Foster Care

Compassion and Grace: A Family Shares Its Love

The Fuentes’ bright and sunny home radiates a sense of peaceful calm, despite the fact that four children under 10 years of age are under foot. Read about this remarkable family whose faith and compassion led them to adopt two boys in need.

Joe and Janelle Fuentes met while attending college in a small southern Missouri town. On a dare, Joe auditioned for a musical theater production in which Janelle was cast. Much to his surprise, he landed a minor role. “There was a lot of down time during rehearsals,” Joe said, smiling. “Which I used to get to know Janelle.” The couple fell in love and were soon married.

After two children and two moves, the couple settled in Denver. It was there that they decided to become foster parents. More than anything else, their Christian faith compelled them down the foster care path and guided them along the way. But their past familial experience with foster siblings played a part as well. “I have one sister adopted from foster care and Joe has three adoptive siblings,” said Janelle, “so we always knew that helping vulnerable children would be a part of our story.”

Training and Preparation

With the decision made, Joe and Janelle started their 27-hour precertification training. Over the course of two weekends, they learned about basic child care and how to maintain emotional and spiritual health—for themselves, their children, and their soon-to-be-placed foster child. They learned where to access resources for foster-specific issues. And they received trauma-informed training on how to interact with children and even birth parents who have suffered through trauma. “The training instilled compassion within us so we would be prepared for the inevitable hard times,” Janelle said.

The Call

A few weeks after becoming certified, the couple received a phone call about a special newborn who needed their help. Without hesitating, Joe and Janelle said yes.

Gavin was on oxygen in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a local hospital. Born at 28 weeks, he weighed just over three pounds.  For more than a month, the couple drove to the NICU twice a day to hold the tiny infant. Soon after, they brought Gavin home, where he began to thrive.

Nearly two years passed before Josiah came into the picture. He, too, was born early and needed special care. Once again, Joe and Janelle took the baby into their home. Now almost two years old, Josiah is the picture of health, toddling around the house, unselfishly offering up his toys to the people around him. The couple has since adopted both of the boys.

Unexpected Gifts

Joe and Janelle never assumed they would adopt two of the children they fostered. They understood the underlying tenet of foster care: to provide a safe, nurturing home until a child’s unsafe family situation is resolved. “The ultimate goal is reunification,” said Joe. “Everyone wants the birth family to be well and whole again.” But sometimes, extenuating circumstances, which may include substance abuse, homelessness, or other issues involving birth parents or caregivers, may prevent that objective from being met. That was the case for both Gavin and Josiah. Both times, the couple made the decision to adopt.

In each instance, there came a point in time where Joe and Janelle couldn’t imagine their lives without the child they came to know and love. “We became attached,” Joe said, “us to the boys and the boys to us.”

Guiding Advice

The need for foster parents in the state of Colorado is great. According to the most recent statistics from the Colorado Department of Human Services, there are 3,803 children in out-of-home placements. Every day, children removed from their birth families due to safety concerns need foster families to care for them.

For those considering becoming foster parents, Joe and Janelle offer several suggestions. “Talk to people who have gone through the process, preferably more than one,” said Janelle. Doing so presents a clear picture of what to expect. Be gracious, they suggest. Fostering can involve struggling birth parents and court system delays. “Be patient and undemanding. The caseworkers, GALs (guardian ad litums) and everyone else involved will be a pleasure to work with,” Janelle said.

Joe recommends taking advantage of the knowledge of the foster care agency staff. “Mount Saint Vincent’s staff explained the process, attended court hearings with us, and made sure we had access to resources we needed,” said Joe. “On a scale of one to 10, when it comes to knowledge of the process, we’d give them a 10.”

Mount Saint Vincent’s foster care program staff of five individuals have more than 70 years of combined experience working with children; foster, adoptive and birth parents; county courts; humans services departments; and other community agencies. “Our primary goal is to best meet the needs of the children we serve,” said Foster Care and In-Home Director Melissa Maile, MSW. “To achieve that, we strive to help and support the wonderful foster families so they succeed in our program in every possible way.

Compassion and Grace

The couple had concerns about how the foster care and adoption process would affect their biological children—Levi, age 9, and Olivia, age 7. “It went better than we ever could have imagined,” said Janelle. “They immediately loved these little boys and wanted to know what they could do to help.” Even though there are challenges in being part of a foster family, Levi and Olivia were happy to share the attention of their parents with their two younger foster siblings. “We saw a compassion and a tenderness develop in our kids,” Janelle said. “It was amazing to witness.”

