Harford County resident Marlon Shird has served as a foster father for more than 40 boys over the past 24 years, and while they are not his biological children, he stresses that the boys should introduce him as their father.
“I let them know, take the word ‘foster’ out when they introduce me ... around friends it’s always ‘father,’” Shird, 53, said.
Shird, of Bel Air, said that is meant to reassure the children, who often are survivors of abuse or neglect, that they are part of a family when living with Shird, plus deflect any stigma that could be attached to being in foster care.
“You do everything as if it’s your biological [child],” said Shird, who is a foster parent through The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region’s Treatment Foster Care program.
Shird and his wife of two years, Merline, have been certified to be foster parents with the Aberdeen-based Arc NCR since September of 2019; he previously served as a foster father with Catholic Charities. Shird has been a foster parent since 1997, providing a temporary home to children and teenagers who have been removed from their biological families.
People considering becoming foster parents, Shird said, must be genuine and committed to serving the children, because “you will be tested on all levels.” He does not have biological children, but said he strives to treat his foster children as if there are his own and that foster parents must take on all the responsibilities that come with parenting.
“You have to have commitment, and you have to have a passion for it,” he said.
Steve Acerno, The Arc’s treatment foster care director, described Shird as “very caring, very compassionate; [he] has a lot of patience in caring for teenagers.”
“He approaches each child, each situation, with a sense of humility,” Acerno said. “He always has a willingness to learn new things, all in an effort to help that child he’s working with.”
Shird and his wife are currently caring for a high school-aged boy, and the family is slated to take a getaway this weekend to celebrate Father’s Day and the end of the 2020-21 school year. The teen “weathered the storm” of online learning and finished the year learning in person part of the week.
“He did well,” Shird said. “Despite the barriers that were there, he did well.”
Shird usually takes his foster sons on trips three to four times a year, bringing them to places they don’t typically get to visit. He recalled taking one boy to the beach a number of years ago, noting that the child “stood in the sand, at least 20 minutes, in awe,” as he had not been to the beach before.
The trips make the foster children feel as though they are part of Shird’s family, he said, and traveling broadens their horizons, as they are experiencing in real life places and things that they would normally see on television.
“It brings an awareness that there is something bigger than your normal,” Shird said.
He has not been able to take trips with his foster son over the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has put together at-home activities such as cooking contests in which members of Shird’s family were invited to participate.
“It was a lot of fun — it brought out the competition in everybody,” he said of the contests.
Shird grew up in southwest Baltimore, the oldest of four siblings. He has worked to incorporate his extended family into the foster care experience, and the children are included in family celebrations of holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
He got involved in foster care at the suggestion of a member of his church, United Brethren for Christ Inc. in Baltimore, where he had been working in the church’s youth mentoring program. He is still a member of the church and remains involved in the mentoring program.
“It was pretty much my goal, and my drive as well, to give young men some of the things that I longed for growing up ... it became a passion,” Shird said of being a foster parent, with a focus on caring for boys and working to give them the tools they need to navigate through life.
“I always felt that I had more to give to the young men,” he said.
Shird said had a good relationship with his mother and father, and served as a role model for his younger siblings while growing up, but he wanted an older brother to give him guidance to get through the challenges of life.
“I think, if I had a peer or mentor to bring it down to my level, I wouldn’t have bumped my head so much,” he said.
It took longer than expected for Shird to finish college, as he “needed further guidance” to be successful while going to school away from home. He came back home, got a job and eventually earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
As a foster father, Shird works with boys who have suffered emotional, physical and even sexual trauma, as well as cognitive issues such as ADHD. He works with the boys to understand that it is not their fault that they are in foster care, as well as to acknowledge the sources of their trauma but not use the trauma to hold themselves back.
“You don’t forget it, but at some point you don’t use that as your crutch to [keep] you from moving forward,” Shird said.
He also stressed the need for foster parents to maintain consistency and routines with their children, even when things become difficult. He recalled one boy, now in his 20s, who had to leave his home, but Shird kept paying the youth’s cell phone bill so they could stay in touch.
The young man, after a cooling-off period, began contacting Shird again, and now calls Shird daily, sometimes two or three times a day — and he covers his own phone bill.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things, staying consistent,” he said, noting that some of his former foster sons have married, and others have excelled in their jobs and careers.
The Arc NCR, which serves Harford and Cecil counties, has 32 foster parents certified to serve in its program, but more people — either individuals or people with families — are needed. Prospective parents can visit The Arc NCR’s website to apply, or they can contact Acerno at 410-618-6126 with any questions.
The organization provides a lot of training for foster parents and families, and social workers are available 24/7 if there are emergencies or support is needed, according to Acerno.
Parents should be “willing to open not only their homes, but also their hearts,” love the children unconditionally, but also understand that the child will go back to their biological family once it is safe to do so, Acerno said. One key duty of foster parents is facilitating regular contact between the child and their birth family, either by phone, online or in-person visits.
“It’s really a passion of theirs, and they want to make an impact on a child’s life,” Acerno said of foster parents who work with The Arc.
“In some ways it’s a calling for them, so their main focus is, how can I impact a child’s life in a positive way?” he added.