The call comes without warning: A child in crisis needs a safe place to go. “Ms. Jeffie” is ready.
When social workers drive up to Jeffie Abernathy’s house, there’s usually a teen or pre-teen in the backseat who doesn’t want to be there. Some refuse to get out of the car; others threaten to run, like her last one, a 12-year-old girl. “She told me she was not going to stay here,” Jeffie says. “She said, ‘I don’t know this woman. I want to go home.’ ” But that child was about to learn what many others have come to know: It’s hard to resist the grandmotherly warmth of “Ms. Jeffie.” Not only that, sometimes it’s hard to leave when your time is up.
Jeffie is a rapid response foster parent, and she takes children with mental health diagnoses and intense needs. They stay only two weeks, but she piles on the love and prepares them for whatever comes next.
It takes a special kind of foster parent to reach these children. This is how Jeffie does it:
- The first thing I do is assure them that they’re going to be all right here with me. I say, ‘When you walk through this door, you are mine. You are my grandkids.’
- Then I ask what they like to do, what they like to eat. It’s all about what I can do to help them. On Saturdays I might take them to the movies or we go grocery shopping. I like them to relax. On Sundays we go to church. Love and structure – that’s what a lot of these kids need.
- But I have my rules. I ask them to keep their room and bathroom clean. I tell them, ‘Do not take things. You don’t have to. All you have to do is ask, and if I don’t have it here, I will get it.’ Some children still take food and hide it.
- On the day before they leave, I ask what they want for dinner. I’ve had one child come back to me a couple of times, and he wants a steak with a baked potato and salad. My last one wanted a Subway sandwich.
- Sometimes they’re not going home. They might be going to a residential treatment facility, and I tell them to be positive: ‘You’re in this place for a reason, and it could help you with your strengths. Go with a positive mind and you will be all right. Accomplish your goals.’
- I always take their picture so I can look back and think about them. And I tell them: ‘I am here for you. If you need me, call me. If you need somebody to talk to or if you want to hang with me, if I don’t have a child in care, we can hang.’ I want to be that person they can believe in, that grandmother they’ll listen to and know that I won’t tell them something wrong.
Jeffie’s photo album includes a smiling shot of the 12-year-old who’d stood in her driveway and threatened to run away. In their time together, Jeffie learned the girl loved croissants, no cheese; chai tea with cinnamon; yogurt with Oreo crumbles on top. She loved to ride horses. And, when her two weeks were up, she also loved Jeffie. “She told me before she left, ‘Ms. Jeffie, please don’t ever retire. You need to keep on doing this because you have helped me.’ It feels so good when a child says that to me. It’s just a blessing to be able to help.”
About Ms. Jeffie
• Mother of two, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of two
• Retired from a 23-year career at International Paper in Alabama
• Moved to North Carolina to be near her daughter’s family
• Worked with special-needs adults before fostering children
• Foster parent since 2012
• Rapid response parent since 2015
Rapid response foster homes offer short-term care for children in immediate crisis as they move between foster homes, group homes, or psychiatric residential treatment facilities.