A Firsthand Account of Foster Parenting: “Our only regret is not starting the process earlier”


Currently, Brunswick County DSS has 129 children in foster care. Sixty of these children are ages 0-5; 44 are ages 6-12; 23 are ages 13-17 and two age 18 & over. Of these 129 children, 104 are Caucasian; 11 are African American; 5 are Hispanic; 2 are American Indian/Alaskan and 12 are bi-racial. DSS has 22 licensed foster/adoptive homes and needs additional families so our children can stay within their own communities while in foster care.

Ken & Duanna Harrelson, licensed foster parents in Brunswick County since 2014.

Ken & Duanna Harrelson have been licensed foster parents since 2014.  During this time, they have taken care of 15 children. They want to help families in their time of need by providing children a safe and loving home while their parents work on getting things back on track.

“We became licensed to foster only,” says Duanna.  “Our youngest child was in high school when we started this journey. We just wanted to be there to help families out in their time of need and be there to give a child a safe and loving place to be while their parents work to get things back on track.

We have had 2 of our placements go to wonderful adoptive families.”

Being a foster parent brings with it some responsibilities. “As foster parents it is our job to make sure they go to all their medical appointments,” says Duanna. “Advocate for them if they need special services such as play therapy, etc. If the child is in school, help make sure they are on track.  Be there to support the child, be there to listen to them. Love them and try to make sure they feel loved and safe. We want to make sure they feel like part of the family. We need to give them stability, and sometimes we must teach them how to handle and process their emotions. It is so amazing to see them come out of their shells and start to blossom. To watch their personalities come out. To watch their faces when they experience something for the first time. To see their first milestones, such as first words, first steps etc.  Sometimes children come to your house and they are so scared and nervous.  When they finally start to relax and realize they are loved and safe, the wall starts to come down, and you can see some big personalities in these little people. To watch them learn and grow is amazing. To see a child that has attachment issues finally start to create a bond with you, it is such a wonderful feeling.”

Brunswick County DSS promotes shared parenting which is working in partnership with the birth family towards reunification. “The first time we talk to the parents, we introduce ourselves; talk with them about their children. What their likes and dislikes are. If there are any issues we need to know about,” says Duanna.  “We keep them updated on how the child is doing, how things are going in school. We send pictures of the children to them. We also try to get a picture of the parents for the children to keep with them while they are here.  When we do phone calls we spend time before or after the child talks to them and just talk to them and find out how they are doing, how their day was. Let them know we are proud of the work they are doing. Sometimes some of the parents don’t have a support system, and we want to be that support for them. We want them to know we are cheering them on, that we are always here for them if they need someone to talk to.  Also when a child sees everyone working together and getting along I think it takes some of the stress off of them.  Sometimes I think they feel guilty if they are happy and feel like they are betraying their parents if they love someone else. When they see we are all working together for their best interest, it takes a little bit of stress off of them. The best part of shared parenting is creating that relationship with the parents and then being able to maintain that relationship when the child goes home. They become part of your family.”

The goal is for children to be reunified with their parents. “It is hard when a child leaves your home,” says Duanna. “That child is a part of your family and when they leave they take a piece of your heart with them.  It takes a toll on your whole family, because our whole family gets attached to them. They take on the role as grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles. Our son gets to be a big brother to these children and when they leave it stings.  We had a child that was having mixed feelings and wasn’t sure how to handle them.  They were excited to go to their adoptive home, but sad they were leaving here. So we came up with the word “Sappy,” sad that they were leaving, but happy they were going to their adoptive home.  It also helped them realize that you can have more than one emotion at a time.  But at the same time when you tell a child they are going home and you see the excitement on their face, it’s priceless. We have been very fortunate to be able to stay connected with several of our children that went home and to adoptive families. To be able to continue to watch them grow is just amazing.  We get to go to their birthday parties; they come over for weekend visits and get togethers.  The children and their families will always be part of our family.”

Duanna & Ken encourage others to be foster parents with Brunswick County DSS because “every child deserves to be loved and safe.” “The child did not choose to be in that situation, and they need someone that will be there for them when their whole world has just been turned upside down, and in what will probably be one of the hardest things they ever go through.  I’ve heard people say, ‘I couldn’t do that, I would get too attached’ and ‘I wouldn’t be able to handle it if they left.’

“Well the whole purpose of fostering is to attach. These children need someone there that is not afraid to attach and love them unconditionally no matter what the future holds. We want to see these families succeed and children go home.  To see a family reunite is a beautiful thing.  However, not all children can go back to their parents.  These children need families who are willing to adopt them. To see a family created through adoption is also a beautiful thing.

“Many times, when children come into foster care, they are placed outside of the county and even state because there are not enough foster/adoptive families in Brunswick County.  This is heartbreaking.  I think fostering is one of the hardest and most rewarding thing we have ever done.  Our only regret is not starting the process earlier.  I would encourage anyone who has questions or is interested in becoming a foster parent to call Brunswick County DSS to discuss the process.   We put fostering off for so long because we wanted our children to be older, because we were worried we may get an older child and put our kids at risk.  The truth is you can tell DSS the age range you are most comfortable.  Had I just made a call and asked these questions years ago, we would have become foster parents much sooner. I saw this quote the other day and think it is so fitting…. ‘I am not afraid to grieve; I am afraid of what will happen to these children if no one took the risk to love them.’”

For more information on how to become a licensed foster home, please contact Tamela Jones at 910-253-2112 or tamela.jones@brunswickcountync.gov and/or visit the County’s website at https://www.brunswickcountync.gov/social-services/foster/.