Dad to hundreds | June 12, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - June 12, 2009

Dad to hundreds

A Father's Day salute to a Danville couple who have fostered 410 children, hoping to be a bridge to a better life

by Susan Astbury

The term "empty nesters" will never apply to Danville couple Deanna and Dave Mitchell. Not only have they raised two children of their own, but they have been parents to 410 foster children.

"You understand that your world is very small if you let it be," said Dave. "The perspective that you get from having all these children and interacting with them makes you a far better understanding person as to what the real world is like."

Dave and Deanna began fostering in 1970 while they were living in Georgia.

"One of the elders at the church convinced us that we would be good foster parents and we should try," said Dave. "We thought that we were going to get one child. The social worker showed up with six kids, all siblings, and asked how many we wanted. So we took three."

The Mitchells prepared their children, who were 6 and 8 years old at the time, for the adjustment.

"We had lots of conversations with our kids before we did this," recalled Dave. "In fact we postponed it several months. At first our son wasn't too keen on it. Then he came back and said yes, he thought he'd like to do it."

"Because we were very inexperienced, we felt sorry for these children and didn't make them go by the house rules," said Deanne. "Our own kids wanted a family conference to know why they had to follow the rules and the other kids didn't. And we said, 'You are right.' After that, truthfully, we've never had any complaints from our kids. Except for one girl, who our daughter said used to try to sneak out of the bedroom window."

Dave and Deanna decided not to take a boy older than their son or a girl older than their daughter.

"Because you're learning as you go," Dave noted. "In real living terms, in a lot of ways the foster children were older than our children because they're always older than their years."

The Mitchells moved from Georgia to Michigan and decided to give up foster care since they had been doing it for five years. Then one day their son came to them and asked how to put an ad in the paper. When they asked why, he said he wanted someone to share his room. "So we called up the county in Michigan and became foster parents again," said Deanna.

The family moved to California in 1980.

Their son is 45, has a girl and a boy, and lives in Columbia, S.C.

Their daughter, Teresa Sumiyoshi, is now 47, lives in Moraga and has three daughters of her own.

She said sometimes the foster children told her stories about their lives that made her sad but mainly she enjoyed having them around.

"We never had to explain the dangers of alcohol and drugs to our children," said Deanna. "They saw living proof. It was bad in a way but it was good. ... They got life lessons that you could never probably give anyone - they wouldn't believe you."

"It didn't seem unusual to have so many foster kids because that's the way it always was," Teresa said. "It was fun to have new playmates. There were always kids around."

Teresa said that she has had to explain to her three daughters why grandma and grandpa always have different kids living with them. They have become friends with some of the children. "My kids, too, accepted that to be the norm," Teresa said.

"One of our neighbors in Georgia was having a baby and explaining to her children how you have a baby," recalled Deanna. "They looked at her and said, 'Why don't you do like the Mitchells and call up and have them delivered?'"

Another time, Deanna said, Teresa came home from school laughing.

"The teacher wanted to know how many brothers and sisters I had and I wrote down that I had to count them when I get up in the morning," said Teresa. "The teacher got really worried."

"Obviously kids come on a temporary basis," said Dave. "The hope is that these children will end up in a permanent home, whether it's returning to their parents or being adopted. But 'temporary' can mean anything from 24 hours to three years. For us, we've had children for one day to three years."

The Mitchells have learned from their foster children over the years what it means to live in poverty.

"The children are so happy to get something still in the plastic," Dave said. "Some of them have never had anything new in their lives."

The Mitchells are currently fostering a baby named DW, who was born prematurely.

"Of his 7-1/2 months, he's spent a total of five months in Children's Hospital," said Deanna. He's been with Dave and Deanna for five weeks.

"They are a wonderful team," said Nancy DeWeese, a friend, foster parent and neo-natal intensive care nurse at Children's Hospital Oakland. "They have a strong marriage. If you have a strong base, you can deal with the ups and downs. With them, nothing is too much. They are unique. They'll always take a little one, the medically fragile and infants."

