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WALNUT CREEK -- It took becoming a foster parent herself for Arlene Samuel-Jones to appreciate the foster parents who helped to shape her own life.
Samuel-Jones was the guest speaker for the 2017 Holmes County Child Abuse Prevention Breakfast, held April 27 at the Carlisle Village Inn.
Samuel-Jones has worked as an advocate in child welfare, at the local and state level since 2006. She received her Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Wright State University in 2010.
She has experienced multiple facets of Ohio's family service systems, as not only a foster care alumnus, but former court-appointed special advocate and employee of Franklin County Children Services. She currently works with policy makers and counties toward improving permanency and long-term outcomes for youth and families who interact with the child welfare system.
One of 10 children, Samuel-Jones entered the foster care system as an adolescent who rebelled and fought those who she now has come to appreciate, thanks in large part to a "dude" who came to her with a fresh and fearless outlook on life, who thrived on connections with others.
It was only when her nephew came into her life she was able to focus on her ailing wellbeing, repair her broken self, mend damaged relationships and realize "my first foster mother got it right."
"She connected with me on a level I didn't understand," said Samuel-Jones, demonstrating how her foster mother would "invade my bubble" and "come down to my level and address me like the little human I was."
And, despite being "the worst foster care kid," Samuel-Jones said all three of her foster mothers showed her love and taught her lessons, the value of which she only recently has come to respect.
She spent her whole childhood and "most of my life" trying to connect with people, even having her first child at 14 to do so.
Along with her siblings, she said, "We were scared as children." And, as an adult, "I was scared for my nephew. I didn't want him to go into foster care."
So, he became part of her family. And, that's when she realized that all the little things she tried to ignore and rebel against as a teen taught her valuable lessons. And, to the foster parents in the room, she said, "That is the impact all of you have, coming into the lives of youth coming into your homes.
"It's major. You leave little imprints on peoples' lives," she said, noting her nephew continued what her first foster mother started with her. Her second foster mother taught her the importance of connecting with family. And, her third foster mother taught her to "make sure your house works like a well-oiled machine."
And, despite every urge she had to get into advocacy in an attempt to tear down the system, she has learned something about that too. "Fifteen years later, I realize the system will never be perfect, but it is on it's way to perfection. I have an appreciation for it now. I enjoy being a system advocate and seeing a system that is way better than when I was in it."
It's also taught her of the need for caseworkers to trust foster parents. "I was hurt by the system, not the people," she said, noting, "Child welfare is necessary. We need all of you."
"I enjoy being a system advocate and seeing a system that is way better than when I was in it," encouraging those involved to educate themselves not just on what they do, but what others do too. "Knowing what everyone does allows us to better move the needle forward. It's all about understanding how we all fit in."
Her nephew, she said, helped her to realize that too.
He gave her family and her community something to rally around, and because of that, she formed the connections with people she so sought as a youth.
And, back to the foster parents, she said, "You plant the seeds. Someone else waters it. And, someone else fertilizes it. You need to be mindful of bringing connections to children with the people they want to be connected with. As an alum and advocate, I need you."
Samuel-Jones' focus on connections unintentionally piggybacked onto the opening remarks of Holmes County Department of Job and Family Services Director Dan Jackson, who said, "Holmes County is a special place. There is a lot of cooperation that makes it happen."
And, while most children grow up in homes where love is given without hesitation, where parents will put themselves in harm's way for the sake of their children, not all have the benefit of being born into those environments.
They are moved from home to home, they don't know where their next meal may come from or where they'll spend the night. They have parents who, instead of putting themselves in harm's way, watch their children get hurt, or, worse yet, hurt them themselves.
The local agency, he said, performs at the highest level, helping families. And, foster families provide a critical role in that equation, helping to bridge the gap when it becomes necessary to remove children from unhealthy surroundings. They help damaged kids see there are safe places.
Locally, there are as many as 10 families a year who bring children into kinship care. And, when kinship is not an option, he said, "Thank God for foster parents who are willing to bring in a stranger."
Because of their willingness to foster and, in some cases, adopt, "We, in Holmes County, have a vibrant foster care system."
And, he said, "From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you. Because we can't help families without you."
Reporter Christine Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.