Friday, June 26, 2009

"What Would I Do Instead?"

Donna—Gram to her foster and adopted children—doesn’t remember for sure how she became interested in being a foster parent. She does remember clearly, however, how she decided to become the adoptive mother of two of the foster children in her care.

Donna and her husband, Thomas, first fostered in the early 1970’s while living in New Hampshire. Back then, Donna was a stay-at-home mom to their biological daughter, Dawn, and son, Steven, which she says made it convenient for them to take in other young children. That first stint in foster parenting ended when they relocated to another county.

The couple didn’t foster again until thirty years later, in 2004, after both had retired. Having settled in eastern Hillsborough County on an eight acre parcel of land shared with Dawn and her husband, Kenny, Donna and Thomas were inspired to resume fostering by their daughter and son-in-law, who had begun foster parenting several years earlier.

After completing their state-required Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP) training through Camelot Community Care, Inc., the couple became licensed in January of 2005. Within days, they began taking foster children into their home. Donna and Thomas were respectively called Gram and Grampy by their grandchildren next door, and their foster children followed suit in calling them by those names, as well.

In May of 2005 then 7-year-old Carly and 5-year-old Joseph, a sister and brother sibling group, came to live with the couple. Donna recalls Joseph saying, “I don’t see no roaches here,” giving her indication early on of the conditions the children were used to living in. After being with the couple only one week, the siblings announced they wanted to stay there for good. Until that time, Donna and Thomas hadn’t considered adopting, but the children’s determination caused them to openly begin discussing the possibility.

Within a few short months of becoming licensed, the couple had eight foster children—the maximum number they were licensed for—living with them, including Carly and Joseph. Unfortunately, in late 2005 Thomas was diagnosed with cancer. In addition to a houseful of children, their daily lives now also included the regular arrivals and departures of hospice workers. Perhaps because the children’s time in foster care had gotten them used to people coming and going in their lives, there were fairly unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Carly was the only one to have any real idea of how sick Thomas was. After a long and painful battle, he succumbed to the disease, quietly passing on March 1, 2006.

Donna says that having the children in their lives is what got her through that tough time. “Things had to be done,” she says. “I had to act like everything was okay.” Even after her husband passed, she never considered giving up foster parenting. Instead, she kept busy by continuing to take care of the children as a single parent.

“What would I do instead?” she asks.

For some time, Donna continued to be at capacity with eight foster children rotating through her home. Soft in tone and willowy in stature, one nonetheless gets the impression that Donna does not tolerate much in the way of poor behavior. Discipline includes time outs, the children being sent to their room, and having privileges revoked. With foster children regularly arriving and leaving, Donna incorporates convenience wherever she can, such as using paper plates for dinner, and the children help keep the house tidy by handling such chores as doing their own laundry and cleaning their bathroom.

Most of Donna’s foster children have accepted the structure and rules of the household while they lived with her. Some, however, had been so severely impacted by their previous experiences that they proved to be a physical threat to themselves or the other children. In those instances, the children were removed from her care by Donna’s request.

As other children came and went, Carly and Joseph continued to live with Donna. The two adjusted well to their new home overall, but Joseph was prone to violence for some time. Donna notes that when he would get off the bus after school he would be uncontrollable and filled with an angry energy that led him to pick fights with the other children. She sought to understand where the behavior was coming from, and why it occurred in the afternoons but not in the mornings.

Over time, Donna learned that the dosage of a medication Joseph had been prescribed by a psychiatrist was woefully insufficient. While she continued to point out the issues to Joseph’s caseworkers, it was only through her own persistence that the dosage was eventually properly adjusted, following which Joseph’s instances of violence decreased dramatically.

While they were still foster children of Gram’s, Carly and Joseph did not have contact with either biological parent but they did initially stay in touch with three half siblings, all on their mother’s side, who were also living in Florida. As the years went on, communication from their half siblings slowly decreased. Their half-brother was eventually adopted and has not been in contact with his younger siblings since. Their half-sisters, who live with their biological father, at one point initiated scheduling a visit with Carly and Joseph. Donna recalls Carly spending most of the appointed day standing in the driveway excitedly awaiting her sisters’ arrival. Sadly, they never came and, now living in another state, they have not been in touch since.

The court’s official termination of Carly and Joseph’s biological parents’ rights took place in the fall of 2007, which meant that the children also became eligible for adoption at that time. Because National Adoption Day is in November, the caseworkers asked Donna to postpone finalizing the children’s’ adoption so that they could participate in that day’s ceremonies. On November 16, 2007, Donna finally and forever became the mother of Carly and Joseph. During the process the children chose new names for themselves, both of which honor Donna’s husband, the man who would have become their father but for his passing.

Since coming to live with Donna, Carly and Joseph have known a life of structure and routine. After school and on weekends, they spend most of their free time outside with the other children playing with the family’s horses and goats, or riding their bikes and scooters. Birthdays are large celebrations that include Donna’s daughter, son-in-law (now Carly and Joseph’s sister and brother-in-law), and their children. Gram makes a cake, and there are pizza and party favors. Typically, just family members participate.

When she celebrated her most recent birthday this past October, for the first time Carly invited a friend over to celebrate with them.

No doubt, it was only the first of many such times to come.

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