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Couple's open door gives foster teens a chance at family life

When it comes to sharing their red-brick suburban home with children in need, Carole and Bill Miller have had an unusually generous open-door policy. They have five children of their own. But for the better part of two decades, while their youngsters were growing up, they have taken in more than 30 children needing foster homes. The visitors, more often of grade- or high-school age than infants, have stayed anywhere from a few weeks to 10 years.

''Nobody wants teen-agers, but I'll take one any day,'' Mrs. Miller says. ''They're so alive and eager to be a part of things.''

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And in the last few months the Millers have embarked on a new, more global foster care program. By July their home will have served as a one-month orientation or reception stop for some 36 Indochinese refugees en route to more permanent foster homes in Illinois. Such homes must be found before the youngsters can be flown to the United States from refugee camps. So far homes have been found for eight.

The Miller family is also on tap for emergency placements. They took in 17 -year-old Monthip, originally from Thailand, on a scant two hours' notice last fall. And a few homeless animals, including two dogs and a pair of constantly cooing white doves from a nearby wildlife refuge, have also wangled their way into the Millers' home and hearts. ''We're soft,'' concludes Mr. Miller.

But the atmosphere in this home is far from one of cluttered chaos. A visitor senses quickly that the situation is relaxed but very much under control. The house is neat and orderly. Various children frequently step into the living room where the parents are chatting to share news on where they are going and when they'll be back.

Fifteen-year-old Matthew, the youngest of their own five, says that he and Hieu, the first of the Vietnamese arrivals, are off to collect payments on their joint newspaper route. ''We're so delighted - they're like brothers,'' says Mrs. Miller. Indeed, Hieu, who escaped, after three attempts, from Saigon to a Thai refugee camp where he stayed for two years before coming to the Millers in October, will stay on with the family indefinitely and help as an interpreter.

''Somehow the atmosphere at the Millers is always calm when you go there,'' says Phyllis Voosen, a supervisor and social worker with the Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, the agency that has supplied the Millers with most of their foster charges, including those in the refugee program.

''They have incredible organizational skills,'' Ms. Voosen says. ''How they can function with the number of kids they've had, meeting the special needs of each but staying so family-oriented, is really beyond belief. They are a unique family - willing to do one of the hardest jobs. We've always felt that when any kind of difficult situation came up, the Millers could probably handle it.''

The risks in providing foster care - not knowing how well the child will adjust, how long he or she will stay, and the effect on one's own children - are such that many parents feel they could never tackle the job.

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But the Millers, who often take the family camping in the summer, particularly enjoy parenting and feel they have a natural gift for it. They are also deeply religious. ''We think of it as our ministry,'' Mrs. Miller says, ''and we're doing every day what we really want to do.''

She says that once she decided she would happily wash and cook to meet other people's needs, the number of children (though state law limits the total under age 18 in any household to eight) and curbs on freedom became less important. ''It's no longer an imposition,'' she says.

The Millers also see it as one way to help teach their own children that giving is an important part of living. Their oldest daughter, Angie, and her husband are working this year with a shelter for the homeless in Washington, D.C., while Lisa, another daughter, is a social worker in Tulsa, Okla. ''That's when we knew what we were doing had some impact,'' Mrs. Miller laughs.

And over the years a family confab is always held on whether or not to take in each foster child as the need arises. ''We've never had a 'no,' '' says Mr. Miller, a district telephone company manager who insists that being part of the process helps each child to fit in more quickly and become a ''team'' member.

Yet the Millers are the first to admit that not all of this has been easy. Many of the foster children have been abused in their own families and have come with emotional and sometimes physical problems. Occasionally a youngster has been destructive, damaging the Millers' home or another child's property. One child had been in six other foster homes in 18 months. Accordingly, the Millers say they expect little in gratitude or cooperation but feel that whatever time the youngsters spend with them must help. ''We feel our home is the best place they could possibly be,'' says Mr. Miller, who says they had to ask the agency only once to remove a child.

The Millers try to provide the kind of stability and structured rules and chores that will not be inflexible but that amount to what Mr. Miller calls a ''security blanket.'' Most are based on common sense and simple courtesy. To respect privacy, for instance, children learn they should knock on any door of this six-bedroom house before entering. Similarly, Mrs. Miller says it is just understood - ''I don't have to enforce it'' - that everyone cleans up his own living area before breakfast.

Everyone helps with chores as they are suited. Washing dishes is the most popular - ''probably because they get through fastest that way,'' Mrs. Miller says with a laugh. But each child is paid an allowance not for the work done but as one of the family.

And the youngsters say where they are going and when they'll be back, just as the parents do. ''We're legally responsible, so we have to know where the kids are and what they're doing all the time,'' says Mr. Miller. Television is largely limited to news, sports, and nature shows on weekends, on grounds that too much tube-watching wastes precious time. ''We do a lot of just plain talking - that's more fun anyway,'' says Mrs. Miller. But if a US child comes ''hooked'' on watching TV, exceptions may be made. ''It's much more important at that point for him to feel comfortable and relaxed than that family time is not being used wisely,'' she says.

The Millers do notice a sharp difference from their experience with US foster children and the new refugees. ''The Vietnamese are eager to learn, outgoing, and respectful - a sheer delight,'' says Mrs. Miller, who cooks rice each night which the newcomers eat topped with chili, macaroni, or whatever else the main meal includes.

Yet the Millers insist they would not trade their experience. They admit it has changed their lives but say it has given them a larger sense of purpose. ''Hopefully more people are looking for the kind of change that will give more meaning to their lives,'' Mr. Miller says.

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