Deacon and wife living out vocation through foster parenting

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Deacon Neil Tift and his wife Denise enjoy some family time with their foster son JR at their home in Mesa. The Tifts have fostered dozens of children over the years. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)
Deacon Neil Tift and his wife Denise enjoy some family time with their foster son JR at their home in Mesa. The Tifts have fostered dozens of children over the years. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

He never expected it, but Deacon Neil Tift realized he was making a difference when he came home from work on his birthday to find a card and a chocolate candy bar, a gift from JR, the adult foster son who has been living with him and his wife, Denise.

“I was so touched,” said Dcn. Tift. “He has very poor self-esteem from years of neglect. I just felt at that moment he really understood that he was part of a family.”

In Arizona, where there are more than 17,000 children in foster care, the most being in Maricopa County, Dcn. Tift and Denise, who serve at Christ the King Parish in Mesa, have opened their hearts and home to make a difference in the lives of approximately 50 children and young adults for the past 21 years.

“Neil and I were unable to have children together, so we thought it would be nice to adopt, so we adopted our daughter, Hannah, who has special needs,” said Denise. “We also decided to become involved in foster parenting, which has given us such a great sense of family and brought Neil and I closer together.”

The couple opened their home to adult foster children after Hannah’s diagnosis of high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome; she found it difficult to live with energetic children. The Tifts set aside the idea of fostering little ones and embraced those who have aged out of foster care. That’s how they met JR and later Mary, who is 20.

“He had no family and no one to help him, so we are happy to have him here,” said Dcn. Tift, referring to JR. “We have had Mary with us for five years since we changed our license from children to adults. Mary has seizures and needs care. No family was interested in her. With the little kids, families are often involved, but with adults, there is usually no one. It is a big void.”

Dcn. Tift’s work on behalf of the family unit also has him directing the Father Involvement Program a nearby child crisis center. He also travels the country equipping government agencies and social programs with training and vying for more father-friendly programs.

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There’s a misunderstanding in foster care that its children are “bad kids,” said Veronica Soto, MPA, a Catholic Charities Foster Care and Community Adoption Program Manager. “In reality, it is children that are in need of a caring adult that will raise them, care for them and be understanding of their
losses.”

Another misunderstanding is that parents are not being paid to care for the children, but are being reimbursed for helping with the cost of their care, said Agnes Cruz, lead resource home specialist for Catholic Charities.

“To adequately care for the children requires foster families who need to be willing to spend some of their own money,” said Cruz. “The training classes provided, which are a part of the licensing process, assist prospective foster parents with preparation and skills to alleviate their fears.”

The need in the Phoenix area is enormous, and just in the last week of August, Catholic Charities received a request for foster homes for 60 children between the ages of newborn and 6 who are currently in congregate care.

“The goal is to get them out of the group homes and shelters and into foster homes,” said Cruz.

Catholic Charities offers orientation sessions aimed at helping prospective foster parents become familiar with the needs and the process to become licensed. Follow-up classes are mandated by the state.

It’s important to ensure the immediate family and anyone else in the house is on board with the effort, said Soto, who oversees foster care and adoption. The foster care system needs adults dedicated to helping children in need.

While foster care requires dedication and energy, Dcn. Tift and Denise say that it is very rewarding and fulfilling.
“We have just been blessed to have been part of the lives of so many children and adults. There is such a huge need for children to have a family,” said Dcn. Tift. “If they don’t have a foster home, the children will sleep in DPS offices or in crisis centers until they find a home for them.”

Both believe they are living out Dcn. Tift’s vocation to be “Christ the Servant” by serving the Church and serving as foster parents.

“We pray together, and take some alone time to do devotions before bed or when we get up,” said Denise. “I feel strongly that God has led us on this path to take care of His children.”

Karen Anne Mahoney, The Catholic Sun.

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