Foster Parents Offer Safe Haven
There are heartaches but also many rewards for those people who invite needy children into their homes. Here’s a look at the challenges and joys faced by four families who have done that important job for decades.
Imagine this ad …
Seeking full-time “resource parents” (aka foster parents).
Candidates must be flexible, willing to help these children (infants to 18-year-olds) with everything, including homework, heartaches and hugs. Compassion, empathy and a sense of humor are highly desirable.
Candidates must understand these children often have experienced trauma and will sometimes act out in your home and in public.
Compensation: Resource parents earn an estimated 11 cents an hour, yet most consider themselves rich.
Evelyn and Franklin Souza of Kapolei
It wasn’t a job ad that prompted the Souzas to become foster parents some 25 years ago. It was the cry of an inconsolable baby at a church picnic. Evelyn couldn’t tune it out. She learned the infant had been exposed to drugs in utero, and was now being cared for by foster parents, and she remembered how her own Auntie Lovie had taken in foster babies. Days later, the Souzas, with three children still living at home, applied to become foster parents.
“In those days, if you had enough bedrooms and no criminal record, you were in. There was no training. We learned by the school of hard knocks,” says Evelyn.
Their first fostering was not to a baby but four siblings – ages 9, 8, 7 and 6 – who’d been removed from their home.
“Fostering is not for everybody,” says Evelyn. “It’s just too traumatic. You can get attached to some of them, and some can be nasty and there’s nothing you can do.”
But when a foster home becomes a safe and supportive place, it can be forever. Proof of this is the Souzas’ enduring connection with some of their now-grown foster children.
“We’re still their ohana and this is home. If they are in trouble they still call you,” says Evelyn.
To help explain why she is a foster parent, she loves to tell The Starfish Story.
“A little boy is walking on the beach. He finds a starfish and throws it back in the ocean. A guy comes along and asks, ‘Why throw it back in?’ The boy answers, ‘I’m throwing it back in to save it.’ The guy says, ‘Why? There are thousands here on the beach. It doesn’t matter.’ The little boy picks up another one and tosses it back in the ocean and says, ‘It matters to that one.’ ”
It’s true, Evelyn says. “You can’t save them all. But maybe you can save that one.”
Reunification Is Preferred
Fostering is a job whose ultimate goal is to put you out of work, because the children’s reunification with their biological parents is always the ideal.
Rachel Thorburn, acting program development administrator for Child Welfare Services at the state Department of Human Services, says the No. 1 misconception is that the state wants to take children away from their biological families. “The majority of what we do is strengthen the family to build on its strengths safely,” she says.
That’s because there has been a concerted effort in the past 10 years to reform child welfare. “Over the years, we learned that removal from their family is traumatic for children,” Thorburn says. “Over the past decade, Child Welfare has been able to reduce the number of children in foster care safely while at the same time the population in Hawaii has risen. It’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been able to do that and we’re proud of that fact. In 2005, we started using what we call a structured differential response system.”
“It’s true. You can’t save them all. But maybe you can save that one.”
— Evelyn Souza, Foster Parent
That system was a requirement of the federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act, mandating that state agencies triage reports of child abuse and ensure the safety of the family. In other words, some cases may go to the child welfare system and others may require a lesser response.
Twenty-four hours a day, trained social workers respond to calls about potential child abuse. The social worker gathers as much information as possible from the caller, who can remain anonymous. The level of risk to the child is the most important factor: If the child does not appear to be in danger, the case is referred to family strengthening services, which exist on every island.
If children can remain at home or safely be placed with relatives, many services are available to help families.
Kaui and Rocco Keola of Halawa Heights/Aiea
Kaui and Rocco Keola’s family includes three biological children, three adopted children and seven foster siblings. It all began some 17 years ago with a notice in a church bulletin.
Catholic Charities’ Mary Jane program was looking for foster homes for pregnant teenagers. With three children at home, their oldest in middle school, they thought having a foster sister would be great. That was a time when the foster mothers of teenagers often trained to be doulas – people who support women before, during and after childbirth.
“Oftentimes, the girls don’t have a partner,” Kaui explains, and they need someone to be in the labor room or to just listen to their concerns. The first teenager fostered by the Keolas continued attending school throughout her pregnancy and following the birth. Kaui cared for the baby while the teen was in school and the teenager is now the mother of three. She and the Keolas still keep in touch.
