FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — When asked how many children they’ve fostered over the years, Staff Sgt. Scott Harper and his wife, Mindy, have to pause for a minute to count — the answer is 27. That’s just one part of the story, however. Their volunteer efforts in the Fort Leonard Wood community, along with the work they are doing to find solutions for issues in the foster care system, have made an impression on many in the area.
Harper, a systems development NCO with the Maneuver Support Capability Development Integration Directorate’s Protection Branch, has been nominated by his unit for what’s called The Spirit of Hope Award. First established in 1997, the Department of Defense-level award honors entertainer and military supporter Bob Hope. It is presented annually on behalf of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to seven individuals or organizations that embody Bob Hope’s values of duty, honor, courage, loyalty, commitment, integrity and selfless dedication.
Harper and his wife were “high school sweethearts,” said the Dacula, Georgia, native, when he joined the Army and trained into the Military Police Corps 14 years ago.
“I wanted to be able to provide more for my family than what was available around there, which wasn’t much at the time,” he said.
They began fostering children in 2017, while at their previous duty location, Fort Riley, Kansas. Harper said they started simply to expand their family — they are currently in the process of finalizing their first adoption — and the training they originally received to become licensed foster parents helped prepare them for the new responsibilities.
“They tell you about trauma — some of the typical issues that foster kids have and how you can help mitigate it — so you come into it with an understanding of what you’re getting into,” he said. “The big thing that surprised me is that it’s not the kids who are stressful. Normally, it’s the biological family and the case workers — but every kid’s different.”
Harper said they were originally concerned that there wasn’t enough space in their home, but most of the time, the children who are new to foster care, “literally come with nothing, maybe a trash bag full of clothes.”
Harper recalled a time his wife received a call from a case worker who had a group of girls in her office.
“They were in their underwear,” he said, turning to his wife. “One of them didn’t even have underwear — wasn’t it a bedsheet? No, it was a nightgown that had been ripped.”
The Harpers decided they wanted to do more to help bring awareness to the health and safety issues associated with the foster child care system. In addition to leading fund-raising initiatives and expansion efforts for local charities and foster closets, they have written the bylaws for a non-profit organization they want to start. The non-profit would address some of the gaps in the foster care system by assisting with cross-training the various aspects — foster parents, case workers and volunteer advocates, for example — so everyone is working more effectively to address and mitigate the trauma that happens with the children.
“We’re looking at getting more community involvement, setting up some kind of a resource outlet,” he said. “The different aspects don’t talk enough, and we’re trying to bridge that gap.”
Harper’s efforts are deserving of recognition, said Maj. Meghan Engleson, chief of the Maneuver Support CDID’s Protection Branch.
“(Harper) continues to display exceptional empathy and work ethic in bettering the community through one of its most precious assets, our future generation,” Engleson said. “Through his efforts on and off duty, he is making a long-term positive impact in the lives of those that need a voice most.”
Where ever the Army takes them next, Harper said he and his wife will continue to assist the foster care system however they can.
“We’re going to continue and get a feel for the local area at the next assignment and see how we can improve it,” he said.
Harper said it’s ultimately about the impact on the children.
“It may be two, three, four months — they might be in a different foster home — and you see them out somewhere and you talk to them, and they say, ‘Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done.’ We’ve had some, where we sit down and talk with them and listened to them, and we’ve brought their concerns up to their case team and that positively impacted them, and it’s affecting them for the rest of their life,” Harper said. “The biological parents are going to do what they’re going to do, but the children — that’s the future, and we have to be concerned with the future. You don’t want whatever happened to them to repeat itself, because that does happen sometimes with kids in foster care. We’re trying to help break that cycle.”