The teen challenge, times 20

Published 8:05 pm Saturday, September 5, 2009

Anyone who has ever raised a teenager is aware of the special challenges that come with the job. Puberty, peer pressure and heartache all mark the experience for both teens and their guardians.

Keith and Sandra Mayfield are more familiar with the problems than most.

As foster parents specializing in sibling groups for the past 20 years or so, the Mayfields have had a hand in raising at least 20 children.

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They’ve seen just about everything during those two decades, including a lot of things that the average parent will never experience.

“There’s a change in what we’re seeing now,” Keith said this week from his home near Sleepy Lake Golf Course. “We used to get kids that were kids. Now, they’re involved in the court system a lot more,” and they’re dealing with problems ranging from drugs to sexual situations to disrespecting authority figures.

“You are exposing your family to another level of responsibility and risk.”

Those concerns sometimes make it difficult for the Suffolk Department of Social Services to place teens in foster homes while their parents work through whatever legal issues have caused them to temporarily lose their children.

The department is “desperately seeking” people in the area who would be willing to open their homes to teens from troubled homes, according to Nan Diggs, who works in the department’s foster parenting program.

“We recognize that some people have a gift to work with teenagers,” the department announced in a recent press release. “For those who feel they are willing or able to care for teens, the Suffolk Department of Social Services would like to hear from you.”

Training for prospective foster parents begins on Tuesday at the Department of Social Services. Compensation is available to those who serve as foster parents.

But the rewards go far beyond the money that’s involved, Keith Mayfield said.

In a living room packed with photos of children, grandchildren and foster children who have spent time in the Mayfield home, he recalled visits and calls from some of those who have grown up and moved on.

“This is home,” Keith remembered one visiting former foster son telling his girlfriend as they sat in the room. “This is where I had all the fun. This is where I grew up.”

Another has grown up to join the Marines, and a photo of him in his uniform has a prominent place in the living room.

That foster child had come to the home at the age of 7 or 8 with his 3-year-old sister, and he stayed there until he was grown.

“He was the littlest thing,” Keith recalled. “Now, he’s like a tank. He’s been in Iraq twice, and now he’s at Quantico. I’m really proud of him.

“It blesses your heart. It’s priceless.”

On the other hand, there have been children who have spent years in the home, and are now incarcerated, having turned their backs on the values that the Mayfields tried to instill.

“You want to know whether you could have done something different,” Keith said. “But you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.”

He calls those kids his “rebels,” and he warns of the dangers inherent in trying to raise one.

One of the only children the Mayfields have turned back over to Social Services other than to return them to their birth parents was one such rebel, who downloaded pornography for a special needs child living in the home and then repeatedly lied about having done so.

Still, the experience of foster parenting has been a blessing for the family, Keith said.

He smiled as he recalled taking 11 kids to Florida in a station wagon one year so they could visit Sea World and Cape Kennedy.

“That was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken,” he said, recalling that the family stopped at every new state’s welcome sign so various children could get out and have their photos taken.

“We wore out a camera,” he smiled. “They grew up knowing that camera.”

For more information about how to become a foster parent or to register for the training, call Diggs at 514-7344.