Crystal and Daniel Steffa's backyard was once confused with a park.
Their Malta house is the one with a swingset, playground, play castle, merry-go-round, and trampoline outside. The Steffas have always loved children, and they have four biological children. In 2001, when their oldest daughter was a teenager, the couple became foster parents.
To date, they have fostered more than 20 children. Their family now includes two adopted children and three foster children.
"We thought that we knew everything since we have four biological children, but foster children are so different," Crystal Steffa said. "You never know what to expect."
Her husband said being a foster parent "has its ups and downs."
"It is very stressful," he said. "But it is very rewarding. ...It takes a special person to be a foster parent."
Karen Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said that there are nearly 15,000 foster children and only about 11,400 licensed foster homes in the state of Illinois. According to DCFS, there are 86 foster children and 69 licensed foster homes in DeKalb County.
Crystal and Daniel Steffa's oldest biological daughter, Stephanie Grimm, became a licensed foster parent three months ago. Daniel Steffa's grandmother was a foster parent for more than 55 children.
"Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and my grandmother doing foster care work impressed me," Daniel Steffa said. "I became a foster parent because I wanted to help the kids, to let them have a normal household, a normal life."
Kara Giudice and her husband, Mark, of DeKalb have been foster parents for four years.
"We became foster parents because even if it's for one day, one year, or for a lifetime, we want them to know that they are safe and cared about," Kara Giudice said. "I wanted to give a safe place for kids that needed it."
To become a licensed foster parent in Illinois, applicants must complete 16 hours of training, classes, a background check, and a home review. Licenses must be renewed every four years.
When placing children in foster homes, the goal is to keep the child in the same school district and community, near their family, Hawkins said. DCFS first looks to place the child with a relative or family friend. If that is not successful, DCFS places the child in a licensed foster home.
"Being a foster parent is a huge undertaking, to love and nurture them, with the understanding that the goal is for them to safely return to their families," Hawkins said. "It can be temporary; they may go back to their biological families."
"You will have heartbreak, but it's good because that's the best possible ending, to have them reunited with their family," Crystal Steffa said.
When children can't be reunited with their families, adoption is often the solution. Giudice has adopted two of her foster children and is in the process of adopting the other two. The Steffas have adopted two of their foster children and are in the process of adopting another.
"Although we have adopted our children, it is important for our kids to know who their birth families are and to have a connection with them," Giudice said. "To hear back from the birth parents or the children after we've fostered them means a lot. Especially with the older kids, who are hurt and angry, we don't know if we made a difference. Their coming back and thanking us reaffirms that they appreciate how we were there for them."
"I'm not going to say that it's easy, because no child is easy," Crystal Steffa said. "But you fall in love with the children, no matter what child you have. ...It makes your life that much better to see their successes."