With Open Arms …
|by Frances Joyce, May 2013|
Baby D is sleeping peacefully in his carrier. I marvel at his angelic face and tiny fingers as I watch his little chest rise and fall. He is very fair, much like my son James when he was a baby. Having made this association, it seems impossible that Baby D is one of the 408,000 children in foster care in the United States. Meeting him has given a face to these children; they are more than a statistic. They are all someone’s child, just like my son or your daughter, and just as deserving of love and attention, but who will fill the void when mom or dad can’t?
Sitting to my left is Anne Wagner, his foster mother. She smiles as Baby D gurgles softly. He is her thirtieth foster child in almost fourteen years.
“Sometimes you get a call in the middle of the night, and sometimes you have just turned a child over to their new adoptive family, and you are halfway home when you get a call about a child in need,” she says.
“Occasionally, we have more than one child in our home. I have always loved taking care of children. I started babysitting at age eleven. A family friend adopted children from a foster situation, and I learned a little about the foster care program from their experience.”
Anne grew up in Fox Chapel with two younger brothers. She attended The University of Pittsburgh majoring in Urban Studies. After graduation, she worked for an insurance company. Now, she works part-time as a Special Education aide at Streams Elementary School.
“When I met Greg, he had three children. After we married, we had Tim, and our family seemed complete. When Tim was in eighth grade, I saw an advertisement about becoming a foster parent. I mentioned it to Greg, and he didn’t say ‘no’.”
“Our first foster experience was with fourteen month old twins. We had them for two weeks, and it was a very positive experience. We fostered some school aged children after that. The oldest was seven. The kids were wonderful. We wanted them to be in after school activities and play sports, but it was hard because we didn’t know how long they would stay with us.”
“We made the decision to take only newborns or babies. They need a lot of care, but babies are much more portable, and easier to work into our routine. When the child is with you, they become part of your family. They go where you go, but if you plan to take them on an out-of-state vacation, you need the court’s permission.”
“I meet the biological mother and father if possible. Unless there is a danger to the child or the foster family, Children and Youth Services (CYS) has always encouraged us to have a good relationship with the family. I take the baby to supervised visits with their parent(s), and I take him/her to all court dates. The biological parent is given every opportunity to get their life back on track before parental rights are severed. Sometimes, the parent will voluntarily give up their rights if they feel it is in their child’s best interest. I never judge them because this is an incredibly difficult decision. I always treat them with respect because often times they don’t get that in their lives. They appreciate it, and it makes for a better foster care experience.”
“I have had twenty-seven foster sons and only three foster daughters. We never requested boys, but it has worked out that way. Our shortest foster care was a baby girl who was only with us for one night. One boy was with us for two years. People often ask if it’s hard to let the children go when they are placed with a permanent family. The truth is we love them all very much, but we never went into this with the idea of becoming an adoptive family. We have always known what our role would be in these children’s lives. We keep them safe and love them until they can have a permanent home. In my experience, CYS has done an exceptional job finding loving, stable homes for these children. I never feel uncomfortable turning over a child for adoption to the prospective parents found by CYS.”
“Once, I was anxious about a potential adoption. CYS found a family interested in adopting, and we arranged for them to take the child overnight. The mom called me because she had never cared for a baby before. I invited her to the house to show her the baby’s routine. When I answered the door, I was amazed. The baby had a beautiful heart-shaped face and the woman standing in front of me had the same face, coloring, and eyes. When I put him in her arms, all of her doubts seemed to vanish. She fed him, bathed him, dressed him, and cradled him in her arms as if he had always been her son. The overnight visit was a huge success, and the adoption went smoothly. I think of that as God’s little joke on me for doubting CYS’ wisdom.”
Some foster children have special needs and may require early intervention services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, special medications, and even heart monitors. Anne’s smallest charge was a boy born at just twenty-three weeks and weighing less than two pounds. She credits early intervention services in Allegheny County with his survival.
“They were fantastic! We have had other children with various problems like failure to thrive or fetal alcohol syndrome, and each time we have received so much support. They get right back to me whenever I have a question or concern. I don’t think people realize just how dedicated CYS workers are or how much they care about these children.”
“I keep a binder for each child which goes with them to their permanent home. For the newborns, I put one of their hospital bracelets in there and keep one for our own album. I take pictures and write about when he first smiled or rolled over. I once received a call from an adoptive mom; her son, who was four or five, wanted to see where he had been cared for. She brought him over, and it was a wonderful experience for all three of us. It’s nice to know that you have made even a small difference in these children’s lives. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to give them the right start in life.”
“We get cards and letters from some of the adoptive parents updating us on what their child is doing and how their family has grown. It’s wonderful when they include pictures. Greg and I had the most amazing experience at the South Hills Village Mall. We were walking around the mall pushing the baby in his stroller. I told Greg that I didn’t want to take another lap around the food court because the smells were getting to me. I looked over at a table of middle school aged boys, and I recognized one of them. I was sure he had been one of our foster sons. Greg and I didn’t know what to do. We wanted to say something, but he was with his friends. Suddenly, he looked up. Our eyes met, and he came running over, hugging us and calling us Mama and Papa. He was four when he stayed with us, and now he was an early teen about 5’10”. He thanked us for loving and caring for him. If I had ever wondered why we became foster parents, I knew in that instant.”
Baby D is staring to wake up, he will need to be changed and fed, and talked to and fussed over, just like every other baby. We say our goodbyes, and Anne walks me to the door. I stop outside my car for a moment to look back at their home. I wonder about the previous twenty-nine foster children who have stayed here. What did they look like? Where are they now? The one thing I do know is that they received a precious gift…the gift of love.
May is National Foster Care Month. Foster care agencies everywhere are looking for families willing to make a difference in a child’s life. For information about National Foster Care month visit www.childwelfare.gov/fostercaremonth/ For more information about the Foster Care Programs in Pennsylvania visit www.adoptpakids.org/FosterParent.aspx and for Allegheny County visit www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/foster.aspx.