Some days, the washing machine runs from morning until night.
On a regular day, Billee Willson manages three to five loads of laundry so that that the eleven children in her care— five of whom are adopted, six currently being fostered— always have clean clothes to wear.
Added to that is cooking, shopping, and attending to the social and emotional needs of the children, ages 2 to 16. “We are feet-on-the-ground constantly. It’s not like we can go home and watch television, although some days I wish I could,” Willson said. She credits her husband, niece, and twice-a-week housekeeper with helping manage the busy household.
Keeping siblings together in foster care is critically important, according to Melissa Lloyd, Program Manager for the Central Permanency and Kinship Programs of Sacramento County Child Protective Services. “Siblings have a shared history, and maintaining their bond provides continuity of identity and belonging,” said Lloyd. “Many children placed in care without their siblings can feel as though they are being punished in the harshest way they can imagine, after the tremendous loss by being removed from their parent's care.”
Maintaining the children’s bonds was important to Willson in deciding to take on the responsibility of caring for two large families. She also feels a commitment to her Native American tribe, some of whose members struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. “It’s our hope that we break the chains of dysfunction created for several generations,” Willson said. “I do it for my people.”
As someone who shares a cultural background with the children, she is able to help them understand their identity. “Helping a child know who they are can be difficult to achieve in another-culture family. In the words of my Gram [grandmother], ‘I can’t teach you what I don’t know,’” Willson said.
About eight years ago, when all but one of the couple’s children had graduated from high school, Willson received a call from an agency, asking if she knew anybody from the tribe who would be interested in fostering. A four-sibling family needed placement, and she and her husband welcomed them, and later their younger sibling. The couple later adopted all five.
She later took in another set of six siblings who needed a home.
The key to helping the children adjust was introducing a routine; dinners are lively but organized, with older children setting the table and teaching the younger children to help. The kids tell jokes and stories, but not before washing up and sitting down for the duration of the meal.
Throughout the adoption process, Willson has worked for Sacramento County, in the Department of Human Assistance aiding families who were receiving food stamps, and later as a Division Planner in Behavioral Health Services. Having a social services background helped her navigate the mental health and special educational services she would come to need for her children.
Fostering has helped her with her current job because she can provide insight from the foster parent’s view, “I’ve learned by being on both sides of the fence.”