182 – Dr. John DeGarmo, of Monticello, GA, Father of Six, Foster Parent to More Than 60 & Outspoken Foster Care Advocate
Our guest this week is Dr. John DeGarmo of Monticello, GA. John and his wife, Kelly, are parents to six children and have opened their hearts and home to more than 60 foster children. John is founder of the Foster Care Institute, the country’s premiere resource for all things foster care. His TEDx Talk entitled: ‘Children In Need: Children Ignored’ has been viewed more than 25K times. John has also authored 11 books about being a foster parent — and he’s our guest on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
The Foster Care Institute – https://www.drjohndegarmofostercare.com/home.html
John’s Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=Dr.%20John%20DeGarmo
John’s Youtube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+Degarmo
TEDx Talk ‘Children In Need: Children Ignored’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JQYUp6sEbY
Book – ‘Fostering Love’ – https://www.amazon.com/Fostering-Love-Foster-Parents-Journey-ebook/dp/B0793QBX3N/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=dr.+John+Degarmo+Fostering+Love&qid=1626980686&sr=8-1
Book – ‘Faith & Foster Care’ – https://www.amazon.com/Faith-Foster-Care-Impact-Kingdom/dp/1596694726/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=dr.+John+Degarmo+Faith+%26+Foster+Care&qid=1626980743&sr=8-1
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) – https://nationalcasagal.org
John’s Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
John DeGarmo: To be sure, the lifestyle of a foster parent is a very unique one. It is a lifestyle of sacrifice, but we were very, very willing to lead that lifestyle, to make those sacrifices. And we also felt it was beneficial for our own children too, to see kids come into their home who have experienced different things.
And I think my children have learned as much as I have by being a foster sibling. They’ve learned to open up their hearts for others. They’ve learned to serve others. They’ve learned to help others. They’ve learned to share all that they have.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest this week, Dr. John DeGarmo. John and his wife Kelly are parents to six children, and they have shared their home over the years with over 60 foster children. He formed the Foster Care Institute. He’s an engaging public speaker. He’s written close to a dozen books about being a foster parent. And he’s our guest on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Say hello to our host, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search Dad to Dad.
Tom Couch: And now let’s hear this fascinating conversation between John DeGarmo and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I am thrilled to be talking today with Dr. John DeGarmo of Monticello, Georgia, who’s the father of six and foster parent to more than 60. He’s also an author, a TEDx speaker, and an outspoken advocate for improving the foster care system locally and on a global basis.
John, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
John DeGarmo: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
David Hirsch: You and your wife Kelly have been married for 27 years and are the proud parents of six children, ages eight to 24, and foster parents to more than 60 children over the past 17 years.
Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
John DeGarmo: Well, I was born in New York, moved to Delaware for a while, but mainly my childhood was spent in Battle Creek, Michigan. I had a younger sister, traditional family, you know, the father worked, the mother stayed at home. Again, your traditional nuclear family in the seventies and eighties, if you will.
David Hirsch: Excellent. I believe your dad worked for Post cereal in Battle Creek. I’m wondering, what type of relationship did you have with your dad?
John DeGarmo: I had a good relationship. I still have a very good relationship with my father. He taught me some great skills—hard work ethic, honesty, character.
David Hirsch: And are there any important takeaways when you think about your dad and his parenting that you’ve tried to incorporate into your own parenting?
John DeGarmo: Consistency. Hard work ethic. My father was a hard worker, and I try to instill that in all the children that have come through my home, because we know that not many children today have that same type of mindset, if you will.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I think it’s really important that kids develop these characteristics, and even if it’s not something that they’ve heard, hopefully maybe they witnessed it. What I think I heard you saying is that they don’t have these role models.
John DeGarmo: That’s correct.
David Hirsch: Good work ethic, honest, faithful, and if they say they’re going to do something, they’re going to follow through and do something.
We’ll talk about foster care in a minute, but I know that one of the rubs about the foster care system is that these kids just get bounced around. There’s a lot of inconsistency. So I think that your point about being consistent is really, really, important.
So I’m thinking about other father role models, and I’m wondering what, if any, role your grandfathers played, first on your dad’s side and then on your mom’s side.
