California Today: California Today: A Foster Family Who Can’t Say ‘No’

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Last Thanksgiving, 46 members of the MacDowell family gathered for a photo outside Redding. Credit The MacDowell family

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Raelene MacDowell and her husband, Ted, are among California’s most prolific foster parents.

Since 1978, they’ve opened their home to more than 630 children, a figure that child welfare experts say is virtually unheard-of.

“She is a rather unique and amazing woman,” Dianna Wagner, the director of Shasta County’s children’s services agency, said of Ms. MacDowell. “As a foster parent, she really never turned away a kid.”

In California, more than 60,000 children are in foster care. Experts say there is a dire shortage of volunteers to care for them.

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At the same time, parents occasionally come along who get hooked, said Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor of social welfare at University of California, Berkeley.

“They take in child after child after child,” she added. “And it’s just truly extraordinary.”

Ms. MacDowell, 72, was recently honored at a Shasta County board of supervisors meeting for her service to the county.

In an interview, she said she always loved children. After giving birth to three of their own, she pitched the idea of becoming foster parents to Ted, who was running a masonry business.

Fortunately, he was on board — over the years, he changed his share of diapers and taught a bunch of the children to fish.

Ms. MacDowell specialized in caring for medically fragile or drug-addicted babies — “the ones no one wants,” she said.


Ted and Raelene MacDowell have been taking in foster children for nearly 40 years. Credit The McDowell family

“Somebody has to make a difference to the kids,” she said. “Grown-ups make their own messes and they need to clean them up, but kids don’t have anyone to do that for them.”

The couple eventually adopted several children. The MacDowell clan today includes 10 children, 28 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In a family photo last Thanksgiving, there were 46 people.

Life has been a nonstop procession of birthdays, barbecues and holiday gatherings.

Skyeler McDowell, 21, one of the couple’s adopted children, who now lives in Washington State, recalled, “One of my favorite memories is when my parents would bring home a new baby, right from the hospital. We would all run out to the car and meet them and make them part of our family.”

In recent years, there’s been a pause on new foster babies at the house.

Ms. MacDowell took a job with the county training foster parents and had to abide by workplace rules that bar employees from taking in local children.

But in April she retired. Days later, she was holding a new baby girl in her arms.

“That wasn’t our plan,” she said. “But it just fell in our lap. And how do I say, no?”

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And Finally …

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