Foster family celebrates another anniversary of finding each other

Harvey and Karen Puckett gather at Sirloin Stockade for their 2021 reunion with Nyra Whitley, Nosha Nichols, Neka Whitley, Natisha Lemmons and Nathia Whitley, their biological children Trish and Luke Puckett, their spouses and their grandchildren.

MURRAY — A foster family from Dexter is celebrating 25 years together after parents Martha and Harvey Puckett became determined to not split up five young siblings. The Pucketts meet with their foster children, Nyra Whitley, Nosha Nichols, Neka Whitley, Natisha Lemmons and Nathia Whitley every year at Sirloin Stockade in Murray to get together over a meal and look back on what they all consider to be a miracle.

The siblings were all under the age of 12 when they were moved into the foster care system. Nichols said before they were turned over to the care of the state, their family was constantly moving around. Her sister, Neka Whitley, said even though she was small at the time, she doesn’t remember being able to celebrate any holidays. Nichols said her and her siblings were not in school consistently.

“I really wanted to go to school cause I’m a nerd, I like to learn,” Nichols said. “But some days we’d go to school and some days we wouldn’t.”

Their housing was also becoming a problem. Nichols said when they moved to Paducah, she and her siblings were living in a hotel room. She is the second oldest, and was nine at the time, often the only one taking care of her younger three siblings. She said a social worker at Cooper Whiteside Elementary School in Paducah turned their case into the state after she raised concerns and the children told her how badly they wanted to be in school. Nichols said their case was determined to be severe neglect.

“The foster families have to fight hard to keep siblings together, or they have to demand to keep them together,” Whitley said. “Most homes don’t want to take in siblings.”

Karen Puckett said it’s unusual for that many siblings to be able to stay together and not be split up. Whitley said she believes her and her siblings were able to stay together and get permanent placement with the Puckett’s because social workers who knew their situation lobbied hard for their case in Frankfort.

Puckett said she didn’t consider becoming a foster parent until hearing an announcement at church that there was a need for more people to come forward. She said she and her husband have fostered around 130 children. She said a lot of those children were just one night stays, but it was enough to know that their home could provide them comfort even if it was just a short amount of time.

“She’s the type of person when somebody needs help or needs something, she steps up, both my mom and dad are like that,” Whitley said.

Puckett said her goal was to not break-up their family, and they succeeded, but it took time for some of the kids to become totally trusting.

“When they started calling them mom and dad, I would smack them and say ‘you have a mom and dad.’ I didn’t want them to get attached cause I had that fear we’d be separated or moved,” Nichols said. “So, being with mom and dad and having access to a huge family was very comforting, but scary at the same time,”

Puckett said the foster care system can put children through a lot. She said it would be difficult for anyone to be asked to drop everything they knew to be put in an entirely new situation.

“Look at it as an adult. If someone came up and told you ‘I’m going to come put you in a new home, to a new church,’ if you were a child you’d be going to a new school,” Puckett said.

Whitely said she’s thankful for her big family, and said she’s concerned about what would have happened if her and her siblings were split.

“I’m afraid that if we did get split up, I would have been bounced around and singled out,” Whitley said. “But when you’re with your family, there’s constant love all the time. I feel bad for those who don’t have that.”

The family doesn’t just get together once a year, they are together all the time; having cookouts and dinner nights. Puckett said the best thing about being a foster parent is the grandkids, and she sure has a lot of them. She said even though it is rewarding, she wants others who are considering becoming foster parents to understand that it’s a job that takes a lot of mental and emotional strength, as well as a lot of love. 

“If they see that they can’t take the kids and love them, and treat them right, they need to quit,” Puckett said. “Because these kids have already been through a lot.”