John DeGarmo: Well, I wasn’t really too close to either of my grandparents. They died when I was young, so there wasn’t that relationship there. You know, I hate to say that the best role model for me later on was my wife when I met her. I met her when I was 21 years of age, and she really helped shape a lot of who I am today in regards to serving others, in regards to my faith, and in regards to my parenting, to be sure.
David Hirsch: Excellent. So out of curiosity, how did you and Kelly meet?
John DeGarmo: Oh, we met in a performing group. We traveled the world singing and dancing. She’s from Australia, I’m American. And we traveled with people from 27 different countries in our cast for a year, and we became very, very good friends during the course of that travel.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So my recollection was that your education was in education itself. You have a doctorate in education, and I’m wondering, what did you do your undergrad in, your master’s, and how did that influence your career direction?
John DeGarmo: Undergraduate was in education, teaching history and English. Masters and specialists were in media technology as well as educational leadership. At the time I thought I wanted to become a school principal or superintendent, something along those lines.
In 2010, I recognized that is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to focus my attention on helping children. That was what I felt called to do. So my doctorate was in that. My doctorate was in how you bring foster parents, case workers and teachers together to help children in foster care who are slipping through the cracks in a school setting.
David Hirsch: And where did your career take you as a result of that?
John DeGarmo: Well, it took me to founding the Foster Care Institute. It took me to being a consultant to foster care agencies around the world, took me to being a legal consultant for law firms, an expert witness for law firms. You know, it just opened up so many doors.
David Hirsch: So you did not pursue a traditional career path for somebody with the educational background that you have.
John DeGarmo: No. And to be sure, it wasn’t something I ever planned on either. I never planned on being a foster parent. I never planned on getting my doctorate. I never planned on writing the books. Those weren’t ever on my five year, ten year, 15 year plan.
David Hirsch: In addition to the role model that Kelly was, what do you think was the inspiration for pursuing this?
John DeGarmo: Well, years ago I thought I did want to go into educational leadership, so I did my master’s. And then I thought, well, this isn’t too hard. So then I went to the specialist and the doctorate, again with a mindset that this would lead me into a leadership role in school county where I live.
But when I began the doctorate program, I did it based on what it was my passion, and that was foster care. And then when I finished the doctorate, I recognized, yeah, this is where my true passion is. My passion lies in bringing awareness, being an advocate, helping these children and families.
David Hirsch: So where did starting your own family and experiencing foster care yourself fit into your education?
John DeGarmo: Well, my oldest child is 24. She was born in 1997. Of course, our first child died in 1996 of something called anencephaly, a condition where the brain or skull never truly forms.
And then we had three healthy children, moved back to the United States from Australia. I was working in a town filled with great apathy and tremendous poverty. Generational poverty, if you will, and generational apathy. Then I realized in the school where I was working at the time that there were many students in my classroom who were victims of neglect and abuse in their own home, coming through my classroom.
I was seeing issues of attendance, academics, behavior, and I recognized that it starts in the home. So that’s where our foster parenting led to. I asked my wife one day, “You know, I’ve got a student who is a senior in high school, and she’s pregnant with triplets. What if I brought them home?” We didn’t bring those triplets home, but that discussion led to foster parenting. And then it just kind of evolved from there.
David Hirsch: So you had your biological kids first, and then you started foster, or were they mixed in?
John DeGarmo: No, our biological first. The kids were six, five, and three when our first child from foster care came to join us
David Hirsch: So roll the clock. To that point, John, you have a relatively young family. There’s a lot going on, right? Because now they outnumber you. you’re playing zone defense to start with. And you’ve decided to open up your hearts and open up your home to a foster care situation. What was that first experience like? What were the circumstances?
John DeGarmo: Well, I recognized in the very first placement that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I went through all the training. My wife has a degree in psychology. I was a teacher. We went through the classes. I thought, I’m ready for this. How hard can this be?
And then 10:30 at night, a four year old child and a six month old child came to join our home, and I recognized within 20 minutes that my training did not prepare me for this, because these kids were filled with tremendous anxiety and had suffered a lot of trauma.
But I think what surprised me the most was I thought these kids would be happy to be in my home—and that was the farthest thing from the truth. They were scared, they were frightened, they were confused, they were filled with anxiety.
