Foster parents find role rewarding
Jamaica Plain couple Elizabeth Berges and Arden O’Donnell had already been caring for brothers Curtis, 6, and Juwan, 8, for six months when the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) called the licensed foster parents and asked them if they could take another child for five days.
The child’s mother had just been arrested for shoplifting, and her 12-year-old son needed somewhere to stay until the situation simmered down and she was cleared. He was staying at a 45-day bridge home, a kind of halfway house.
The two parents were not sure how their current foster children would feel about another kid in the house.
Curtis and Juwan were keeping Elizabeth and Arden busy in between school and playing JP soccer. The brothers were also participating in youth art programs.
The parents checked to see if their house could accommodate another child.
Then they went to the kids and explained the situation.
“A boy has temporarily lost his mother and has no place to stay for five days,” they said to the boys.
“We want to make you feel comfortable. What do you think about another boy living here for five days?” they asked Curtis and Juwan.
“We’ll be really nice to him and cook for him,” the brothers said.
“How did you feel when you lost your mother?” said the parents.
“It was the worst day of our life,” said the brothers.
So the parents decided to welcome the additional child into their home.
“The first thing Curtis and Juwan said to him, was, ‘They have food here,” said O’Donnell. “They are nice here.’ The kids took on the role of making him feel comfortable, until he could get back to his mom.”
This is one of the accounts O’Donnell told the Gazette in an interview at her house, in an attempt to advocate and illustrate her love for the foster-care program run by DSS, and for the way her days have been filled being a foster parent. She has many more. Not all as touching—she’s woken up in the middle of the night to find her foster teen daughter had run away, then came back a day later because she had nowhere to go—but overall, worthwhile.
“I don’t want to paint a picture as this is the easiest thing in the world,” said O’Donnell, referring to foster parenting. “The kids come in, they don’t know you or your rules—and they will break every one just to make sure it is a rule.
“They are scared. Their parents are scared, and there is a lack of trust. But to me, to see that kind of interaction happen, I say it’s worth it,” she said. “Where you go the worst day of your life is important.”
DSS takes kids from the community whose parents, for whatever reason, cannot provide the child the best setting at the moment. DSS tries to place the children with foster parents who live in their community.
There are 34 children in the Jamaica Plain community who need homes and parents registered with the local DSS office at Dimock Street, said Howard Barsook, family resource supervisor at that office.
O’Donnell, who has been a foster parent since April, 2004 and has had kids from 6 months to 17 years, said she is surprised there is not more interest about foster parenting in Jamaica Plain.
“JP is such a real community. That whole idea of, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ I think is really embodied in JP,” she said. “People here have a real sense of social justice, and yet only nine households take unrestricted kids.”
After a screening process that investigates potential parents’ motives, personality, lifestyle and household, the DSS program allows for qualified interested individuals to become foster parents in one of two ways.
Restricted foster parents are child-specific. This means the parents will only take children who they say they will take, like a brother, sister or close friend’s child.
Unrestricted foster parents take any children, but can specify in the licensing process what age children they want to care for and whether they would rather have a boy or girl.
DSS tries to place children with immediate family first then explores the unrestricted-parent pool, said Barsook.
“I think there are a lot of myths about foster care,” said O’Donnell. “Someone does not have to be at home all day every day. You can be gay. People think you have to be an extraordinary person. But I think it’s just ordinary people who want to open their house for a child.”
O’Donnell is studying for her master’s in social work at Smith college while interning at Cambridge Hospital. Berges is a Boston Public Schools teacher.
“I started because I wanted to give back to the community,” said another JP resident and foster parent Vivian Barrenger, an applications developer at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It is challenging. I work with teenage girls and try to teach them about themselves and morals. And things like how to become a productive adult and how to maintain a positive attitude.”
O’Donnell said DSS has been supportive. She said it will pay for a babysitter so you can go out, and not always have to be with the kids. It also provides a stipend of $15-$18 a day.
To become a foster parent, DSS requires potential candidates first complete a 32-hour training class known as the Massachusetts Approach to Partnership Parenting (MAAP).