The idea of caring for others began long before that. Kaui’s mother was from a family of 13 and she credits her mom for instilling a sense that taking in others is always possible. Kaui and others interviewed for this article suggest that ohana and caring for one another are as natural as breathing.
“We had cousins who came and stayed a week – a few weeks – and you just learn there’s always room. We had a big Japanese futon on the living room floor. The extra kids you’d put on the futon or you’d sleep sideways. You can sleep more. We’d just roll it up in the morning.
“You come to a different understanding of what family is when you view it more openly. … It’s not just your biological, blood-related family. Anyone who is an adult in your life is an auntie or uncle.”
Kaui’s birth father was killed in Vietnam and “ ‘Dad’ raised me from age 5. It’s not about blood,” she says, “it’s about the love.”
“You come to a different understanding of what family is when you view it more openly. … it’s not just your biological, blood-related family.”
— Kaui Keola, foster parent
That love was abundant one Christmas Eve when Kaui stepped outside church to take a call on her cell phone. Two autistic siblings “were delivered to the church parking lot at 8 p.m. in their hospital scrubs with no footwear.” She was ready – a stock of boys’ and girls’ clothing sizes 0 to 8 and multiple car seats are always on hand, just in case.
These emergency situations and others that demand quick response are not foreign to resource/foster parents. That’s why Kaui is grateful for the support of Family Programs Hawaii.
Dinners with support groups and resource-family celebrations set up by the social service agency are a chance to have conversations with other foster parents. “Just having the support of someone who understands what it’s like makes a huge difference,” Kaui says.
She’s grateful to talk with another foster parent who absolutely understands things like how children who’ve been damaged in utero can behave in public. “Sometimes in a store the kids can’t help themselves. They act out and busy shoppers look at me and make faces like, ‘Deal with your kid.’ ”
She likens the agency’s Care to Share program as “Craigslist for each other.”
“If a foster family needs anything – for example, beds, clothing, dressers, toys, shoes, etc. – they contact the Care to Share program. If a foster family has extra items, they can list them with the Care to Share program. If you have an extra bed, for instance, another family might need that extra bed. It’s awesome support, especially because children come in with little notice, so you sometimes need car seats, cribs, etc. immediately and these items can be costly.”
What’s covered and what’s not in the stipend paid to resource/foster parents? Everyone agrees the compensation doesn’t nearly cover the cost of caring for foster children. In addition to the monthly stipend paid by the state Department of Human Services (see box on page 82 for details), there’s a clothing allowance – $300 twice a year – and fees for some group activities such as Scouts and soccer leagues. But, the resource parents pay costs for many extracurricular activities or lessons. That includes some after-school activities, enrichment classes and whatever. “That’s up to you,” says Kaui.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, you just do it for the money,’ ” Souza says, but that’s obviously not true. “They bring you the children and then ‘reimburse’ you a month later. It is not as easy to take in children now because of the (higher) cost of living … as it may have been in the past.”
She did some research and discovered that it costs more to house her dog at a kennel than the state pays to house foster children. Before last year, resource families had not had a raise for 22 years.
Yet, it’s clearly not about the money. It’s got a lot to do with aloha spirit and so much more. Virtually every family that Hawaii Business spoke with had special trips planned for all their children – totally out of pocket – including a New England fall cruise, Disneyland and other “dreams come true” destinations. One resource mother says, “None of our foster children have been on a plane. We’re all going, our two youngest and all the foster siblings.”
Shane and Lily Domingo Brown of Ewa Beach
Lily Domingo Brown smiles to think of the more than 100 children she and her husband, Shane, have fostered over the past 15 years. Of course, there are many things that seem much pleasanter in retrospect than when they actually happened. For instance, she remembers a little boy who burst into tears when she served a special weekend breakfast of pancakes. He had never eaten pancakes, and wanted his traditional breakfast of rice.
Indeed, the foster children’s food preferences can often become an issue. Lily and Shane, who had two young children of their own, went to night school to train to become licensed as foster parents before they were called to take in two sisters, who had asked to leave their former foster home. The sisters were Caucasian and from a military family, Lily explains. The ethnic eating habits of the previous foster family had put them off: raw fish and spices they couldn’t abide. At the Brown home, with its own mix of cultures, they were happy and stayed for two years.