They had been taken from everything that was familiar to them. That might be a lifestyle of abuse, but again, that’s their norm, and that’s their mommy and their daddy. Even though their mommy and daddy abused them tremendously, that’s their mommy and daddy. And here they are, 10:30 at night, placed with strangers outside of everything that they knew. It was a very frightening time, and I wasn’t ready for that.
David Hirsch: So how long did that first placement last, and how did that play out?
John DeGarmo: They were with us for four months. And then when they left to go live with their grandparents, that was the second time I was not prepared. I was not prepared for the feelings I was experiencing. I was not prepared for the feelings of heartache. Here are two children that I’ve come to love very strongly and was trying to protect from all harm and trying to help heal. And they had become very much a part of my family because they’re with us 24 hours a day.
So I was not prepared for those feelings of, “Oh my gosh, my heart is breaking.” I’d read about this, but I didn’t think it was really going to happen. And it hurt. It hurt. I came home one day, and there’s my wife on the floor crying, in tears over these children who had left our home. So I wasn’t prepared for that either. But you know what a wonderful experience it was for me, because it made me a better person.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, it sounds like all the preparation in the world—watching videos, talking to people, reading as much as you must have done—can’t completely prepare you for the reality. It sounds like it would have been a shocking experience—my words not yours. But you had admitted you were not ready for assuming the responsibility.
And then four months later, reality knocks again. And the fact that they’re not in your lives leaves a gap or a void. It’s hard to communicate what that feels like until you’ve gone through the experience yourself. So I’m wondering, where did that lead you, or how did that influence the next decision you and Kelly made?
John DeGarmo: Well, we were ready to do it again, because there are so many children in our area of the state, and across the United States, who need families, we still felt called to do this. To be sure the lifestyle of foster parent is a very unique one. It is a lifestyle of sacrifice, and we were very, very willing to lead that lifestyle, to make those sacrifices. And we also felt it was beneficial for our own children too, to see kids come into their home, siblings, if you will, who have experienced different things.
And I think my children have learned as much as I have by being a foster sibling. They’ve learned to open up their hearts for others. They’ve learned to serve others. They’ve learned to help others. They’ve learned to share all that they have with others, and they recognize blessings they have and how others might suffer.
I think my own kids are the very first ones to step up and say, “Hey, we need to help this person who’s in need.” So when those first two children left us, we were left with feelings of grief and loss. So we took a little bit time to heal, to be sure, and then we were ready for the next one to come.
David Hirsch: And what was the next experience like?
John DeGarmo: The next one was so very different. So very different. In fact, that’s the topic of my Ted talk. She was seven years of age, and she had come from an environment of sexual abuse and neglect and abandonment, and suffered from some types of anxiety disorders that were very different from the others.
You know, one thing I learned over the years is that every child is very, very different. Every child is very, very unique. So when a child’s placed into a foster care home, it means it’s going to be a very unique situation every single time. They might have similar anxieties, but they’re going to bring whole new experiences.
So it’s never boring. It’s never monotonous. It’s always an adventure. It’s always a journey of learning and of recognizing, okay, we need to shift here. Parenting is so different for every child, and because we’ve had over 60 plus kids come through our home, I’ve recognized that what might work with one child is not going to work with another child. But it’s been a grand adventure.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well the second experience, like you said, was very much different from the first. I’m wondering over what period of time that transpired as well.
John DeGarmo: About a year and a half, two years.
David Hirsch: Okay. And did you have other children in your house, other foster care children at the same time, or just the one?
John DeGarmo: Oh sure. They were coming and going. Others would come and go, but she was there for almost two years.
David Hirsch: So it sounds like there was more stability in her life as a result of coming into your home over that two year period of time. And do you still keep in contact with her, or many of the others that you have fostered?
John DeGarmo: I keep in contact with her and some others. That’s right. You know, what I remind foster parents sometimes is when a child’s returned to their birth parents or biological family members, which is known as reunification, there are those times when the birth parents are still suffering from their own challenges, their own trauma, their own anxiety, the help that they needed.
So they see us as a foster parents as the bad guy, so to speak. So they shut us out of their lives, because we might be a part of their past that they don’t want to recognize or acknowledge or remember. It might be a reminder of the poor choices they may have made. So we keep in touch with as many as we possibly can. Unfortunately, that’s not many.