During training, one learns about what type of kids and situations to expect. A full criminal background check is done on each candidate as well as a personal and home evaluation.
“They ask a lot of you,” said O’Donnell, “and they tell you the good, bad and the ugly.” She said, once approved by DSS, you are placed into a pool. Then, one day the phone rings and DSS tells you all it knows about the child and asks if you think you can help.
O’Donnell said sometimes there is not much known because the child could have been separated from their parents that day. Sometimes, DSS tells you the child is 6 but they turn out to be 7, she said. “But they would not withhold information,” she said.
In order to qualify, there must be a bed for each child and a drawer for clothes. The house smoke alarms, safety and security features also need to be up to date. If a house seems unfit at the time of inspection, candidates have the opportunity to make changes and allow for another walk through their house.
“We look for four characteristics in parents,” said Barsook, who finds homes for kids in JP. “We ask they have a flexible attitude and lifestyle. We ask that they advocate for the children, in ways like getting to know their teachers and serving as a medium to help the kid get ahead.
“We want parents to be resourceful and know the community. What’s around that can help this child? Or who can babysit?” he said. “And finally, we want parents to be communicative. If something happens, talk to your social worker—keep ongoing communications about what you observe, or if you have concerns… things like, is the child behaving?”
“You talk to DSS weekly and see them monthly,” said O’Donnell. She said if a foster parent ever felt they were losing control of the situation, they could call DSS and determine what is best to do for the child and the home. There is also an emergency team if needed.
Whether or not the children can see or contact their parents while in foster care is the foster parent’s decision. O’Donnell said it depends on the specifics of the situation and the reason why the child is in need of alternative care.
“The ultimate goal is to put the child back with their family,” she said. “DSS takes the kids and works with the family to get them their children back.”
O’Donnell said she does love and grow attached to the kids. “But I think that’s what these kids need, someone to get attached to them, to help them with their homework and notice what they like on their pizza.”
She also said disciplining the kids can be difficult and dealing with issues like the children getting angry or saying things like, “You’re not my real mom,” is hard.
“I feel like every time I get frustrated all I have to do is remember where this kid is in their life… You’ve got to put it in context,” she said. “I know their behavior is not about me.
“It’s hard when they leave. It’s sad. These are kids you love, and you put time and energy into what you’re doing. We try to make them be as strong as they can.”
O’Donnell said, people ask her, “Doesn’t it rip your heart out when kids leave after you’ve grown attached?”
“The answer is that, yes, it is hard for me,” she said. “But nowhere near as hard as it must be for a child to get pulled from the only home they have ever known and plopped into the home of a complete stranger.”
Curtis and Juwan lived with Elizabeth and Arden for almost another nine months. DSS located the boy’s grandmother. They now live with her in Baltimore.
“Being a foster parent has opened my eyes and my heart to the trials of these children as well as their parents,” wrote O’Donnell in a letter for DSS. “I have a deeper understanding of the struggles of raising a child as a single parent and the effects of systemic poverty on our society,” the letter says.
“I have had to grapple with issues of racism and classism in ways I never had to before…However, I chose to be a foster parent because I am dedicated to making a change in my community, and in the lives of the children who are placed in my home.”
“You see the news and you see guns and violence and you think, ‘What can I do?’” said Barsook. “Taking a kid from the community is probably one of the most significant things you can do for the community… as we help the parents get their child back to a safe home and stable environment.”
As of the last day of the third quarter of the Fiscal Year 2006, DSS had placed over 10,000 children and young adults. Adoption is also available through DSS, but the main goal is always to reunite the children with their parents.
According to its website, the DSS Foster Care Program provides safe homes and compassionate foster parents for children who are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, unsafe or dangerous conditions.
The Dimock Street DSS office is located at 30 Dimock St. in Egleston Square. It serves Jamaica Plain and parts of Roxbury, the South End, Allston, Brighton and Brookline. Staff can be reached by calling 989-2800.
For more information about becoming a licensed DSS foster parent, call 1-800-543-7508 or visit www.mass.gov/dss.