Growing up as an only child with an oversized collection of toys and an imagination to match, I was more than excited to learn that my parents were going to be taking in foster children. While I reveled in the joyous thought of meeting my insta-playmates, my young mind didn’t grasp the fact that those children were navigating a very different set of emotions. When a minor is removed by the state from his or her home due to risk or occurrence of harm and placed elsewhere, the child often displays anger and sadness through negative behavior. It takes a very special foster parent to guide these young ones through this difficult transitional time. As May is National Foster Care Month, I decided to check in with some area agencies to raise awareness and give due recognition to some of the foster mothers who work day in and day out to give these children the level of care and love that they deserve.
Ashley Kuzmanko is the Associate Development Director at Boys Town New England in Portsmouth. As a non-profit, the organization depends on donations to support its programs and it’s her responsibility to raise the necessary funds. “Boys Town’s national standards of youth care are exceptional,” Ashley says. “Boys Town incorporates teaching, structure, relationship building and moral development to help children learn and grow into productive adults.” In addition to typical foster care placements, the agency also features a unique Family Home Program in which small groups of children live in one of five on-campus houses with specially trained married couples called family teachers. “Our family teachers live with our children 24/7 to provide consistent treatment, care and support,” she explains. This structure allows for sibling sets to be kept together, alleviating additional stress and trauma.
Kathy Zoerhof has been a family teacher since October of 2011. She and her husband currently live in an on-campus home with six children. “Right now we have two boys and four girls aging from seven months to 12 years old,” she says. “We work with sibling sets. Sometimes it can be harder to place multiple kids from the same family together in foster homes. The family style environment of our home allows us to provide treatment level care for young children who need it, without feeling like an institution.” Children who may not be ready for a foster home due to aggressive and challenging behaviors can live with Kathy and her husband in the interim to get the care they need, while allowing them to stay with their brothers and sisters.
“Boys Town can be a place of healing and personal growth for these youth,” Kathy says. “We work to strengthen the body, mind and spirit, utilizing an integrated continuum of care through Boys Town values. Youth learn skills that help empower them to make good decisions... I’ve seen that when youth begin to feel safe through trust and structure, the aggression or other behaviors begin to decrease. Youth learn skills that help them cope and work through their behaviors in a healthy way, allowing them to blossom.”
Kathy goes above and beyond, functioning as a mother in many ways. “Our job is a lifestyle; like many parents we get our children up and ready for school, take them to doctor’s appointments, help them with homework, make food together, eat meals together and have fun like playing games or going to a park, she explains. “I keep the children’s needs first, from making sure our children have enough clothes to wear to waking up in the middle of the night when they are scared or sick. Like a mother, I get to encourage our kids when they are feeling down and praise them for the things they do well. I am there when they use the potty for the first time or get their first 100 on a test.”
Kathy says that her favorite moment of every day is tucking her kids in at night. “Sometimes I read them a story, but no matter the age, I always tell them they are smart, kind, important, beautiful or handsome, that God loves them and I love them too. So many of our youth come in thinking they are not valuable, that they have nothing to offer the world. I hope that if they remember nothing else from their time with us, that they will always hold on to the fact that they are loved and important.”
Susan Travers has been a foster parent with Boys Town for a little over two years. She and her husband have served seven foster children in that time. “I was a school bus driver for a child who was living in one of Boys Town’s residential homes and I was considering taking in one of the children when she asked me to be her foster parent. She ended up not needing foster care after all and she instead reunified with her family,” Susan says. “A few months later, I received a phone call asking me if I was interested in becoming a foster parent for other children in need.“
Right now, Susan is a foster mom to two brothers. The oldest is seven and the youngest is five. “I met them while they were still living on Boys Town’s residential campus and they were adorable,” she says. “The little one loves hugs and would give one to anyone. He is such a cuddlebug. The older one is a talker who loves to tell you about all of his knowledge about sharks and other things he learned in school that day. They are both really good little boys!” To make them feel at home she simply treats them like they are part of the family, making sure to never let them feel any different. “Whatever we’re doing, they’re doing and I let them know that the house is just as much theirs as it is ours.”
