A home for the holidays

June 19th, 2015 9:30 am

First Posted: 12/5/2014

We all want to be home for the holidays, surrounded by those we love. For some that means staying home with their children and having extended family visit. For others, it means going home, maybe to their childhood stomping grounds to sleep in their old single bed and enjoy mom’s home cooking. For children in foster care, it simply means having a loving home with people who care.

Siblings Eliza and Alfonso entered foster care nearly three years ago, at the ages of 7 and 9. The police delivered them to their foster home late one night, straight from the run-down apartment they had shared with their father. Hector was a 36-year-old, rarely-employed man. The children’s mother’s whereabouts were unknown. Police had been alerted to the home after school staff reported unusual bruises on the children. What they found was Eliza tucking her brother into bed, while their father was out with his girlfriend. It turned out that he was usually out, at the bar or partying with his girlfriend. Those nights were better than when he brought the party home. His house guests were not always appropriate with the children. When dad finally got home that night, he had his girlfriend in tow; she was 14.

Dad went to prison and the children stayed in that foster home for over two-and-a-half years. Their needs for shelter, food and clothing were met. Their grades improved and they entered trauma therapy. But it wasn’t an adoptive home. They weren’t told they were loved. It was filled to legal capacity with foster children. They didn’t get Halloween costumes or go trick-or-treating. Christmas gifts were generic and provided by Children & Youth. There were no stockings hung from the mantle. When the courts finally gave the go-ahead to terminate their dad’s parental rights, the goal of adoption was finally made clear.

Through a statewide search of approved families hoping to adopt, a childless couple was located in Central Pennsylvania. She was a mental health therapist and he a police officer. They had been trained to handle the special needs of traumatized children. The adjustment wasn’t simple or easy. The children were distrusting and missed their foster siblings, the only attachments they had from their past. They tested boundaries and pushed limits. Alfonso had a fit where he kicked a hole in the wall. But these parents never threatened the children’s placement. They calmly stood by and reminded Alfonso that they would still be there ready to talk about it, as soon as he was calm. Alfonso and his new dad patched the hole together. They got their first fresh Christmas tree and decorated it is a family. Their new mom embroidered their names on Christmas stockings. Finally, they were home.

Wendy went to live with her father when she was 5. Her mother arrived, highly intoxicated, to get her from one of her first days of kindergarten. It was mom’s third DWI that month. Mom went to prison and never came back for her daughter. Dad had an 18-year-old girlfriend who didn’t like Wendy. Eventually, a baby half-sibling was born and the four shared a rusty trailer home. The next five years included numerous reports from school staff about suspected abuse. It appeared Wendy had been deprived of food and infested with lice and bed bugs. She was padlocked in her room with no blankets, pillows or access to a bathroom. She was beaten regularly and her best-loved toys were destroyed, all in the name of punishment. Her usual infraction? Stealing food out of the trash. Investigation revealed that the refrigerator and cabinets were padlocked and, when Wendy was invited to a meal, she ate leftovers while the rest of the family had something fresh. It wasn’t until her father was finally caught for medical neglect that was she removed. The visiting dentist at her school detected over 10 rotting teeth in her mouth. Her gums were inflamed, she was coughing blood and she was in great discomfort. Her father refused to respond to calls and visits from school staff or Children & Youth for several months. She was finally removed.

She didn’t get along with her first two foster families. At the first, there was an incident where Wendy’s father didn’t show up to visit as scheduled. When she called him crying, he told her he no longer wanted anything to do with her. Wendy became despondent and lay on the kitchen floor, crying and screaming. Foster mom called the police, banned her from returning and had her transported to a psychiatric ward. She was 10.

At her second home, Wendy called 911 and then ran away after witnessing domestic violence between the foster parents. It was a cold January evening and police located her walking along the side of the highway. Police said the home had a history of domestic violence, something that should have been picked up in the foster home approval process, but wasn’t due to a worker’s negligence.

Wendy was delivered to her present home late that night, a double-block home in a run-down section of the city. There were three other foster children there, all girls close to her age. Foster mom is an older woman, the lines on her face showing the wear and tear of a hard life. Wendy kept to herself initially. Some saw her as aloof and closed off.

It was on her birthday later that month that things began to shift. She was called down after dinner to receive a shocking surprise. Foster mom and the other girls stood around the kitchen table, their faces lit with the warm glow of birthday candles. A small, frosted cake lay adjacent to several small gifts. She still recalls the tears that sprung to her eyes. She had expected this day to come and go, unrecognized as every other had before. She couldn’t believe they cared.

After that, she opened herself up to this unconventional family and, when the courts decided it was time for her to be adopted, foster mom jumped at the chance. This will be her first Christmas in her “forever” family, where she is finally being loved, respected and cared for.

Right now, there are approximately 14,000 children in foster care in Pennsylvania, and last year nearly 1,200 foster children in our state were adopted. Like Alfonso, Eliza and Wendy, they are finally home. Being home for the holidays is all that matters to these children. Simple traditions like Christmas stockings, thoughtfully-chosen gifts, baking cookies and decorating a tree are never taken for granted. The light from a Christmas tree, when cast on a child’s expectant face, is the most beautiful gift of the season.