Looking back at the years-long process—filled with its ups and downs, setbacks, and surprises—Joe and Janelle said they are especially grateful for one thing: their family did it together by God’s grace. Not knowing what would happen to the foster children in their care, they all prayed as a family for the birth families. “Our kids were with us, and they grew alongside us. We all grew together as a family,” Joe said. “What could be more rewarding than that?” As Josiah reaches up to pat his father’s face with his chubby hand, one has to wonder: What, indeed?

For information on becoming a foster parent, attend one of Mount Saint Vincent’s monthly information nights. Visit fostercare.msvhome.org for details, or call 303-458-7220 ext. 204.

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Five Basics of Trauma-Informed Caregiving

This blog post was written by Mount Saint Vincent Trauma Training Specialist Jessica Pfeiffer, LCSW, SSWI

Jessica PfeifferI have the honor and privilege of training amazing foster parents all over Colorado. I hear regularly that being a foster parent brings families so much joy, excitement, and new adventures. At the same time, I recognize that being a foster parent can come with challenges.

At Mount Saint Vincent, our hope is to prepare parents as much as possible for those possible challenges, while helping them better understand where these behaviors stem from. Providing a trauma-informed training for caregivers is one way Mount Saint Vincent aims to support the foster care community.

Though our training consists of many topics, including child development, impact of adverse childhood experiences, and how to develop interventions, here are “5 basics” of trauma-informed caregiving that I think help all foster parents.

  1. A foster child’s chronological age is not always where they are developmentally. At times it can feel like you are working with a much younger child. Your goal: meet them where they are developmentally. For most of us, we all had times in which our parents were more than likely scratching their heads and saying, “Are you kidding me right now?” following some outrageous behaviors we displayed. That said, one of the symptoms children who have adverse childhood experiences can display is their inability to slow down and think through their behaviors before acting. Which means you might be saying, “Are you kidding me right now?” a bit more than you were anticipating.
  2. Self-awareness is extremely important. Challenging behaviors can cause you to feel stressed (an understatement, I know) and if you don’t know what you look liked stressed, your foster child will gladly tell you. Trying to help a child regulate when you yourself are stressed is virtually impossible and often goes south quickly. Think about the last time you were stressed and someone who was equally as stressed tried to help you. I’m guessing you were thinking to yourself, “Just leave me alone!” We all have these crazy things called mirror neurons in our brains, and while they can often help us, they can also become our worst enemy and pull us to the dark side if we aren’t aware of the internal and external cues our body is sending us that we are being stressed.
  3. Consequences are healthy and a part of development. Let me say that again; consequences are healthy and a part of development. However, it’s all about timing. I often get foster parents who feel as though we said, “Don’t consequence kids” and that’s not true from my perspective. Parents just have the challenge of giving the consequence when the child is actually ready to hear it. If we consequence too early it’s perceived as a threat, and if we consequence too late then we aren’t connecting it to the original behavior. It’s also important to remember that while some children might be able to think through “if/then” statements, for children who have more of a trauma background that’s a really tough job for them.
  4. The intentionality we place on behaviors can influence how we feel and respond. Learning how trauma can impact the developing brain, and in turn can influence the behaviors we see, can decrease the intentionality we use. Though it’s completely normal to want to use words like “manipulative” when describing behaviors or say, “They are doing it on purpose and know better,” truly understanding the stem of the behaviors can be extremely helpful. If I had a dollar for every time I reacted to a behavior based on my own intentionality I put on it, I’d be a millionaire. Catching yourself and not personalizing it is a difficult skill to develop.
  5. Our ability to engage in safe, healthy, consistent relationships is directly related to the type of relationships we had early on in life. And the same is true for foster children. It can feel like you are speaking a different language to them by showing that you love them and care for them. It can feel foreign, and for some foster children engaging in safe, consistent, healthy relations can be too intimate and cause fear instead of trust. The infamous honeymoon effect is directly related to this idea. Right when you feel like you’ve got it and get in your stride, could be when we’ve become too close emotionally for our foster kids. The more short bursts of positive interactions you can have throughout the day, the better. I really mean short, no more than three to five minutes, numerous times a day!

I hear regularly, as I’m sure you all do, that we need more foster parents in Colorado. It’s my belief that not only do we need more foster parents, we need to ensure that all foster parents, current and future, have a trauma-informed lens on. Foster parents’ role is so valuable and has tremendous potential to truly change a child’s life for the better.