She says the best part of being a foster mom is making a difference in kids’ lives. “People think that it’s harder to do than it is. They think they can’t do it because they’re too old, not capable or can’t manage it... As long as you have space and love for children and a willingness, you are able.” On Mother’s Day this year Susan hopes to have a nice, peaceful day with her husband and kids. “Most likely I’ll cook dinner and have everyone in the family over so that we can spend time together... Unless someone surprises me with a vacation that is!”
Ashley says that her Boys Town foster parents are special people. “We consider our foster parents heroes,” she says. “Kathy and Sue are amazing women and Boys Town New England is lucky to have them on our team. The selfless care that they and our other family teachers and foster parents provide to our children is exceptional.”
Natasha Babul is the recruiter and trainer for Middletown’s Child & Family. Though she’s only been working in child welfare since 2007, her experience in the field dates back to her childhood. “I spent 12 years of my life in the foster care system, eventually aging out at 21 from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services,” she says. “I use my experience when it’s relevant, but it’s always with me in terms of my empathy, understanding and perseverance to get our kids into committed families.” Natasha herself was adopted at the age of 23 and will spend Mother’s Day with her adoptive mom and family. “I also get to call many other women on this special day that have, somehow, been a mother to me. These women range in age from 34-70, totaling six. It’s an honor to include all of them in my bracket of understanding what a mom should be.”
It takes dedication, nurturing and structure to parent a traumatized child. Any foster parent will say that making a difference in their child’s life makes all the paperwork and training hours disappear from memory. Natasha once worked with a five-year-old girl named Ana who had been in the system since birth. “The anxiety she carried was unbelievable and her foster parents did a fantastic job of easing those anxieties. After a lot of hard work and clarification, this foster family legalized their relationship with an Open Adoption. They honor Ana’s connection to her birth family, inclusive of parents and siblings. Joe and Patty do a great job of connecting the missing pieces for Ana, while creating a stable, safe and consistent family setting for her to grow up in. She was adopted in April of last year and has flourished ever since.”
Melissa Blain has been a foster parent since 2010, but doesn’t currently have any foster children in her home since she and her husband adopted their seven-year-old daughter Alyiah in August. “We are getting her settled and then we will foster some more.”
She says that the first days of meeting a new child can be a little awkward. “They are scared and anxious. You are trying to make them as comfortable as you can. They need to know you are there to take care of them and keep them safe. Anything you can do so they know you are interested in them: a television show, a toy, a blanket, something they love to do or talk about, even their favorite food. Most of all, though, just listening to them.” Melissa says that the best thing about being a foster mom is seeing the child you have cared for change right in front of your eyes from when you first met them, becoming happier and more confident. “My favorite is to see them smile like they have never smiled before and to hear them laugh like it is the first time.”
She thinks that the biggest misconception about being a foster parent is how awful it might be. “It’s not all bad. Yes, there are some very difficult times. I will not lie about that. But you need to remember these are children being ripped away from their families and everything they love and are familiar with. No matter how bad things were for them, that was what they knew and how they grew up. We are here to help them put themselves back together piece by piece, and most of all, love them.”
Natasha says that Melissa has done an amazing job at using the tools and skills given to her in order to provide a therapeutic setting for newly adopted Alyiah. “She was able to not take things personally and open her mind and heart to learning the best way to parent her. She was committed and stuck it out through many tough times.” The agency is always in need of foster parents and has over 50 kids currently waiting in residential settings for placements. “We need placements that are willing to parent ‘older’ kids in foster care,” Natasha says. “Yeah, they are 10 or 13 on paper, but emotionally these kids are much, much younger. They need the same parenting sometimes that a toddler or a school-aged kid would need... We need parents to be brave and take a chance on this very special population!”
There is a three-pronged system to applying: the application process (clearances, self-study, references), the home study process (multiple interviews and questionnaires) and the pre-service training (30 hours of trauma-informed training on how to therapeutically parent a child or teen in care).