Jean and John Platt opened their home to more than 150 children during the 17 years they were foster parents. Each and every one of those children holds a special place in their hearts, but four of them now occupy another niche, as well.
Four years ago, the Platts adopted four siblings whom they had previously cared for as foster parents. Realizing that the children were happy and safe with the Platts, the children’s biological mother, who was very sick and knew she was dying, asked the Catholic couple if they would adopt her children and keep the siblings together as a family, Jean Platt said.
After consulting with the children, the Platts agreed to become their adoptive parents. But the decision had an unforeseen effect on their commitment to continue serving as foster parents.
“Six months after the adoption, our 6-year-old said to me, ‘If you love one of (the foster children) more, will you give me back?'” Platt recalled.
The question broke Platt’s heart, and she and her husband soon left the foster-care program operated by the Monroe County Department of Health and Human Services.
“We want these children to know they’re permanent,” she explained.
Sharing the Love
While the Platts’ story is unique, the hundreds of foster and adoptive parents sprinkled throughout the 12-county Diocese of Rochester likewise have tales to tell. Foster and adoption programs are operated by most New York counties, and several other agencies — such as Rochester’s Catholic Family Center — also offer specialized foster-care and adoption services.
In most counties, these programs are run by the departments of social services or health and human services, and the number of children in foster care varies from county to county. Ontario County, for example, had 75 children and 34 foster homes in the system at the end of 2005, according to Martha Hart, acting director of services for the county. Tioga County currently has 22 foster homes and 39 children in foster care, said Mindy Kraft, supervisor of foster care for the county.
Four hundred Monroe County families currently open their hearts and homes to children in the county’s foster-care system, according to Kim McConnell, casework supervisor with the county’s Foster Care Homefinding Unit. Between 800 and 900 children are regularly in basic foster care, so her department is always looking for new foster families, she added.
“We’re not looking for perfect people. We’re looking for people who love kids,” McConnell said.
People become foster parents for a variety of reasons, but many choose to do so because they have a real love of kids or because they feel they’ve been blessed and want to give something back, she said.
Such was the case with the Platt family. The couple has one biological son, who is now 29, but they felt called to share their love with other children as well.
“I wanted more kids, but God would only give me one child of my own because he wanted me to leave room in my heart for all of the other children that needed me,” Platt said.
She also was inspired by the memory of a woman she knew briefly in her childhood. The woman, a neighbor of Platt’s great-aunt, would take in pregnant teenagers and care for them until the new babies were several months old and their mothers were back on their feet.
“She gave so much of herself to help somebody, and it was a stranger. I thought so much of that woman,” Platt said.
When they became foster parents, Jean and John were able to touch the lives of many children. Mary Zarpentine, another former foster parent, noted that the children who come from abusive or neglect-filled backgrounds deserve the chance to have a good life.
“They’re children. They didn’t ask to be born; they didn’t ask to come into the foster-care system, but they’re here. They should have the right to a stable home,” she said.
Zarpentine and her husband, Paul, became foster parents in 1986. Although the couple had four biological children, they’d always wanted to have a big family, and their family of six just didn’t seem that big, she said.
“I decided to put my mark on the world,” she said.
The Zarpentines — who belong to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Spencerport — completed the 10-week foster-parent training course required by Monroe County and went on to care for 60 to 80 children during 17 years as foster parents. They have adopted seven children and — with such a full house again — have dropped out of the foster-care system.
Stephen Fezer chose to become a foster parent because his 17-year-old son — who lives with him half the time — will be going away to college next year. Fezer decided he had enough time in his life and room in his house to become a foster father.
Fezer fosters unattended refugee minors through Catholic Family Center and is currently caring for a 14-year-old boy from Rwanda. Opening his home to refugee children is one way he can make a difference in the world, he said.
“There’s so many places in the world where there’s civil war, AIDS and famine, and you can decide to make a difference for one person. You can’t save the world, but you can save one person,” Fezer said.
People often choose to adopt children for the same reasons others choose to foster them. Rich and Deb Rasmussen, who belong to St. Francis Parish in Interlaken, recently adopted an infant through CFC. When the couple found out they couldn’t have children of their own, they spent several years trying to determine if God’s plan for them included children.
“After a time, I think we just decided we had so much in our life that we had been blessed with. We just felt that we really wanted to share our love with a child,” Deb said.
Obstacles and challenges
The adoption process was not an easy one for the Rasmussens. They started the process five years ago, and originally thought they would like to adopt an infant from overseas because they’d heard international adoptions were often quicker than domestic ones. Through CFC, they worked with an international adoption agency, but each time they came close to adopting, another obstacle sprung up in their way.
“Finally our social worker, last April, suggested we throw our hat in the ring for the domestic adoptions. Eight months later we got a phone call,” said Rich, who is youth minister at Immaculate Conception Parish in Ithaca.
