoption or guardianship—are grim. Of the 23,000 who age out each year, 20 percent become homeless, less than 3 percent earn a college degree and 70 percent of young women will be pregnant by age 21.
The Schraders know that two of their former foster kids are in jail or prison—one for 21 years. They know several who left high school as soon as they turned 18, without graduating. One of them now has three children.
They know one who ran away from a group home and is still missing. They know one who reunited with his mother only to have her steal all his money and leave him again.
They know many suffered from abuse and neglect before they came to their house.
“There was one little girl who would get down on the ground and cover her head with her hands when she thought she was in trouble,” Judy said.
“We have experienced a lot of things,” she continued. “We both came from sheltered, safe homes. The things we’ve heard have been heartbreaking and eye-opening.”
The Schraders retired from fostering in July. Their last foster kid was successfully reunited with her dad.
“It was a happy ending,” Kent said. “But the majority are not.”
Every Christmas, the Schraders set up a tree with ornaments dedicated to each one of the 79 children they’ve housed throughout the years.
“So we can remember them and pray for them and honor them,” Judy said. “Our lives have been changed and touched by all of these kids. We just hope they have a moment, wherever they are, when they know they were loved and safe.”