Payson mother Sue Belcher grew up in a less than idyllic home.
Her mom committed suicide when she was six, and her dad was an alcoholic. But Sue somehow learned to be a loving, easy-going, energetic mother to her four biological sons, her adopted son, and a host of foster children.
She loves them, and so does her husband Tom, who also had a rough upbringing.
"We fall in love with the children we get," she said. "This is our dream. I always wanted to have a home where I could have animals and children from abused homes and give them a safe place where they could be loved."
The Belchers have done just that. Their farm in Wonder Valley looks like a scene from a jigsaw puzzle box. Their two-story log cabin with forest green trim is nestled between hills, swings, pastures and plenty of animals for the kids to play with.
Not all the foster kids are kids, however. One girl, 16-year-old "Tina," is eight-months pregnant and acts about 22. She's healthy and beautiful, but didn't look that way when she showed up at the Belcher's door two months ago.
She was dangerously thin and her naturally light hair was dyed jet black. Tina had run away from home and was on drugs.
Even so, she clicked with the Belchers immediately.
"I loved Tina right from the beginning," Sue said. "She wanted to take in the groceries for me and help around the house as soon as she got here. I think all the experience she's getting with my kids is going to help her be a better mom."
Tina will likely be a better mom than most 16-year-olds. The Belcher children go to her when they need help drawing, want a playmate, or an older person to mediate tiffs.
Being gentle with them seems to come easily to her.
One crowded house
Over the last six years, the Belchers have taken in about one dozen children for an average of two years each. Their house has four bedrooms and gets crowded, but Sue tries to make sure each person has a little bit of their own space.
"Some of the kids are so upset when they get here," she said. "We try to get them involved in activities to take their minds off things, but we also want them to have time to themselves to think. I tell them to go outside and talk to the horses, or play with the cats. That's what I used to do when I wanted to figure things out."
Sue had things figured out for a long time and knew what she wanted out of life, but didn't act on her dreams until she married Tom.
"Before that, I was very materialistic." Sue then grinned widely and chuckled when she said, "But I've had to get over that. Everything in my house has been broken at least twice.
"I always knew I wanted to open my life up to other people, but I didn't do it until Tom and I were sitting on the back porch and we told each other we wanted to take in foster kids. I never thought he would want to do anything like that, but I should have known. He's got a big heart."
They learn as they go.
The Belchers didn't have good parenting role models, so a lot of education on family matters came along the way.
"I didn't know what a good family was growing up, and most of these kids don't either," Sue said. "I hope I'm teaching them the right things. I pray that I am.
Tom hopes he's doing the right thing too. But one thing is certain: he's having a lot of fun.
"Tom came home one day and said, 'I can't believe how much fun my dad missed out on by never coming home.' Tom loves being active with the kids and coaching little league. We enjoy having a big family."
Her big family gets a bad rap from people who have the wrong idea, though.
"Sometimes people glare at us in town like, 'Here comes Ms. Welfare and her 20 kids.' But we don't care. If you stay busy enough, you don't have time to worry about what anybody thinks.
The Belchers are one of 24 foster families in Northern Gila County, said Leslie Scott, Department of Economic Security resource specialist.
More foster parents like the Belchers are desperately needed, said Cecille Masters-Webb, program coordinator for Gila-County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
"We need to take a strong community position on protecting our children," Masters-Webb said. "If we think there is a child being abused, then we need to pick up a phone and call the hotline. We need to pay attention and do something about situations that are not safe."
Masters-Webb said she thinks society in general has shied away for many years, not wanting to get involved in difficult situations but that the tide may be changing.
"I believe we're coming back to noticing more and being involved in children's lives," she said. "An awful lot of people care, but don't know how to express that."
Part of the system
Foster parents are only one strand in the web of court-appointed people surrounding neglected or abused children.
The web includes a case manager, CASAs, teachers, children's attorneys, parent's attorneys, therapists, foster parents, surrogate parents and biological parents all for one child.
It's often the biological parents who make more work for these people than is necessary, Sue Belcher said.
"The hardest thing I've found is that the natural parents have more rights than the kids," she said. "I just pray that a lot of the bad situations I've been exposed to get better. When the kids go back to their parents and I know it's not a good situation but there's nothing I can do about it it just rips my heart out.
"You tell yourself you won't get attached, but you usually do. It's worth it though. It's all worth it."
Sue said she falls asleep every night as soon as her head hits the pillow.
"I never have trouble sleeping. I used to before I had this life. I had plenty of money and everything people think they need to be happy, but I wasn't. Now I just work through my day and go to bed. If that's the way you do it, you have no troubles."
One trouble Masters-Webb sees is a lack of information sharing between foster parents and other agencies. Too often, the foster parents don't get to know as much about the child's background as they think they should.
"I think that foster parent's questions need to be addressed," she said. "They don't get to know a lot of the child's history that other people know."
The reason for this is a mystery to most people involved, she said.
Overall, there are many agencies and programs for neglected and abused children, but volunteers are needed now more than ever, she said.
Only one out of five abused and neglected children currently has someone working for their safety, according to Arizona Supreme Court statistics.
"There are so many kids who have no one to care about them, even after they're in the system," Belcher said. "My husband came home one day and said he saw a whole bus full of boys going to a shelter. It made him want to cry that none of those boys had homes to go to.
"We try to make our house feel as much like a home as we can," she added. "No matter what anyone has planned, they eat a family dinner here with us first."
The Belcher's glossy oak table with its sturdy benches and knots of time and weathered wood can only hold so many, though.
"We need more people to get involved and show they care," Masters-Webb said.
Anyone interested in getting involved with Gila County's many child-protective organizations can call Richard Croy at 474-1759.