In January, exactly one month after they received that call, the Rasmussens welcomed little Mia into their home.
“God’s hand was in it,” Rich noted.
Foster parents likewise note they’ve had their share of bumps along the road. Many foster children are removed from their original homes because they have been abused or neglected, McConnell noted. Consequently these children may have special needs and issues that have to be dealt with, Platt said.
One of the hardest things about being a foster parent is watching a foster child leave your home, she added. The first child she ever fostered was an infant she and her family brought home from the hospital and even named.
“I thought it would hurt so much to give him away. It did, but it made me feel good inside that I did a good thing,” Platt said, noting that she focused on the positive impact she had on the child. “That’s the only way I could let go of each one when they moved out.”
Giving up her first foster child was also difficult for Xanthe Everett, who became a certified foster parent through Monroe County in 2000. Watching the first child leave to move in with a relative was so hard Everett didn’t know if she wanted to continue being a foster parent.
“It hurts, it really does. You get attached. These children come into your home and you love them,” Everett said. “We just have to believe that we’ve made a difference, some way or another, in their lives.”
Foster parents often interact with the biological parents and family members of their foster children, Platt noted. This interaction often makes it easier for the foster parents to understand what the children have experienced and how they can best help them, she said.
“This also gives us a chance for me to talk to the parents and say, ‘I don’t want to be your child’s mother, but I want to help your child and help you,'” Platt said. “I always said, ‘I only do it temporarily. I do not ever want to adopt,’ until the day came when the mother said to me … ‘Will you please keep them as a family together and adopt them?'”
Foster parents usually work hard at building and maintaining relationships with biological parents because they don’t want to be seen as their enemies, Everett added.
At CFC, biological parents also are very involved in the domestic-adoption process.
“Most of our birth parents pick their adoptive families now,” said Nan Pokalsky, placement services supervisor at CFC.
These parents are usually given profiles about several sets of potential adoptive parents and make their choices based on those profiles. Many times, biological parents will even exchange letters and photographs with their children after they’ve been adopted, she said.
“It’s been changing over the years. It’s hard for the child not to have a sense of where they come from,” she said. “The truly closed adoption is the exception rather than the rule these days. Most of them have some kind of contact.”
Unfortunately some foster parents are not able to communicate with their foster children’s biological families. When refugee children arrive in the United States, they often don’t know where their parents are or even if they’ve survived, Pokalsky said.
Despite the challenges, the fruits of foster-parenthood are well worth the effort, Platt said. Most of the children she cared for over the years were sweet and loving, and she enjoyed watching them grow in confidence and maturity.
“It’s such a wonderful feeling to watch the changes. They have so much potential if one person would reach out to them. It’s absolutely amazing to see that growth in them,” she said.
Platt and Zarpentine have both had grown foster children come back and visit them, and they know that their efforts have enriched those individuals’ lives. This knowledge — and the knowledge of how desperately foster homes are needed — kept them going for years. No matter what backgrounds they come from or special needs they have, children always deserve love, attention and a caring home, Zarpentine said.
“My main goal is to bring them in, to make them safe and to show them love. As long as they’re with us, we’re going to try to make a difference in their lives and let them know that to us, they are somebody,” Everett added.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Monroe County’s Foster Care Homefinding Unit, call 585/753-6522. Information about similar services in other counties can be found on the counties’ Web sites. For more information about Catholic Family Center’s placement services, contact Carmen at 585/262-7126.
Foster kids often products of abuse
In late 2004, 518,000 children were in foster care in the United States. In New York state alone, 37,000 children are in foster care, according to information provided by Monroe County Family Court.
Nearly 1,000 of those children reside in some 400 foster homes within Monroe County, according to Kim McConnell, casework supervisor with Monroe County Department of Health and Human Services’ Foster Care Homefinding Unit. The majority of these children are placed in foster care after being removed from their homes by caseworkers from Child Protective Services.
“Ninety-nine percent of them are there because they were being abused or neglected,” McConnell said.
The process of placing a child in foster care usually begins when a concerned individual calls the county’s Child Protective Services because he or she feels a child is being abused or neglected. Child Protective Services investigates these reports, but the ultimate decision to remove a child from the home is made by a Monroe County Family Court judge.
“No one comes into foster care without a decree by a judge,” McConnell noted.
Judges and caseworkers prefer to place children with family members rather than strangers in foster homes, but oftentimes that’s not possible, especially on short notice. Children sometimes arrive in foster homes on weekends or in the middle of the night because the severity of their situations mandates that they be removed from their homes immediately, she said.
For this reason, children often arrive at their foster homes with few or no belongings other than the clothes on their backs.
McConnell added that a very small percentage of the children in Monroe County’s foster-care system are voluntarily placed by their parents. In these cases, the children’s parents are usually going through some sort of crisis situation and realize that — at least temporarily — they can’t give their children the care they deserve.