OMES employees foster the future
By Christa Helfrey
As of Sept. 1, in Oklahoma, there are over 7,100 children in state custody. Many of these children were faced with difficult or unsafe circumstances at home, and now require a safe place to live while their families get the help they need to find hope and strength again.
Recognizing the need for a stable environment where children in the system can thrive and grow into their full potential, some employees with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services opened their hearts and homes to dozens of kids.
“The majority of children come into care due to neglect, often related to parental substance abuse,” said Casey White, Department of Human Services external communications and media relations administrator. “The trauma from their past influences the behavior of children in foster care. They’ve learned coping strategies that helped keep them safe – strategies that can negatively impact how they relate to the world around them. Foster families can offer a safe home and a chance for children to heal.”
Fueled by a mission to serve those who serve Oklahomans, employees at OMES often partner professionally with other state agencies, like DHS, to provide essential tools to serve millions of people within our state. Some OMES employees have taken that collaboration to a personal level, providing a home and family to Oklahoma’s youngest citizens.
OMES Director of Internal Training Sophie Preston and her husband have nearly completed the rigorous process to foster young Oklahomans. As a former police officer, Preston experienced firsthand the pain of removing children from their homes and everything familiar to them and placing them in the foster care system. She says that was a big motivator to open her home as a foster parent and give children a safe place to live while their families are offered help.
Preston and her team, the Organizational and Employee Development Partners, host interactive learning courses agencywide. Through facilitating these sessions, she discovered multiple colleagues also fostered children.
Like Preston, OMES Network Management Director Jason Mathews-Payne and his husband are new foster parents. Although the desire existed previously, Mathews-Payne said his husband’s retirement freed up time to spend with the teenagers they welcomed into their home.
“As a non-traditional family, we felt like we had a lot to offer, between a stable home and diverse backgrounds,” he said. “My husband and I have a wide range of hobbies and interests, like woodworking and reading. We knew that would be a real benefit to a kid.”
Unlike Preston and Mathews-Payne, OMES Group Management Specialist Shadawn Baker was no stranger to the foster care system. Growing up, she said her loving church family had a history of fostering and nurturing those in need. Carrying on the family legacy, she has fostered 19 children total and adopted two.
“I loved that rush,” she said. “Knowing I had that opportunity – whether it was two weeks, two months or a year – to make sure they knew they were loved. [It was important that] however long they were in my house, they knew what it was like to have the world revolve around them.”
OMES Public Record Coordinator Brittany Coley-Roberts has been on both sides of the Oklahoma foster system. As 1 of 6 siblings split through DHS, she experienced firsthand foster care, shelters and adoption in separate homes. She says this helped her build a resilience that guided her to foster family members as an adult.
"It was imperative for me emotionally to assist my biological family in reaching more stable environments," she said. "This involved consistent visits to shelters, foster parent training, home studies and kinship fostering until permanent adoptions were available. With all the challenges I experienced during early development, I understand the lasting impact instability and abuse causes. Being positioned to play a positive support role and help repair the broken pieces with my unconditional love is an ongoing blessing that I do not take for granted."
To become foster parents, Preston, Mathews-Payne, Baker and Coley-Roberts all worked directly or indirectly with the Department of Human Services to navigate the state’s certification process. From the application and background check to home visits and mandatory training, the process is aimed at identifying the best caregivers and equipping them with key tools for a successful foster experience.
“Working with DHS has been amazing,” Mathews-Payne said. “They are incredibly kind, helpful and supportive through the process. During the training, you realize the impact you would have. The kids just need a place to stay for a few years and someone to help show them a way.”
DHS’ training program is crucial to preparing for child placement. The courses are designed to help foster parents understand traumas the children have experienced and how to effectively care for them, including assisting with any medical or behavioral needs that may exist.
“There isn’t anything that prepares you for that side of it,” Baker said. “You can’t imagine the horrors they go through even at this young age. It’s hard to imagine an infant trying to process that instability.”
In a personal essay titled, “Duct Tape a Baling Wire,” Baker describes her disillusionment about becoming a foster parent. She learned a hard lesson that some children’s trauma can manifest into behaviors meant to drive their foster parents away. While these behaviors can be heartbreaking for those who just want to help, some children develop them as survival skills – an attempt to meet an unmet need.
“I thought that [one child] was beyond help,” Baker said. “With consistent structure, firm guidance, and love, however, I was beginning to see his potential when he left. I’ll never forget his last words, ‘Shawn, I’ll miss you so much.’”
