Thursday, December 10, 2009

Today's "State Kid": No Longer "Orphans of the Living," Foster and Adopted Kids Celebrate Christmas with Loving Families.

It was one joyous madhouse of happy families celebrating Christmas at the North River Community Church in Pembroke, Mass. Kids were getting their faces painted, having their pictures taken with Santa, playing in the game room, browsing in the Book Nook for free books -- not to mention free home-knitted winter hats -- and filling up on a delicious free buffet.

It may have been pouring rain outside and there would be no hay rides or pony rides, but inside the packed auditorium things rocked. With all the hyper-excited laughter coming from painted and unpainted faces alike, you couldn't hear yourself think. Hordes of happy kids were having the time of their lives.

You would never know that many of the youngsters were foster and adopted kids. What? Kids from broken families in which the state had to intervene finding families and love and being treated like normal kids?

Take the family of Bill and Toni Maher, for example, pictured here. Toni calls it her "crazy" family. All families should be so crazy. Dad Bill is holding adopted twins Rena and Robbie. Next is Andrew, Mom Toni holding Emma, and Connor. Andrew and Connor are the oldest and Bill and Toni's natural born children. Emma is in the process of being adopted.

What is critically important about this family is that I am making these distinctions, not Bill and Toni. They make no such distinctions. They have five children, period. They love them all, period. They are one family, period. And seeing them together, noting how Andrew and Connor pitch in to care for their younger siblings, I see one loving family.

Or take this family below from Plymouth, Mass. Maria, right, is the mom of five, but four of the five are adopted. She was the birth mother only for her son. But watching how proud and devoted she is to them all as they have their picture taken, I see one loving family.

And then there is Patrice and her husband who, after taking the required 8-week training program, have been approved as a foster and adoptive family. She received her first placement a few weeks ago, a beautiful 2-year-old boy. "We have been blessed," she said.

Patrice is shown here painting the face of a little girl. An accomplished artist, every face painting of hers is a work of art. In the other photo is a happy little girl Patrice had given a robot face. Toni said the photo "makes my heart sing!."

My, how times have changed.

Writing as one who spent most of his childhood (age 5 to 17) in the Massachusetts foster care system, along with my four younger siblings (Marion, Ruby, Vic, and Reggie), it never used to be this way. Then the norm was physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and poor people taking in bereft wards of the state for the money. I wrote about this in my novel, "State Kid."

The scene at this Christmas party was something that I and my four siblings could only have dreamed of. Adults who loved us and treated us like family? A stable home? Being treated as if you were – gulp – actually normal and worthy of parental love and not some kind of resident alien?

This joyous Christmas party, this celebration of love, family, and faith, filled me with ... How can a 71-year-old say this without being thought emotionally immature? Well, think what you will, here goes: it filled me with envy. May I be forgiven. May I grow up some day. Pray for me.

During my years in foster care, I had a social worker stop by the foster home every so often, but mostly she talked to the foster parents. I don't remember ever having a one-to-one conversation with my social worker. Probably it was because both the social worker and the foster parents knew she would get an earful-- which she would have.

The only time I recall being alone with a social worker was in a car, going to or leaving a placement or adoption party. And then it was all social-worker happy talk which, as a grizzled veteran of the foster care system, I knew enough not to take seriously.

And the idea that I the state kid and my social worker would have fun together at a rollicking, boisterous Christmas Party like this one would have been, like over the moon, like out there in fantasyland. But that's exactly what I saw social workers MaryAnn Vautrinot, Kathy Shea, and Paula Boudrot, pictured here, doing at this Christmas party.

They are clearly a new breed of social worker. They can have fun with their young charges while never ceasing to be their dedicated advocates. From initial placement in foster care to, hopefully, adoption, they pursue the best interests not of the state or foster and adoptive parents, but of every child in their care looking for love and family.

There has always been a shortage of foster and adoptive parents and that is true today. First, it is not easy taking in an often traumatized and emotionally needy child. It takes a special kind of person with a big and unselfish heart, one willing to give and give and give for the sake of a helpless and vulnerable child.

Toni and Bill are two such people. Maria is another. This party was filled with foster and adoptive parents just like them. They are on another level from the foster parents that I and my four young siblings encountered. They are givers, not takers. And they have met stringent state standards for foster/adoptive parents.

The second big reason for the shortage of foster and adoptive parents is that many people cannot meet the requirements. Social workers screen carefully, as one emphasized to me at the Christmas party. They make sure candidates want to foster and adopt for the right reasons, that they have enough room, that the home is clean, that they are responsible, that their influence on the child will be positive. Candidates must pass a rigorous 8-week course in order to be approved for fostering/adoption in Massachusetts.

For the official requirements, click here.

I doubt that the foster parents I and my four younger siblings had in our many years in foster care could have met today's stricter standards. Not one of them would have been caught dead at a Christmas party such as this one – if there had been one, that is. A seemingly unbreachable emotional wall between foster parents and their foster kids stood in the way.

