Room for one more
"It's really seeing that I can make a difference in someone else's life," foster parent Sylvie Farrington says thoughtfully. "There are kids out there needing a refuge. I have the space in my home - and the space in my heart."
Sylvie, her husband Paul, along with other foster parents on Martha's Vineyard, hope to find a few more people willing to consider being a foster parent. They will host a pot luck supper from 5:30 to 8 pm on Tuesday, April 8, in the community room at Martha's Vineyard Co-housing, off Stoney Hill Road in West Tisbury.
Mr. and Ms. Farrington, herself a foster child from age 16 to 18, agreed some years ago to take in a young man they knew only slightly. In order to make the situation what Mr. Farrington describes as "cleaner and more predictable," they signed up with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) to become official foster parents. DSS provides screening, training, and support to foster parents, and had already had some responsibility for the boy.
Asked why they decided it would be a good thing to be foster parents, Mr. Farrington, emphatically, replied, "We didn't decide it would be a good thing - we discovered it. We were so enriched by knowing our foster child."
Since that first experience, the Farringtons, who have no children of their own, have continued to host foster children from time to time, always one at a time, as they have room for only one guest in their house.
The Farringtons' quiet, orderly house contrasts the controlled chaos of Erik and Elexis Wildanger's large and noisy home. A visit there reveals a house full of kids. Some of the Wildangers' own children and two foster children are playing a card game on the floor of the living room. Another child is at hockey practice, and a young adult, Chrissy McCarthy, who is also staying with the family, is working at the dining room table. At the age of four, Chrissy, her twin sister, and an older brother came to live as foster children with Ms. Wildanger's godmother, Shirley McCarthy. Five years later, when their aunt gave up adoption rights, Ms. McCarthy adopted all three. Now in her 70s, she has been a foster parent to dozens, perhaps hundreds of children.
It was Ms. McCarthy, a close friend of Ms. Wildanger's parents, who inspired Ms. Wildanger to become a foster parent. However, the Wildangers' first experience at fostering was not a good one - a troubled teenage girl who was with them for two months. Their second experience was a sibling set of two little girls, aged four and six. "That was the beginning of knowing how awesome it can be," Ms. Wildanger says. Since then, there have been foster children almost continuously in the Wildanger home, except when Ms. Wildanger took time off to give birth to their fourth child. When that child was 10 months old, the Wildangers fostered a five-month-old infant, a mind-boggling combination. "You make it work," she says. DSS allows only six children in a household. The Wildangers have four of their own now, so two is the most DSS will place with them at any one time.
Ms. Wildanger is in a special category, on call for emergency placements, and occasionally drives off-Island to pick up infants. She says that people are often curious when they see her getting on the boat with an empty car seat and returning with a newborn.
The next chapter
Foster parenting is intended to be a temporary activity. Ms. Wildanger explains, "We're in it to foster kids until the next chapter in their lives."
Children fall under the supervision of DSS because of abuse or neglect. Often drugs or alcohol are involved. The goal is to return the children to their families once the home problems are worked out. For these children, going home is "the next chapter." A child might be in foster care for one night, a week, a month, or much longer. If going home is not possible, there will be a different "next chapter." DSS will try to place the child with a relative or find an adoptive family. It is rare that a child is adopted by the foster parent, but it does sometimes happen.
Foster parenting requires no permanent commitment, and foster parents have control over placements. One can specify only infants, or only toddlers, or only teens, just boys or just girls. If a placement is not working out, the foster parent can request that DSS place the child somewhere else.
A foster parent may be single, married, partnered, widowed, or divorced. The foster parent must have a stable source of income and be able to adequately support all the current household members. Foster parents do receive compensation, but Ms. Wildanger stresses that no one she knows does it for the money.
DSS screens prospective foster parents and their homes. There is required DSS training, called Massachusetts Approach to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP). Ms. Wildanger says that DSS has in the past offered MAPP training on the Vineyard. The course is 24 clock hours and was offered here in four-hour doses once a week. The training and the screening result in the license required to be a foster parent. Information about foster parenting is on the DSS web site, which can be found through mass.gov (search "foster care" on the site).
At the moment there are not quite enough Vineyard foster families to meet the local demand. Vineyard foster parents are especially needed, because without one available, DSS must ship abused or neglected kids to foster homes off-Island, dislocating them from friends, teachers, church groups or other local support systems at a time when they are most needed.
Ms. Farrington and Ms. Wildanger urge the many curious strangers they have encountered and anyone else who has ever been the slightest bit interested in foster parenting to come to the April 8 gathering.
Ms. Wildanger notes that although the reasons that create the need for foster parents are unfortunate, being part of the process and solution is exciting and worthwhile."
Pot luck supper to learn about foster parenting, Tuesday, April 8, 5:30 to 8 pm, community room at Island Co-Housing, off Stoney Hill Road, West Tisbury. For more information or to arrange child care, call Sylvie Farrington at 1-774-563-8882.
Dan Cabot is a contributing editor to The Times.