For more information on the number of children in foster care statewide, click here.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- As a little girl, Joani Korf's favorite book was "The Expandable Browns," a charming story about a family that extended hospitality to anyone in need.
The theme resonated with Korf, who was adopted as an infant, and she grew up intending to one day become a mother. She wanted a big family, 10 kids.
Joani, 47, and her husband, Henry, 49, of Cedar Falls, raised three biological children. They wanted more. When that didn't happen, they prepared to become licensed foster parents.
"Having received the gift of a family myself ... I just never really felt like my family was done," Joani said.
On Tuesday, the Korf family expanded. In a crowded courtroom and before a teary audience, the couple adopted Brielle, 15; Piper, 9; and Amaiyah, 6.
The occasion followed the January adoption of the girls' baby sister, Gracelynn, now 16 months.
Over the past five years, the number and rate of out-of-home placements of children in Iowa has declined, a statistic the officials attribute to child welfare reform. But agencies working with foster families still identify a need to find willing adults.
"The need for families that can provide a safe, stable and nurturing environment to a wide variety of children with a wide variety of needs and behaviors is actually pretty critical," said Josh Pedretti, a renewal and support supervisor for Iowa KidsNet.
The umbrella organization for human services agencies recruits, trains, licenses and supports Iowa's foster and adoptive families and provides matching services for the Iowa Department of Human Services.
The demand for families to take in older children, siblings and youth with behavioral and other special needs is especially urgent, and Iowa KidsNet is concentrating on locating families to fill the gap, according to Pedretti. To keep kids connected to their culture, Iowa KidsNet and the DHS also would like to diversify its pool to include more African-American, Latino and Native American families.
DHS officials report 2,400 foster and adoptive homes in Iowa. Of those, 85 are in Black Hawk County.
Officials are honest about the reality of caring for children who have experienced neglect, abandonment, loss and abuse. Human service agencies, consequently, prepare families through classes and support groups.
In Iowa, the purpose of foster care is to provide a safe and temporary environment for children in need. The state works to keep or return children to their family and most will, according to Roger Munns, public information officer for the DHS.
When that isn't possible, officials consider an out-of-home placement or adoption. In 2011, 850 foster children in Iowa were adopted, a drop from 1,050 in 2007. The reduction was due to fewer children in the system, according to DHS.
For the Korfs, the adoption of four sisters cemented what to them has very much felt and functioned as a family. Piper and Amaiyah came to stay in 2008. After a rocky and reluctant start, Brielle arrived more than a year ago and brought a child of her own to the home.
"We really didn't know that we'd get here today," Joani Korf said. "It's a very complicated situation."
The Korfs took a somewhat unconventional route to become adoptive parents. They were legal guardians, along with a biological grandmother, for Amaiyah and Piper. They were aware of the situation because a family friend told them the girls needed help.
The Korfs assumed adoption would soon follow and signed up for required classes, which meant 10 weekly commutes to Mason City. They soon learned their preferred outcome was not going to be easy and wasn't guaranteed.
A whirlwind of paperwork, home visits and court dates followed. In hindsight, the Korfs say they may have approached the task a bit naively. Henry Korf, for instance, says he underestimated the time needed to establish trust.
Despite a learning curve, loving persistence, kept promises and clear boundaries paid off.
"A teen in foster care is a product of their environment and you can't really know who they are until you alter their environment," Joani said.
The Korfs are strong advocates of foster and adoptive care and hope other families will give older children a chance.
"Everybody deserves a fair shot," Joani added.
On paper, Brielle looked like a tough cookie and put up a resistant front, according to Joani. Combative. Independent. A runaway.
According to Brielle, she was exposed early on to drugs, alcohol and abuse. Loved ones walked in and out of her life, unable or unwilling to provide consistent care.
In the sixth grade, she hung out with a rebellious crowd. She switched schools and bounced from a relative's home to state facility to foster care. Her confidence plummeted, Brielle says, and her anger grew, which led to fights and trouble with friends.
"And I hated being the new kid. I hated having all the attention on me," she said.
She sought attention where she could find it and ended up pregnant. When Brielle met the Korfs, she loved her little sisters and wanted to be a good mother. But she resented that adults and systems made decisions about her life.
Initially, Brielle resisted the Korfs' rules and structure. She moved in but the setup didn't last.
"When you walk the straight and narrow I've got your back. I will go to the wall for you. When you mess around, I am going to hold you accountable," Joani said.
Her hopes soared when Brielle, who had been staying with another foster family, invited Joani to come to the hospital. Brielle's daughter, Kira, was on the way.
During one memorable confrontation, Brielle challenged Joani to give up on her, listing all the reasons she should. Joani refused.
"'That's not what I see. That's not what I see,'" Joani said. "'I think you're sweet.'"
Eventually, the Korfs earned her trust. Brielle gave the family, and herself, a chance. She now hopes to use her experiences to encourage other struggling teens.
"It's like, you are not your mistakes," Brielle said. "You can make 1,000 mistakes but if you make one right choice you can make it."
Nationally, 400,000 children are in foster care. In March, Iowa reported 6,164 children being served. Odds suggest most will be reunited with their families of origin. In the meantime, they need a positive environment.
"If we provide them with a safe, stable and nurturing home those kids can thrive and they will thrive," Pedretti said.
Technically, the Korfs only served as foster parents to Gracelynn, the youngest. After serving as legal guardians for Brielle, Piper and Amaiyah, the girls joined the family through private adoption.
The Korfs have experienced many of the same challenges and blessings that come with deciding to love and shelter children not knowing how long they will stay.
Henry Korf, an air traffic controller in Waterloo and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, remembers a pivotal moment. With one adult child and two teenagers, he was a few years away from an empty nest and anticipating more free time.
A man of faith, Henry looked at his big house and believed God would never let it be empty. Being a foster and adoptive dad has made him a better man.
"You can't take swimming pools with you ... but you can take relationships," Henry said.
Anne-Elizabeth Smith, 20, one of the couple's biological children, also gleaned life lessons.
"You realize what's really important," she said. "It's not like fancy vacations and lots of clothes."
In the middle of it all, Joani, who is studying to become a Christian counselor, went online in search of the book that helped plant the seed. She eventually found a 1955 edition of "The Expandable Browns." She read a chapter a night to the younger girls, and the book is now prominently displayed in their dining room.
"I think there is an assumption as the caregivers family, you have to give up so much," Joani said. "In reality, what you receive as a foster family is so much more than you can give. That is not a cliche. That is the truth."
The Korfs arrived early for their hearing in the Black Hawk County Courthouse. They were accompanied by an entourage of 30 friends and family.
Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest. Amaiyah, after being talked out of a princess costume, wore a long red dress. She did get to wear a crown with a picture of Belle from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Piper, a few years older, sported a more modest, silver tiara.
One by one, a judge quizzed the Korfs and the three girls about the significance and responsibilities of adoption. The judge also confirmed the sisters' willingness to pick new first, middle and last names.
"We believe a name is so special," Joani said.
Choosing names, a family decision, symbolizes new beginnings. The names also speak to the character, Christian faith and individuality of each sister. Brielle Saisha Joy Korf. Piper Faith Alyvia Korf. Amaiyah Hope Infinity Korf.
"My other name is another life ... ," Brielle said. "You go through different experiences and learn and this is how you can apply all your new experiences."
From time to time, friends and acquaintances compliment the Korfs for what others consider extraordinary parenting skills. The Korfs don't view themselves as special and say they certainly weren't fearless. Just willing.
"Really the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is just saying yes," Joani said.