David Hirsch: Okay. Well thank you for your transparency about that and you know, shedding a light on the reality of the situation. I think one of the reasons people are hesitant to engage as foster care parents is the uncertainty. And you hear these stories all over the board, you know, the great stories and the nightmare type stories, and everything in between.
And you know, it takes a special type of person or couple to want to open their hearts up and want to open their homes up. And I’m wondering if there’s something you’ve learned more from a personal perspective. We’ll get into the work you’re doing on more of a professional perspective in a moment, but something you’ve learned from a personal perspective to be better prepared for the unknown.
John DeGarmo: To roll with it. To expect the unexpected. To be very, very flexible. To not be a perfectionist in any way. I mean, if you could look at the walls in my house, there are different color crayons on every single wall in my house. I gave that up a long time ago. I always say to my wife, “Well, one day maybe we can repaint these walls, but why should we, because we got so many young kids who are just going to go at it again.”
So yeah, to prepare the unexpected, to have a support system in place. Foster parenting is, as I said earlier, a very unique lifestyle. My own friends and family members, those closest to me, don’t truly understand or appreciate it. Because you have a child coming to your home who is suffering from anxiety, who has suffering from a lot of disorders, and is scared and frightened and is in a lot of pain, and most times don’t trust us, they have issues of attachment issues as a trust.
You know, it’s hard. 24 hours a day, it’s hard. Seven days a week, it’s hard. So they also don’t see the relationships that we build with these children and the attachments that we do build and the unconditional love that we give to each child. And when the child leaves their home, many foster parents experience those earlier feelings of grief and loss.
We also suffer from burnout, stress. We also suffer from something known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. You know, it’s hard. And maybe that’s why foster parents on average quit after about 18 months or two years, because they say this is just too difficult. And a lot of that is the heartbreak.
But you know, for me, I think the heartbreak is a gift to the child, because we might be the first person who’s ever loved that child unconditionally in a healthy fashion. So we’re given that child a gift of our heart. We might be the first person who has ever cried over that child. And again, that’s for that child.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for the insights. I’m sort of curious to know, because you and Kelly have fostered so many kids, 60 plus kids over the years, is there a particular age group that you prefer or that you think that you’re better prepared to help in the situation? Or does it go from the youngest kids, the newborns, all the way up to the teen years?”
John DeGarmo: 27 hours old, 18 years of age and everything in between. When we first started out, we had the unwritten rule that no child was going to be older than our oldest biological child. But I think maybe year four or five that went out the window—and for good, and it turned out great. That one turned out great.
I think we had the unwritten rule that we’re only going to have a certain amount of kids, but we’ve had as many as 11 at the same time. So that went out the window too. Then we had seven in diapers. You know, you learn to adapt, and you look at the situation.
But back to your question, some people are very good at fostering just infants. Some are with teenagers, some are with sibling groups, some are with special needs. We all have our strengths. You know, I’m not the perfect parent for every single child out there.
So I often tell foster parents, you need to know what your limit is. You need to know what your “no” is. And there have been a few times where my wife and I have said, “No, that’s not a good placement in our home. We’re not able to provide the specific resources and support system that child needs. It might not be a good fit for our own family as well.”
David Hirsch: And what I think I hear you saying is that timing has a lot to do with it, right? It depends on where you’re at with your own kids, if there are other foster kids in your house, the ability to accept additional responsibility, right? You just have to know, I think what you said was, what your limit is, or a sense for what your limit is.
John DeGarmo: You need to know what your ‘no’ is, because there may be some children that you are not gifted to care for. You might not be able to provide the resources the child needs, a specific support system the child needs.
Maybe you cannot provide the medical needs a child needs. Again, it might not be a good fit for your own family. It might not be a good time for your family. You might need a time to recoup, to re-heal, if you will.
David Hirsch: So one of the issues I think has to do with education, right? Once the kids are of school age, being kept either in the same school district or moving into a different school district. I’m wondering how you and Kelly have addressed that issue, and have you contemplated or maybe done some homeschooling along the way as well?
John DeGarmo: We’ve not homeschooled. Both my wife and I work full-time, but we have not homeschooled. We’ve considered it briefly, but it is very important that the children stay in the same school if they possibly can. And many times they’ve come to us from outside of our own county, some parts of the state.