“These children – they’ve been through so much – we thought if we could help them, we’d be doing the best we could for them and for our own children,” says Lily.
Nevertheless, some situations don’t work out. As hard as one might try, “You can’t always change a child’s behavior,” she says.
The Browns’ home is currently fostering five teenage girls. Weekdays start between 5:30 and 6 a.m with a simple and quick breakfast: oatmeal, fruit, a variety of microwavable breakfasts. Lily tries to consider
what each child is used to and will like, but reserves pancakes for weekends. Her Micronesian foster children “love their chorizos and eggs and have to have rice with their meal or it’s not complete.”
Foster parents and those who work with them say there is a diversity of foster parents today that wasn’t there many years ago. That helps make it easier to find a good match for foster children. And for those families who already have biological children, the parents say that one bonus is that those children come to know children from other backgrounds and interact with them every day.
When it is fun time at the Browns’ home, they sometimes play Manga
or board games like Monopoly and Candy Land, or go outside for basketball, swimming, the beach, camping and hiking.
Years after many of their foster children have left and are out on their own, they remain connected. Lily says some are friends on Facebook and she hears from others on holidays and Mother’s Day.
Michele and David Carvalho of Hilo
High school sweethearts Michele and David Carvalho always wanted a big family, but, after her third birth, they realized they wanted to take in children who needed homes. Their daughter had prayed about having an older sister.
Their first attempt – taking in pregnant teens – didn’t work, nor did the second attempt – teens with mental health issues. Neither were good fits for their family. Their first longer-term foster child was a 4-year-old boy who had been removed from his home. His 2-year-old sister joined him at the Carvalhos after about a year. When he saw his sister, the boy exclaimed, “You were lost.”
“It is not as easy to take in children now because of the cost of living … as it may have been in the past.”
— Kaui Keola, foster parent
“It made us realize the importance of keeping siblings together,” David says.
Both parents of those siblings were drug addicts, but the father completed a drug program and stayed clean. Knowing the goal of fostering is always reunification, the Carvalhos felt it was in the children’s best interests to have an ongoing relationship with the father.
“It’s so important for the adults to put whatever aside and think of the children,” David says.
The family lived in Volcano, but long commutes to Hilo for work and school left them with a gasoline bill of $1,000 a month, so they moved to Hilo, where Michele is a community liaison for the Hui Hoomalu foster care program.
“We’ve had a lot of family support – my husband’s mom was our main childcare provider early on.” She has since passed on and they miss her dearly. “Even now it’s a family effort,” Michele says, explaining they are a team: She’s a morning person; he’s often up doing paperwork at midnight. Their biological daughter checks in on her day off to see if help is needed.
Today, they have three foster children ranging in age from 4 to 14. Sometimes holidays are the toughest times. “They can trigger memories for the children, missing their parents,” she says.
What about bedtime stories? Do you consciously select stories for your foster children?
The Carvalhos have a regular story time in their home. “We read a variety of stories to (young) children and do not screen out any subjects as long as the story and subject matter are age appropriate,” Michele says.
“When we have older (foster) children in our home, we do story time in the living room as a group and normally read chapter books that are age appropriate. Sometimes there are touchy subject matters that come up in the stories we read and, if we feel the need to discuss feelings that may come up, we address them right away.
“For example, we read ‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ to our kids a few years ago and that story deals with the loss of a mother who abandoned (the 10-year-old heroine), an issue that was very prevalent to the children placed in our home at that time. Although it may have been a sensitive subject, I do believe that children need to hear about how other children deal with a variety of issues and story time is a good place for that.”
Looking Back: The experience of one former foster child
Nellieshy “Nellie” Mamuad of Hilo coordinates events for Youth Empowerment and Success Hawaii, a program of Family Programs Hawaii. Its target audience is current and former foster youth ages 14-26.
At 27 she knows well what these youth are experiencing. She’s been there. Cared for by grandparents in early years, at 4 she moved in with her mother, mom’s boyfriend and their daughter in an isolated “house in the bushes” in rural Hawaii Island. There was “no water, no electricity, just propane and an outhouse.” But there was marijuana and the two girls’ chores included tending the plants.