Dave and Deanna are both 70. "People can be foster parents for a long time and they just have to find the right niche. Right now we can handle babies," Dave explained.

He said he wonders if everyone knows how badly foster parents are needed.

"Somehow people need to know the magnitude of the need for foster parents," said Dave. "There will always be more need than we have supply of foster parents."

"One thing is that it's not easy to be a foster parent and it's not something for everyone," said Dave. "But age is not a restriction."

"We've quit so many times. We're getting smarter now because we take time out every year for ourselves," said Deanna. "Although our last trip to Hawaii we took a child with us. We've taken children on vacation who are on feeding tubes and oxygen. It's amazing how nice people can be."

Foster parents provide a special service to children and to the community by providing ongoing care and love to those who cannot live with their birth families, according to Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services. Foster care benefits provide cash aid to foster parents on behalf of children who meet the eligibility requirements.

In 2008 there were 66,496 children in foster care in California and approximately 1,600 in Contra Costa County, said Human Services Division Manager Lois Rutten. The children range in ages from newborns to 18 years.

"The Mitchells, who have been married over 50 years, exemplify dual parenting," said Rutten. "They are calm and have a great sense of humor. They work well with the birth parents. They're just a genuinely nice couple."

"We called Deanna and Dave three years ago with a very difficult placement for a 7 year old," she recalled. "They took him on vacation with them for two weeks to Hawaii and he came back a new kid."

"I've known the Mitchells for 17 or 18 years," she added. "I kiss Dave whenever I see him. He truly has the heart of a father."

The Mitchells, in turn, speak well of the county agency.

"Contra Costa County Human Services is probably the Cadillac in the nation. We've seen all sides," said Dave.

"In Contra Costa the other foster parents are such a great support system," added Deanna. "There's a foster family network organization that you can call any time and while they might not know the answer, they can direct you where to go."

The Mitchells have seen all types of children and problems.

"One child came back to us after a number of years," said Deanna. "He had lived with us and went back to his parents, lived with us, and went back to his parents. He came back and said, 'You know, when things got bad at home, I would walk out on the street and know that there was a different way of living, and you showed me that.'"

"If you see a little child who has not smiled and you've had them for a month and they start smiling at you, it washes away everything else," she added.

"If you're an emergency home, which we are, you can get a call at any time, day or night and they say, 'We have a placement,'" Dave said. "Sometimes you get a call that says we have a baby in the hospital who is going to get released and we need a home. Sometimes you get a call that we have a child at a police station and we need to place that child. It varies by the need."

Why did the Mitchells foster so many children? "Dave really didn't have a choice," joked Deanna.

"Deanna is absolutely great with children," said Dave. "She loves children and is like the old lady in the shoe, she never wants to be without children. It's plain and simple. She worked with developmentally delayed children as a preschool teacher and she's good at it."

"We always refer to being foster parents as being a bridge," he continued. "A bridge from where the children have been, to where they will go. And you provide a bridge in between. It's a bridge to hopefully give them enough foundation under them to survive the tough hits later on."

Dave is retired from the food manufacturing business.

"Dave's work kept him busy and he traveled some when the children were young," said Deanna. "Since he's retired, he's done more child care than he did with our own children. But I think he also saw what he missed with our own children."

"You usually only hear the bad things about foster care," she added. "People don't realize the good that can be done, too. It's not perfect, far from it. But I don't know what other alternative there is. These children need a safe place. They don't have any expectations for the future at all. We just tell them that we will keep them safe. That's all we can do."

pstyle:taginfo>For information about being a foster parent, contact the Contra Costa Employment and Human Services at; click on Children and Family Services. Or telephone 355-7040.


Like this comment
Posted by Citizen Paine
a resident of Danville
on Jun 15, 2009 at 4:38 pm

One word: WOW! And a few more -- thanks for living a life of service to others. I will bet you'd say you've gotten more than you gave, but you've given more than most -- what a rich and rewarding life!

WOW all over again.