When they do come to our home and go to a new school, it’s very hard for them because it’s a new school. When kids are placed from home to home to home, they often go from school to school to school and fall further and further behind. And that’s part of the reason why kids in foster care are 18 months behind academically on average, and have issues with reading and math skills. And that may be why 55% of them do quit school when they leave the system, when they age out of the system.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, that’s frightening, right? Because that’s one of the items of what I think of as collateral damage. It’s that they get bounced around, they get discouraged, and they get behind, and it’s really difficult to catch up if they don’t have a stable home environment, which many of us just take for granted in a nuclear family. And I really admire the commitment you and Kelly have made.
You touched on special needs, and I’m wondering if any of the foster care children that you’ve taken in the 60 plus kids have had special needs, and specifically what type of special needs?
John DeGarmo: Well, we had a child who was 10 weeks premature that came to us when the child was five weeks premature. The child weighed four pounds. was on a breathing respirator, and had to be bottle fed every hour and a half, 24 hours a day. That meant 11 o’clock at night, 12:30 at night, 2:00 a.m., 3:30 a.m., 5:00 a.m., and that was exhausting.
We’ve had children, many, many babies and infants, who have come to our home filled with drugs in their system. That is exhausting. Children with issues of anger management, sleep disorders, eating disorders. So I guess it’s your definition of special needs.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, one of the things I’ve learned with all the work that we’re doing with the Special Fathers Network, and we have 500 plus dads who are raising a child, or in some cases children with special needs, is that all kids have different needs. Some are just more special than others. And I think one of the challenges as a foster parent is to identify what those needs are and try to address those needs with whatever resources you have.
John DeGarmo: You know, when you’re holding a baby in your hands who is screaming for hours as the meth is weaning out of their bodies for weeks—that’s hard. Let me tell you. That’s hard. There’s nothing you can do to comfort that child. Those are some tough times.
Or you’ve got that child who is four years of age and can’t speak a single word, because the child’s been raped over and over and over again and has developed no vocabulary. Or the only two words they know at age five is “Me hungry,” and all the teeth are rotted out of their mouth. Again, each child is unique, each child is different, and they have their own challenges. Special needs, if you will.
David Hirsch: Yeah, good point. Your biological children, you have three, are in their twenties now, and I’m wondering what impact all this fostering has had on them.
John DeGarmo: Well, again I go back to what I said earlier. I think my children are better for it. They may never be a foster parent, but I also believe, and I can see it too, they all want to lead a life of helping others, of serving others, whether it is being a doctor, whether it is being a teacher, whether it is perhaps going into ministry.
They have seen and experienced things that most kids or most peers their age have never seen or experienced. They have seen up close and personal what it looks like to be abused, neglected, abandoned. I think my kids have a very compassionate side to them that many their age do not have. And I think that is because their norm is living in a house filled with other siblings, if you will, who all have a variety of anxieties. And that’s my kid’s norm.
David Hirsch: Yeah, it’s an important perspective. And I’m wondering, at what point in time have you and Kelly considered adopting with all these kids.
John DeGarmo: We’ve adopted three.
David Hirsch: And how old are they?
John DeGarmo: Our 14-year-old came to us when she was five days old. The 11-year-old came to us when she was 18 months old, and the nine-year-old came to us when she was 27 hours old.
David Hirsch: And how did you distinguish between those three and all the others that have come through?
John DeGarmo: Because those three were available for adoption. Their parental rights had been terminated and they were available for adoption. It was just a natural. You know, they were a family. And we’ve also had four failed adoptions, which means for some reason, four children that we’d hoped to adopt did not work out for whatever reason.
And that’s hard too. You know, again, these children become part of your family, and you’re going through the adoption process, and suddenly it goes awry, just sabotaged, or it goes wrong, or something happens unexpectedly. Shock, anger, denial—all the feelings of grief and loss.
David Hirsch: Is there any advice that you can give a parent or parents who are contemplating fostering, or are fostering, to help them be better prepared for those type of circumstances?
John DeGarmo: Sure, sure. First of all, you need to make sure that both you and your spouse or partner are on the same page. If you’re married, you need to make sure you’re both on the same page. You both have to be committed to this full-time, because if one does and one does not, it can destroy your relationship. It can destroy your marriage, for so many reasons. If you have your own children, you need to make sure your children are on page and involved as well.