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Foster Care Up and Running

In early 2016, Mount Saint Vincent opened a foster care program to serve the Denver area, a decision that aligns with the agency’s mission to serve the needs of children. The new program offers a wide array of services, including 24/7 family support and guidance, training opportunities, respite care, a monthly support group, and more.

There is an ongoing need for foster care homes that provide safe, family-like settings. “The need for good foster homes is astronomical,” said Director of Foster Care Melissa Maile, MSW. “When you look at the data of how many Colorado kids are in out-of-home care and how many foster homes there are, it’s not even close to being equal.”

Indeed, the numbers are staggering. According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, there were 5,327 children in out-of-home placements at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Of those, there were foster homes available for only 3,534 children.

Melissa urges anyone who has ever considered becoming a foster parent or respite care provider to attend one of Mount Saint Vincent’s monthly information nights. Her experienced staff, as well as one or more foster parents, will be on hand to provide information and answer any questions. For details, call Melissa at 303-458-7220, or email mmaile@msvhome.org.

Photo credit: Melissa Yocum Photography

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From Foster to Forever

Josh and Darice Hanson never imagined they would be foster parents. The couple had two wonderful children and lived quite happily in their Denver-area home. But then one day, a chance meeting with a woman and a baby would change their lives.

Darice was picking up her mail when she bumped into a neighbor who lived across the street. The neighbor was holding a newborn infant. “Did you have a baby?” Darice asked. “I didn’t even realize you were pregnant!” It turned out that the neighbor provided respite care for foster families who needed to take a break from parenting. She was just watching the baby for a few days. “Oh, I could never do that,” Darice said. As it turns out, her statement could not have been further from the truth.

A few months later, Josh and Darice’s neighbor became ill while she was providing respite care for a baby girl. Josh and Darice offered to watch the baby so the neighbor could catch up on her sleep. “We instantly fell in love with her,” Darice said. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to provide respite care for other families. Respite care quickly turned into actual foster child placements.

The couple’s two children, nine-year-old Hayley and three-year-old Harper, were excited to accept new foster siblings into their home. Haley in particular took her responsibility seriously. When she was in middle school, she took it upon herself to complete CPR and first-aid training so she could watch her siblings while her parents ran errands.

Participation in a monthly support group provided the family with understanding and encouragement. In addition to speakers discussing relevant topics, the group was a place where parents could check in with their peers. “If you’re having a rough time with your case, or having difficulties with your child or issues with your child’s biological family, it’s great to just talk it out with people who have been through it,” said Josh.

Nearly all of the children the Hansons cared for were infants who tested positive for either drugs or alcohol in their systems at birth. Although all their past histories are tragic, Haylon’s story is particularly heartbreaking.

Haylon’s birth mother abused substances on a daily basis, all throughout her pregnancy. She received no prenatal care and gave birth to Haylon at home. When Haylon tested positive for illegal drugs at a hospital, he was stabilized and brought to the Hanson’s home a few days later. Despite all odds, Haylon began to thrive. Today, Haylon is a happy three-year-old who runs all around his home, giggling nonstop. The Hansons call him their miracle baby.

“The need for good foster homes is astronomical,” said Darice. “When you look at the data of how many Colorado kids are in out-of-home care and how many foster homes there are, it’s not even close to being equal.”

According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, there were 5,327 children in out-of-home placements at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Of those, there were foster homes available for only 3,534. Mount Saint Vincent Director of Foster Care Melissa Maile, MSW, agrees that the demand for foster families exceeds the number of available homes. “Nearly every day, our agency receives a call from a county caseworker with a child who has been abused or neglected that needs immediate placement,” she said. “If we have to turn that child away because we don’t have a foster family available, there may not be a place for that child to go. It breaks my heart every single time.”

For six years, the Hansons have opened their hearts and their home to children in need of a family to love and care for them. Josh and Darice adopted Harmony and Haygen in 2012, Harlow in 2013, Haylon in 2014, and Harkin in 2015. The couple says the official “adoption days” are wonderful celebrations, like a birthday, wedding and anniversary rolled into one. “I think we hold the record for the most people showing up for every adoption,” said Josh. “We had 40 friends and family at Harkin’s.”

When asked if they will take in another child, the couple doesn’t rule it out. Josh says it is the most rewarding feeling in the world to know you’re helping a child. Darice agrees. “It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it’s so worth it,” she said. “We’re the luckiest foster family in the world because we had five placements and five adoptions. We’re so blessed.”

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