Experiences like these made Baker question her decision to foster. She was continually asked to sacrifice more of herself as she fought for her foster children in court and hospital rooms, she said, but not once did it stop her from answering the call from DHS when children needed placement.
“It’s more important that I get hurt than they get hurt,” she said. “My heart is not near as important as they are. It will recover; that child will not recover without love.”
A pivotal moment for Coley-Roberts came during one of DHS’ mandatory foster parent training courses, when she discovered others could learn from her experience in the system. She was able to share this perspective when someone asked if placed children ever truly appreciate everything foster parents do for them.
“You have to realize these kids didn’t ask to be taken,” she said. “As children, they cannot always understand the logic behind what others consider best for them. They miss what they had – even when it was bad, it was theirs.”
For many children who suffer from emotional and physical trauma related to family, stable foster placement can play a critical role in their journey to adulthood.
“It’s important to develop routines with them,” Mathews-Payne said. “Going to school, taking necessary medication, having a bedroom, access to good nutrition and even electricity in some cases establishes stability and security. When you don’t have that security, it affects everything – your confidence, your friends, your ability to learn. Those things last the rest of your life.”
Fostering is a commitment to growth and poses a steep learning curve, even to families with biological children. It takes patience and understanding. These children had an entire life that shaped them before placement.
“It’s different than how you would normally raise a child of your own, but that’s what makes it unique and challenging in a good way,” Mathews-Payne said. “It’s asking, ‘Why are you doing it that way?’ Being able to pivot and be flexible is key.”
Providing this stability never erases or prevents emotional and physical scars, but it offers young minds a different perspective and presents them with opportunities to replace unsafe habits with new ones. Positive foster experiences, however short, can have a lasting impact in kids’ lives and help them develop a more stable foundation for adulthood.
“It was beyond necessary to have the support and space to exist and express myself, even negatively,” said Coley-Roberts. “My [adopted] mom helped me through seizures and night terrors, and she was kind and patient with me in those moments. As an adult, that support has allowed me to be a resource to my family and others who have experienced similar trauma. Bringing that compassion and understanding to my professional life has positioned me to become an advocate and an example of continued resilience.”
Positive impact isn’t limited to grand achievements and success stories. They can be small reminders, tiny memories that you influenced a child’s life. In Baker’s case, she recalls fostering a 9-month-old and decorating the nursery with Winnie the Pooh. Years later, that baby’s grandmother reached out to Baker and shared that, at 29, she still loves that silly old bear.
“Today, I look at the two beautiful forever children God blessed me with through doing foster care,” she said in her essay. “I think of all the love and laughter we have in our home. I know I am blessed beyond measure. People say how blessed my kids are, but I know deep down in my excessively patched up heart that it is I who have been blessed abundantly.”
With thousands in the Oklahoma foster system, there is no shortage of children in need of stable homes.
“I challenge everybody to try [fostering] if you’re financially and emotionally capable,” Mathews-Payne said. “DHS does not care if you go back and say, ‘This isn’t working out for me.’ Help one kid. It doesn’t have to be a permanent thing until the child’s 18. Try it and see if it’s something you enjoy.”
Fostering is especially important now during global instability with the COVID-19 pandemic. While children in foster care wait for placement, former group activities like movie theaters and museums are not currently an option.
“The state’s group foster homes rely on being able to take these kids places for entertainment, growth and education,” Mathews-Payne said. “These outings help them cope and grow within society in a positive environment. During [the pandemic], when closures are prominent, they can’t go in a group anymore. When you foster them in your home, however, you can work with them one-on-one.”
“Saying yes to foster care means helping children and families who are engaged in the child welfare system become healthy and whole again,” said White. “We need open-minded foster families across the state to keep children and their siblings within their home communities and close to their families. When you say yes to foster care, you are making positive impacts on your community for generations to come.”
State Chief Operating Officer and OMES Executive Director Steven Harpe likes to say our people are our success story. When we invest in our employees and cultivate their professional and personal development, we empower them to overcome challenges, push boundaries and drive positive change in their communities. As public servants, we are dedicated to connecting fellow Oklahomans to crucial resources. Many of our motivated workforce have embraced that mission, opening their homes to our state’s most vulnerable, and helping mold the next generations of Oklahomans.
To learn how you can become a certified foster parent, please visit okfosters.org or call 800-376-9729.
NOTE: The individuals featured in this story are just a fraction of OMES employees who have opened their homes to children in Oklahoma. We thank each and every one of you for your service to those in need.