You need to make sure you’ve got a strong support system of fellow foster parents. I often tell foster parents, “Join a local foster parent association or support group, so you can lean on each other, learn from each other, cry with each other, grieve with each other, vent with each other, without being judged, without fear of rejection, because these are people who have gone through the same thing you have, and they can guide you and give you wisdom on that.”
Also, as I said earlier, be very, very flexible. Know what your strengths are and your limitations. And continue to learn parenting skills each and every single day.
David Hirsch: Great advice. If I can summarize, plug yourself into a support system. That peer-to-peer support is critical. And be flexible. And continue to educate yourself, right? Don’t think that you know it all—it’s an evolving process.
So let’s switch gears and talk, not about your own personal experience like we have, but talk about what I would refer to as your professional experience. You’ve started the Foster Care Institute. When did that start? What’s the scope of the work you do, and who do you serve?
John DeGarmo: Perhaps started maybe 10 years ago. I work with foster care agencies and child welfare programs across the nation and globe. I provide resources, training, support services, webinars for foster care agencies, child welfare programs, foster parents. I work with legislators in Washington, DC, and across the nation on recognizing the true issues of foster care, bringing awareness to these issues.
I also serve as an expert witness for legal firms as well through the Foster Care Institute. So we do a number of things, and I think I come at it from a different perspective than most. You know, I’ve done all the research, I’ve collected all the data, I’ve analyzed all that, written the books.
At the same time, I’ve also lived the lifestyle of foster parent as well for 60 plus kids. So I can bring to you, here’s the analytical part and here is the real life part of being a foster parent.
David Hirsch: Well, it’s a unique experience that you bring, like you said, not only from a personal perspective, but from a professional perspective as well. And I’m wondering, what is your vision for the Foster Care Institute? What do you see the organization doing 10 years from now or 20 years from?
John DeGarmo: To be working more with legislators, to continue to work with child welfare programs across the country, to have more of a global scope as well. To be the one-stop shop, if you will, for foster parents, where they can find all their resources and information and books and webinars and articles, whatever it might be, that they need.
David Hirsch: That sounds very audacious, but God willing, hopefully you’ll be able to accomplish that. And I’m wondering just from my own personal curiosity, how does the US foster care system compare to the other developed countries, and then beyond?
John DeGarmo: You know, I think most people are surprised when I say the United States foster care system, as flawed as it is, is probably by far one of the better ones. You know, we have 50 different states, which means there’s 50 different ways of doing foster care and they all have their own practices, policies, and procedures. And it is not a unified one. And it is very flawed and it is in crisis.
At the same time, some of the countries I’ve work with are struggling as well, or don’t even have much of a system altogether. You know, we have an issue through the United States where we’re seeing the spike of child abuse. We’re seeing children flooding over the borders right now as our borders are opened up during the Biden administration, and thousands upon thousands of children are coming over unaccompanied. So we have our challenges here.
But then I work with some systems that don’t even have much of a system in place yet, particularly third world countries. In many of the European countries it’s a different system, and they all have their strengths, but for the most part, the United States system is the better one.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, it’s like a lot of things about the US, you know. Democracy has a lot of benefits. It’s not the only system of government, but one way of describing it is that we’ve tried a lot of other things, and nothing works any better than what we have, and we continue to focus on what’s working and try to address the things that need improvement. Hopefully we can just continue to make our systems better and better, not only our overall government, but programs like the foster care system within our society.
And I’m sort of curious to know what motivated you to create your radio program.
John DeGarmo: Oh, “Foster Talk with Dr. John.” I had been a DJ for several years on four different radio stations in two different continents, both in America and Australia. And I enjoyed it. It was something I enjoyed.
And somebody approached me one day and said, “Hey, you need to have your own radio program about foster care.” So it was just a natural fit. A lot of fun. We did it for several years. It was fun. I don’t do it anymore because now I’m on other podcasts at least three or four times a week.
David Hirsch: You’ve also been a prolific author, and I’m wondering if we can talk about one or more of the books. I’ll just rattle through the titles. Faith and Foster Care, How to Impact God’s Kingdom, Helping Foster Children in School, Love and Mayhem: One Big Family’s Uplifting Story of Fostering and Adoption, The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home, and a number of others. Which was the first of these publications?
