Sam Macer didn't think much of it when a second-grader he was tutoring in Baltimore County asked if she could live with him. Children say those sorts of things; he obviously couldn't just whisk her away from her family.
Then one day, the little girl stopped coming to school. Macer figured she was lost to him forever.
But a short time later, when he was visiting his mother-in-law in Anne Arundel County, he spotted the girl playing on the swings. She had been removed from her home, she told him, and placed with a foster family there.
Again, she asked if she could live with Macer, his wife, Lisa, and their two kids. This time he did not say no.
"I'll do whatever it takes," Macer, 58, said to himself.
And that was how Macer became a foster father to two girls - the 8-year-old and her 7-year-old sister.
The girls have been part of his family for seven years, but today will probably be their last Father's Day together. If all goes according to plan, they will leave the Macer household this summer to reunite with their biological mother.
Macer is one of more than 2,800 foster parents in Maryland and one of many fathers, both single and in families, who are raising foster care children. In some cases, these fathers - whom the Maryland Department of Human Resources is welcoming as they seek to expand the shrinking pool of foster parents in the state - are parenting children who have never had an adult male figure in their lives. At root, children need a loving home, but experts say that foster fathers, in particular, may offer children something that mothers can't necessarily provide.
In finding homes for children, workers sometimes look at whether a household includes a father, said Sandra Stewart, a supervisor at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services."With older youth coming from an environment where they've seen drugs, for instance, or men who were not working or participating in things thought to be positive in the community - then you would want the youth in a household with a positive male figure," she said.
Studies show that a father's involvement, in general, improves a child's well-being. Boys are quite influenced by having a male figure around, said Richard Barth, a professor and dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Because of their histories, children in foster care can be behind in school. "One of the things that fathers may be able to bring are the kinds of activities especially that connect them to children who are not that oriented toward higher education," Barth said. That might include playing sports or working on cars.
Because Maryland has lost about 1,000 foster families in the past five years or so - primarily because foster parents adopted the children placed with them - the state is making a major push to recruit foster parents. The hope is to add another 1,000 families to the corps by 2010.
To that end, the Department of Human Resources has initiated several incentives, including paying for child care for foster families, increasing the stipend that they receive and bolstering the mental health services available to foster children. While the state is seeking foster parents of all kinds, fathers certainly are part of the mix. People often think they're ineligible because they are single or work full-time, but those ideas are myths, said Elyn Garrett Jones, deputy director of communications at the Department of Human Resources. "We don't discriminate based on race, sex or sexual preference. Our No. 1 priority when we place children is for their safety and well-being," she said.
For many years, Douglas Garlock and his wife, Maureen, considered adopting a child. They have a son, Dylan, who is 9, but Maureen Garlock isn't able to have any more children. In 2001, their daughter - who had medical complications from birth - died at 6 months old.
Douglas Garlock, a Frederick auto shop owner and biker who is covered in tattoos, admits that at first, "I was kind of stand-offish about this whole adoption, foster-child thing."
"I knew I would always love a child no matter who he or she was, but I never thought you could love a child as if it was your own," he said.
But all that changed 16 months ago, when Garlock and his wife Maureen brought home a foster daughter - a 2-month old infant they call Rae-Rae. "She's beautiful in every way," he said.
The Garlocks are waiting to see if they can adopt her.
Jacob Agnew's adventure in single fatherhood began about six years ago, when he took in his nephew after his sister died of AIDS. His nephew stayed through high school and soon after he left, Agnew began sheltering children overnight as an emergency care provider.
That's how Muhammad Levette became his foster son. Levette was 14 and had taken himself to the Baltimore City Social Services Department. The teenager came for one night at Agnew's and ended up staying.
Levette, who calls Agnew "Pops," was with him for several years, and then joined the military. Now 21, he is serving in Afghanistan. Agnew regularly sends him boxes of cookies and they speak as often as every few days.
"From the moment the relationship was going somewhere, I always considered him as my son," he said.
Three months ago, another youth, 17-year-old Tavon, came to live with Agnew, 57, a correctional officer. He calls him Pops now, too.
"For guys sometimes, they just need a male mentor," said Agnew, who was always pained that he grew up without a father figure. A lot of people are reluctant to take in older children, especially teenage boys, but "they need and want somebody to put an arm around them, to call them Son."
He plans to continue taking in foster children, he said, "for as long as I'm able to walk around and breathe."
Macer, who trains prospective foster parents, always emphasizes that children can be sent back to their biological families and that foster parents must be prepared for that possibility.
"You have to understand that you're going to have to let them go at some point," said Macer. It was always academic, though, until this year - when the mother of his foster daughters was released from prison. She has gone through drug treatment and parenting classes, and it now looks as if she will be reunited with her daughters later this month.
It'll be hard, said Macer, but "it's good for the foster child that I let them go in an appropriate manner."
Macer, a medical biller who works from home, knows all too well that foster children generally experience "trauma and drama" when they enter a new home. They have to go through a grieving process for the biological family, and it can take time to settle.
He and his wife plan to take two months off. Then in August they will let the local social services know they are ready to take in more children.