An inquiry from school triggered problems at home. Mom announced she’d be home-schooling them from then on. Mamuad missed her entire fifth grade and most of sixth grade. No home-schooling was going on.
But she did start middle school. Caught with marijuana in her pocket and scared to go home, she tried to run away. Furious, her mom hauled her and her child’s suitcase off to the police station blasting that she was “out of control,” and left her there. Police dropped her off at a Salvation Army emergency shelter.
She refused to talk to anyone at the shelter until a crisis worker was called in and patiently listened to her story.
“I told her everything,” Mamuad recalls. “She was the first person
who believed me.” The crisis worker told her she’d never have to go back there again. She also made sure Mamuad’s little sister was removed from the home.
What followed was a blur. She continued to run away from relatives, from foster care and any shelter that would take her. She began to transport drugs inter-island – easy because she looked like a child. When she was finally caught, she was brought to a shelter and, for the first time, denied entry.
At 13, she was strip searched and plunked in the Oahu detention facility she calls “Baby Jail.”
“In detention,” she explains, “you either learn to be safe or you learn to be a better criminal. I did that. I told them I wanted to kill myself and was taken to the hospital.” She cunningly worked up the levels of trust until she could run away. By 14 she earned privileges to get breakfast in the hospital cafe and ran away from there.
Arrests, detention, more shelters, street life and psych wards followed. Those years?
“I went through a lot and witnessed a lot.”
At 17 she realized, “I didn’t want to be like my mother. I knew if I was doing these things at 18 it would be on my record for the rest of my life.”
She earned her GED, then an associate’s degree and certificates in human services and substance abuse. With more than 600 hours in field experience by the time she graduated, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UH Hilo in 2012. Thanks to UH Manoa’s Distance Learning program, Mamuad expects to earn her master’s in social work in 2016.
The mother of two today works with Youth Empowerment and Success Hawaii – through Family Programs Hawaii, which holds monthly events that promote healthy peer socialization and resource skill building. She’s also a part-time foster parent co-trainer for Catholic Charities Hawaii and has worked with Imua Kakou program, which helps foster youth transitioning out of foster care — up to age 21.
Articulate and intelligent, Mamuad traces her self-education even during the years away from school to a bookshelf full of “those old hard-covered World Book encyclopedias” in a relative’s home. She read them cover to cover and says ruefully, “They helped to prime my learning level. I still have a brain. I know a lot of others who are not as fortunate.”
Agencies That Keep The System Working
Family Programs Hawaii’s mission is to strengthen families to ensure the well-being of children in the foster-care system. Its services include licensing, training and supporting foster parents, case management for foster children and youth, and financial assistance for those children, including room and board, medical, dental and educational services and enrichment activities. It also offers continuing education and job training to prepare foster youth for adulthood.
Its Hoomalu O Na Kamalii program provides temporary shelter to children who have been removed from their homes because of alleged abuse and neglect. Another program for foster families,
the statewide Warm Line, offers information, referrals and nonemergency telephone support and monthly support-group meetings.
Family Programs Hawaii’s Project Visitation was created by Family Court and the Department of Human Services to provide monthly visits and special events for siblings separated by the foster-care system. It relies on volunteers like carpenter Van Hiyakumoto, who says the outings can include bowling, going to the beach, festivals, museums or the Fun Factory.
“Some of the best moments are when they (the siblings) first see each other and run up and give each other hugs,” he says.
Partners in Development Foundation draws upon ancient Hawaiian cultural traditions to help people and communities overcome modern challenges. The foundation and its Hui Hoomalu program are contracted by the state to help with recruitment, training, certification and support for resource parents, along with partners such as Catholic Charities Hawaii.
Partners in Development Foundation founder and president Jan Hanohano Dill has noticed the remarkable decline in the past decade of children removed from their homes to foster care. “When we began our work, there were a lot of ‘silos’ in the various agencies that were working in foster care. We’ve been very fortunate to be part of a movement to bring people together and fan the passion that almost all of these agencies have to really make a difference,” he says.
Dill, who grew up in a home that exemplified the aloha spirit, says, “Family in our local culture is a powerful institution that can be used to address the challenges of caring for our kids. My vision is that we will come to an end of our traditional foster parenting when families take to heart their kuleana – their responsibility – to care for their children.”