John DeGarmo: First one was called Fostering Love: One Foster Parent’s Journey. I wrote it after I completed my doctorate. I recognized how much I really enjoyed the writing process, and all of a sudden my doctorate is done and I had nothing to write. So I just segued right into writing that book. And then one book led to ten others over the course of eight years.
David Hirsch: If you were to pick out one of the books as a starting point, for anybody who’s interested in developing a better understanding or appreciation for the foster care system, which one of your books would you recommend?
John DeGarmo: That’s Fostering Love. My hope was to write a book where if people didn’t know what foster parenting was, they would get a very open, honest, no-holds-barred viewpoint of what foster parenting is like. It’s filled with the joys and the struggles, the laughter, the tears. It’s also a book foster parents could pick up and say, you know what? This is exactly what it’s like, I identify with this, and then hand it off to those people who are questioning about becoming foster parents.
David Hirsch: Excellent. Well, we’ll definitely be able to include this information in our show notes. Let’s talk a minute about your TEDx talk. What was that experience like?
John DeGarmo: It was great fun. It was a great opportunity. A real honor. When I was asked to do the TED Talk, I’ll be honest, I had never really watched a Ted talk beforehand. To be sure I knew all about them, but I really didn’t know what they were. So when I was asked, I thought, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do this.” And then I looked into it, I thought, “Oh wow, this is bigger than I thought it was.” So getting up on the stage and presenting was great fun. I really enjoy the opportunity to speak in front of others. To me, it’s just very natural.
TED talk audio:
Sydney, as I call her, had reactive attachment disorder. Most kids in foster care who have suffered some abuse and trauma don’t know how to form a healthy attachment with anybody. They don’t know how to trust anybody, and they had these attachment disorders.
She was a food hoarder. Most children in foster care do not know where their next meal is coming from. They hoard food. She was so far behind academically, she couldn’t even write her own name when she came to be placed with us.
Kids in foster care, they go from home to home to home, and school to school to school, and fall further and further behind academically. That’s why they’re at least a year and a half behind academically. She had behavior problems. She lied so much.
But it didn’t matter. It did not matter, for this was my daughter. This was part of my family, and I loved her with all of my heart.
David Hirsch: Well, your TEDx talk has been very well received and it’s been viewed millions and millions of times. I’m really inspired by your story and by your ability to tell your story.
John DeGarmo: Thank you.
David Hirsch: You do a lot of public speaking about empowerment, as a consultant and international trainer. I’m wondering, are there certain assignments that you’re seeking out, or ones that you enjoy above some of the others?
John DeGarmo: Yes, I really enjoy speaking in front of audiences of fellow foster parents. Because afterwards they come up to me and they say, “You know, what you said was exactly how I’m feeling. I’m struggling with the same thing. It was so nice to hear someone acknowledge what I’m feeling.” That’s great to hear.
I also really enjoy working with legislators across the country, because I think, I hope, that they appreciate what I’m bringing to the table. You know, before I was a foster parent, I knew very little. And I believed all of the myths and misconceptions that are out there. I think most of our legislators do as well, because they’re human beings. So hopefully I am bringing some awareness to them as they craft bills.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So I’m wondering what role spirituality has played in your and Kelly’s lives.
John DeGarmo: I couldn’t have done this without my faith. My faith is something I’ve leaned on so heavily, day to day. You know, when I’m holding this child in my arms who is struggling with drug addictions, or has suffered innumerable rapes, or has been abused so horrifically you can’t even imagine, and I ask why, why, why?
And then there are times where I get really upset with their birth parents for doing these heinous crimes. But then I have to remind myself, you know what? This is a child of God, and God loves him just as much as he loves me. My crimes and my sins are no bigger or no smaller than theirs. These are children of God, and I can’t judge. Look at the plank in my own eye. So it’s something that’s been very important to me. And that’s probably why I wrote the book Faith and Foster Care.
And at the same time, I also recognize not everybody can be a foster parent, but everybody can help in some way. And there are people of faith and faith-based organizations and churches, where this is their next mission field. You know, I spent time in Nicaragua and Mexico. My children have been Honduras doing mission trips. Those were great. They helped me grow as a person.
