Lois Bittner: fostering love

Lois Bittner of Hill City has brought reassurance and guidance to 387 children in foster care. She did this by opening the doors of her house for 46 years as a foster parent.

“At that time, I had a baby daughter who died at birth,” Bittner said. “I guess I was looking for something to fill the void and some kind of meaning in my life. I heard about the need at that time for foster parents for infants and I was only going to do it until I could get pregnant again, but I ended up hooked by that time.”

She didn’t just help foster the infants. Bittner had fostered kids of all ages until she stopped being a foster parent in November. Her husband, who died 10 years ago, was a big part of her fostering children, Bittner said, building rooms onto their homes so the foster children would have a place to lay their heads at night.

Being a foster parent is rewarding, she said, but it was very challenging, too. Many of the kids are not easy kids. These are kids, she said, who have been through a lot in their lives.

Bittner said she has always been a compassionate person. She takes pride that was was able to help the kids, help them keep faith and make them feel like they were loved, wanted and taken care of.

She did long-term foster care for most of her time as a foster parent but toward the end of her time as a foster parent, Bittner did overnight emergency placements. Because of her age, Bittner said she couldn't keep up with them anymore.

Bittner also worked as a social worker. She helped with the training both adoptive and foster parents need to go through (each family needs to go through 30 hours of training). She also did home-studies for the people that wanted to adopt or become a foster parent.

Bittner said she enjoyed doing that a lot.

Bittne worked at a group home in Rapid Valley where she took care of six kids. She also did 30-day assessments in her home where the state hired her to assess kids and determine what their needs were and then placed in homes based on their needs.

Giving up being a foster parent wasn't easy for Bittner.

“It was partly age-related and agility and some of those things that come with age, but it just seemed like my life had been filled with a lot of other things and it seemed like whenever they gave me a call that I was busy with something else and couldn’t,” Bittner said.

Because of confidentiality reasons, Bittner cannot discuss some of the cases. But it was apparent to this reporter that through her work she made a large impact on these children's lives.

At one time, she was taking care of five children from the same family. They were all adopted by a family in Colorado. One of the children, who was 2 when she was taken in by Bittner and 4 when she was adopted, was diagnosed with leukemia.

“When she was 9 her adopted family called us to let us know she had leukemia and she had been contacted by the Make a Wish Foundation,” Bittner said. “Her siblings had all coached her before the Make a Wish person came and she told the Make a Wish person she wanted to go to and take her whole family to Disney World. The Make a Wish person asked her if she couldn’t have that wish what would be her second wish and she said to go visit my foster family in South Dakota.”

The girl and her family did get to go to Disney World, Bittner said, but Bittner and she husband traveled to Colorado before the girl died shortly thereafter.

Bittner said she realized she made an impact on the girl in her short life, and that meant a lot to her.

One act Bittner and her husband did for the kids at Christmastime was to make sure the kids had a special Christmas, because many of the kids had never had one.

Keeping up the self-esteem for the children was very important to Bittner.

“I remember one little girl, 4 years old, dirty, ragged little girl,” Bittner said. “She was smelly,  her hair was hanging in her eyes, I remember cleaning her up and self-esteem is a big deal for these kids because of what they have been through. I remember cleaning her up and putting her in a pretty dress and ribbons in her hair and I was taking her to a visit with her mother and she twirled around in front of the mirror and said ‘I am pretty.’”

She also remembered taking care of a baby who nearly died of malnutrition. The baby had been neglected so it no longer cried when it was hungry.

Once she found out that making a few sounds or crying got her fed, she really let it wail when she was hungry, Bittner said.

In spite of her successes, Bittner said being a foster parent is difficult, especially when it is time to move the child on to their new home.

“The goal is to return the child to the family if the family can make the improvements to get their child back,” Bittner said. “It is hard when you know what that family has done to the child and you have to return them and yet you have to allow them to do that and feel good about that.  Most of them do want to go home, no matter what you do for them. They want to be with their family.”

Others have been adopted, and it was hard to let go of them, too, Bittner said. But she said she knows the family had been vetted and she needed to let the children know that it’s a good thing they’re going to a new family yet that she still cares about them and she’s not trying to get rid of them.

“It wasn’t easy,” Bittner said. “But you know it’s best for the child, that the child is going to attach to another family and you have to encourage them to do that and yet let them know that you still love them and you’re still there if they need you in some way. Some of the children and their families did stay in touch with me. I still have contact with some.”

Some of the children that Bittner keeps in contact with said that the best days of their lives were when they were with her.

Even though she no longer fosters children, Bittner still stays involved in the foster community. She serves as vice-president of the Black Hills Foster Parent board. One of her favorite activities, though, is making bags for new foster children.

“I get donations for things to put in the bags and when they come into foster care and they’re in a strange place and they don’t have any of their belongings with them they can take a welcome bag with them,” Bittner said. “I make them, I put them at social services. I mark them like boy, age 3 or or girl, age 8 and then when a  social worker places a child...and when the social worker places the child they can grab a bag to go with the child. They say those bags are like Christmas for the kids.”

Stopping being a foster parent wasn’t an easy decision for Bittner.

“I wasn’t doing much of it anymore, so I can’t say it’s a huge gap in my life, but it had been part of my identity. Who I was. And now I don’t know who I am, I guess,” Bittner said with a laugh.

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