Foster parents say that while they experience heartache from taking in a child and then sending them off to be reunited with their biological parents, the joys outweigh the challenges.
For Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono and his wife, Maya, 2011 recipients of the John H. Chafee Award for excellence in foster care by the Rhode Island Foster Parent Association (RIFPA), it’s well worth it. They became foster parents four years ago and have fostered six children in that time.
As members of RIFPA, they feel honored to be able to give children a safe place to live and become part of their families as their parents or caregivers seek rehabilitation or become more financially stable. They often take in children with developmental disabilities, which Colantuono said are the most difficult children to place.
“We give them the opportunity to get attached to their own parents,” he said. “We get them over that hump and into a more permanent place.”
While he misses the children they cared for, he also finds peace in knowing they are providing people with a chance to bring back together their families, as he has a mindset that having the children is short term. Moreover, they still see some of them and believe that they are teaching their four children the value of lending a hand to others in need.
“It’s nice for our own kids to see,” said Colantuono. “Our 11-year-old thinks it’s a great thing. He did a project in school about us being foster parents.”
The councilman said they decided to help because there is a huge need for temporary care. But there is hope.
According to Kevin Savage, administrator for licensing and regulations for the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) who said the federal definition of foster care is “all children in out-of-home placement under the jurisdiction of the state,” the number of children and youth in out-of-home foster care was 1,941 as of Dec. 31, 2011, while there were 2,198 as of Dec. 31, 2010.
Lisa Guillette, the Executive Director of RIFPA, said that in the last five years there has been a 30 percent decline in the number of children in out-of-house care.
“The fact that our state has been so successful in reducing the number of kids in out-of-house care is not something that gets celebrated enough,” she said. “To continue that, we have to make sure we have adequate support systems in the community so all families can keep their children safe. For kids who are in foster care, it’s important that we have programs that help get them to permanency as soon as possible.”
Further, she said research shows that most people think about being a foster parent for a year before doing so. The number one reason why people are reluctant is because they don’t think they would be good enough.
But with RIFPA’s Real Connections, a feeder program that helps match adults in the community with children 12 and older, people can slowly see if it’s for them.
“It’s a great way to get involved,” she said. “With the help of people like Steve and Maya, we should be able to reduce the number of kids in our foster care system to save taxpayer money and achieve better outcomes for kids.”
A better outcome for children is what the Colantuonos strive for and that’s why they reach out to those less fortunate. At times, children have been dropped off to them wearing dirty clothes and holding all their possessions in a backpack.
“That’s the heartbreaking part,” said Colantuono. “You wouldn’t believe some of the calls we’ve gotten at 2 a.m. where kids are taken from their mother or father and have no place to go.”
The Colantuonos experience a lot of sleepless nights since they frequently take in infants and toddlers. This is no easy task for them, as he owns a law firm located at 70 Jefferson Boulevard in addition to being a councilman, and she works full time at the Trudeau Center as Director of Strategic Initiative and has served as a mentor at RIFPA for three years, providing guidance to new foster families.
Maya helps them understand that the arrangement is temporary and a parent trying to get back into the child’s life. Currently, she works with five families but has mentored more than 12 families at once in the past.
“There are a lot of foster families out there that could really use somebody to talk to,” Maya said. “Anybody can call the organization and request a mentor.”
She, as well as another mentor, have started a support group for foster parents that meets the first Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Buttonwoods Community Center, located at 3027 West Shore Road. The group seeks to assist foster parents understand the day-to-day emotions involved with raising someone else’s child. Sign-ups are not needed, as walk-ins are welcomed.
As a foster parent, Maya can comprehend what they are going through and speak of her own experience to aid others.
“We had our first foster child for more than a year and knew she needed to go home with her mom, but we still grieved,” she said. “It is actually a very reciprocal relationship. I had one woman I mentored and would call her to check in but also talk about something I had going on. She was always asking what was going on in my situation.”
Like the Colantuonos, Guillette said the goal of foster care is not to remove children from their parents. Rather, it’s to provide appropriate services and support to biological families so they can safely maintain children in their home.
“I think a lot of people have misunderstandings about foster care,” she said. “It’s temporary and used sparingly.”
Most often, permanency means children are reunited with their birth parents. In some cases, Guillette said, children won’t be returned to their biological parents for various reasons and permanency is reached through guardianship or adoption.
Yet, it’s key for foster parents to be open to the idea of adoption, said Guillette, as foster parents make 80 percent of adoptions.
For more information about becoming a foster parent, Guillette said to call Foster Parent Recruiter Robin Perez at 528-3700 or visit www.rifpa.org.