At the same time, there’s a mission field in our own backyards, in our own communities, a mission within a mile, if you will. And I help churches now recognize what that is and create their own foster care outreach programs, where they can go and help the children, foster care, the foster parents, the birth parents, through a number of ways. Because if we were to depend upon our government to help foster care, it’s not going to work.
David Hirsch: Yeah, well I think you make a really good point, which is as a government program, it’s not going to be as comprehensive as it needs to be. And we need people from different sectors of society. You are making reference to the churches, and I’m thinking of not-for-profit organizations that support the foster care system. And is there a role for businesses to play as well, or not?
John DeGarmo: Oh, absolutely. And I know of many businesses that do. Schools might supply pencils and school supplies. Stores might supply clothing or shoes or backpacks or hygiene items. Business leaders might encourage their employees to become mentors or tutors by giving their employees certain benefits. Everybody can absolutely help in some way.
David Hirsch: Well, I think that the resources you’ve created through the Foster Care Institute are just fabulous. And like you said, it’s not just a resource for individuals or couples who are considering or contemplating foster care, or who find themselves in the foster care system, but there’s roles for everybody in society to play.
And I think the most important thing, at least my understanding, is that you have to have the heart. You have to want to make a difference. And you know, some people like yourself feel a calling. It’s a spiritual experience. Others just feel a moral obligation to make a difference in people’s lives. They see the injustice.
John DeGarmo: I work with many who were in the foster care system themselves, and they want to give back to the system. So they’re giving back. Some just want to simply help. You’re right, there are many, many different reasons why.
David Hirsch: Well, I think the foster care work that you’re doing, John, dovetails into the 21st Century Dads Foundation, which was established to address the high level of father absence in society. There are way too many kids growing up in father absent homes. The estimate is that there are 24,000,000, or four out of every ten in America.
And it’s not just those poor inner city blackheads. The perception is that, oh, it’s really bad in the black community. And it is, there’s no getting around it. You know, statistically seven or eight out of ten black children in America are growing up in father absent homes. But there are two times the number of white versus black kids growing up in father absent homes.
And a large number of these kids are going to find their way into the foster care system. Because it’s not just the dad that’s not involved, it’s the mom that’s not able to keep it together, right? That’s not taking anything away from moms. My mom was one of those single moms. She raised me and my younger brother from my age six as a Chicago public school teacher.
She was very fortunate to have the financial backing of her father, my maternal grandfather, who helped things move along. Because you can only do so much as an individual, right? And not all individuals are capable of fulfilling their responsibilities as parents. I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. The work that you’re doing is that when dad can’t be there, mom and dad can’t be there, what’s the answer? It’s not a one size fits all, or a simple solution.
And I think that the work you’re doing not only sheds light on the importance of people stepping up and getting involved, but it also provides some resources and some tools to enlighten people and to help advance the cause for these young people in our society who are so vulnerable and who deserve a better opportunity to reach their full God-given potential.
John DeGarmo: I couldn’t agree more. Couldn’t agree more.
David Hirsch: So I’m sort of curious to know if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up.
John DeGarmo: No. Other than other than, as you and I are having this discussion, and as people are listening to you and me, right now where you and I live and where those who are listening to us live, there’s a child out there right now who is hoping and praying that somebody will take the time to help, to bring them into their home, to help protect them and keep them safe. So many children, so many children, and not nearly enough people. So as I said earlier, while not everybody can be a foster parent, everybody can help in some way.
David Hirsch: Well, point well made. If somebody wants to learn more about the Foster Care Institute or to contact you, what’s the best way to do that?
John DeGarmo: Just look online for the Foster Care Institute, or just search online for Dr. John DeGarmo, foster care expert. Of course I’m on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, as well.
David Hirsch: We’ll be sure to include that in the show notes. John, thank you for taking the time and many insights. As a reminder, John is just one of the dads who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support.
David Hirsch: John, thanks again.
John DeGarmo: My pleasure. Thank you.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad. Also, please be sure to register for the Special Fathers Network biweekly Zoom calls held on the first and third Tuesdays of every month.
Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story, or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stcenturydads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch. Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at horizontherapeutics.com.