Yet at this Christmas party, foster and adoptive parents and their kids had fun out in the open and together, for all to see, not caring what anybody might think. That old emotional wall that I knew and felt daily was nowhere to be seen. I was envious. I wished I and my siblings had been so lucky.

And then there are the volunteers whose selfless hard work made this wonderful Christmas party possible, like Chickie and Dave Celli. They are shown in this picture with Bill and Toni Maher as they raffle off prizes. Of Chickie and Dave, Toni said that without them, "this party would not be possible."

Food, oh glorious food! When I was in foster care, it was no seconds and one little glass of milk when I could clean a plate in a minute and chuggalug a quart of milk in about two seconds. At this Christmas Party, however, the kids ate like royalty – and as much as they wanted, all donated, prepared, and served by Cabby Brini. He is the owner of Cabby Shack Restaurant on the Plymouth, Mass. Waterfront.

Of Cabby, Toni said, "Without his help, this party would not be what it is today."

Chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, stringbeans, desserts ... you get the picture. Naturally, making up for the starving old days, I ate more than I should have. In the photo, a foster mom is taking some leftovers home. Also shown is Al Kapple, a volunteer and NRCC member. That's Cabby between two of his cooks, Lee and Keith. And of course that little walking work of art on the right is by Patrice.

The mind was fed, too. In the reading room, kids could browse tables covered with books. Each youngster could pick five books to bring home, free. There were plenty of books to choose from. Altogether, Borders Books donated 30 boxes of books for all ages.

There was even a game room, pictured here, staffed by the NRCC Youth Group which is made up of kids from 6th to 12th grade. These volunteer students organized the gaming under the leadership of Melinda Bertoni. The Game Room, new this year, was Melinda's idea – and it was a huge hit.

Also volunteering was none other than Bill Maher's mother, Grannie Maher. All year she has been knitting wool hats to be given free, "with love," to the kids at this Christmas party. The photo shows Grannie's hats. I was dying to grab one and would have if my wife Barbara, knowing me, had not given me a "don't-do-it" look.

I thought: hey, I may be emancipated from foster care, but I did my time. I want one of those hats. They were pure wool, hand-made, beautiful, and free. I felt that I was owed one of Grannie's hats. My wife Barbara shook her head no in that stern foster parent way I knew so well. Soon after this photo was taken, Grannie's hats were gone.

Yes, I know I should be happy for the kids who got them. I'm trying. I'm trying. But you know, besides hats, many of these kids also got something else I and my four siblings never got: adoption. Adoption is the Holy Grail of every foster child.

I remember going to adoption parties. Even if I stood straight as a ramrod and smiled until my face hurt and sold, sold, sold, all I ever got were lookers. Finally, when my social worker said she was going to take me to an adoption party, I refused. At that moment, I decided to be my own mother and father. I was nine.

In those days, "career" foster kids like me and my four siblings were common. Admittedly, with five of us, we were were in the hard-to-place category, along with kids with emotional and physical disabilities. But even kids without such impediments to adoption often spent years in foster care.

That was considered okay. Today it is not. Longterm foster care is now recognized as not in the best interests of kids and even emotionally hurtful. I can attest to that. For a child yearning for family and the unconditional love that goes with it, longterm foster care is like living with an open wound that never heals.

Today the goal is to get kids off foster care and back to their families as soon as possible. In Massachusetts, foster home placements last from three to 18 months. If reuniting with family is not possible, then the goal shifts to adoption.

This Christmas party is the glorious end result of that enlightened policy. Most of the kids at this party have either been adopted or on track for adoption. They had every reason to soak up the joy that was everywhere at this Christmas party.

One of the volunteers, Rick Harrison, really got into the spirit of things. He was there for parking lot duty, as he is for all NRCC events, but you would never guess that by looking at him. Here he is with his face painted and making with a growl.

A growl – that's what I got when I asked him to smile. But, as this photo shows, my wife Barbara had no trouble getting a smile out of him. Rick may be a grown man, but Toni says that he is also "a big kid."

At this great Christmas party, so was I. I was that foster kid of a half century ago at a Christmas party that has been a looooong time coming. And you can take it from me;I know this kid. The party made him feel like he had always wanted to feel ... just like any other kid.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. In a thank you note from Toni Maher, Bill Mayer, Chickie Celli, and Dave Celli to all the Christmas Party volunteers, they wrote:

"We want to thank you so very much for your hard work and loving spirits at the Foster/Adoptive Christmas Party. This party could not happen without volunteers like you.  To see such happy children during one of the most difficult times of their lives had our hearts bursting with fullness of joy.

You were Jesus' hands' and feet on Saturday.  You made a difference.  The bible has so many fitting quotes that I can't list them all here, however, one came to mind that was in James 2:24    "So you see, we are made right with God by what we DO, not by faith ALONE." 

We hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did!  

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