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Foster moms open homes and hearts

Posted May 15

— Airial Sillanpaa sits at a picnic table on a blustery spring afternoon as her foster daughter shuffles toward her through the wood chips of the playground, arms outstretched.

"I love you, Mommy," the little girl says. "And I love you, muffin," Sillanpaa replies. Just over a year and a half ago, the 3-year-old was without a place she could call home.

When Sillanpaa and her husband ran into family planning challenges several years ago, they decided instead of coming home to an empty house, she said, they would try to do some good in the community. They became licensed as foster parents in 2010. Years later, they now have a full house, including two biological children, one adopted child and a brother/sister foster placement pair.

Sillanpaa, of Portsmouth, calls herself a "mompreneur." She wears many hats. Caregiving, she said, is a calling and something she finds very rewarding, even with its highs and lows.

"It is a roller coaster," she said. "The hardest thing for me is that I never realized the level of dysfunction and poverty that goes on right in my own community under my own nose. When you realize that, it's a very profound, humbling experience. Children your kids play with, ride the bus with, often have struggles you can't even understand. That's a low point for me in fostering. Kids have reported things to me and said things to me that are really sad."

The high points, Sillanpaa said, are seeing children grow, explore and just be kids.

"They need to put all of that other adult grown-up stuff on the shelf and not worry about it," she said. "Kids shouldn't worry if they're going to be warm, have meals and clean clothes."

Sillanpaa and her husband Gary have fostered through the state's Division of Children, Youth and Families and the private nonprofit Child and Family Services. They are currently licensed with CFS.

"CFS offers a tremendous amount of support and resources to families who take on more challenging children," she said. "The drug epidemic has put the foster care system in crisis, and that is not too strong of a word. It is very daunting, the number of children that are displaced right now. Really difficult social situations, that's what leads to what we see here."

Sillanpaa's biological children are Lilly, 6, and Elsie, 3, and her adopted daughter is Isabella, 7. She has had her two current foster placements for 18 months.

"I think the greatest gift that you can give to a child is a family, truly," she said. "There are a lot of older children that need homes, as well as young kids. I think there's a lot of people in our community, empty-nesters, single adults, who could truly make the difference. I encourage people on the fence to explore. You don't have to be a superhero, you just need to be organized."

Sillanpaa contributes to the Seacoast Moms blog, writing about various parenting topics. If someone can't foster parent she said, there are donation opportunities to assist foster families through the New Hampshire Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.

"My goal is to break the cycle, to give the kids tools that they need to grow into self-sufficient, productive adults that have a toolkit of coping skills," she said.

In Exeter, Sue Hills began her fostering journey in an unconventional way.

When her biological son Ryan was a sophomore at Exeter High School, his friend Israel's family was moving to Texas, but he desperately wanted to stay in New Hampshire.

"A couple months after they moved, I get a call from his mom and she said, 'Israel wants to come live with you,'" Hills said. "Within 24 hours, we decided yes. Before I knew it, we were getting guardianship of him. That's how we unofficially began. We consider him our oldest, although we never adopted him."

Since becoming licensed in 2008, Hills estimates she and her husband have fostered 25 to 30 kids. In 2015, they were given an Unsung Hero Award by the New Hampshire Children's Trust, recognizing their work in foster care.

"I feel that I have a couple hundred kids actually in the Exeter area," Hills said, having been a school bus driver and "team mom" for many years. "(My husband) Basil and I decided we were kind of good at this parenting thing, and we knew we could help other kids. My birth parents had helped out some unfortunate kids in the past."

Hills has two biological children, one adopted, numerous past fosters she considers her own kids and six "grandchildren." One of Hills' foster children, Trevor Perkins, came into her home when both of his parents were going to be incarcerated.

"The week before his 15th birthday, we got a call," Hills said. "He was a really good kid who had been through some stuff. His parents were going to be in prison for a while."

Hills said she always tries to find one thing in common with a new foster, which usually consists of their favorite ice cream flavor. Perkins said moose tracks, and Hills happened to have some in the freezer.

"We had a lot of ups and downs, a teenage boy going through stuff," Hills said. "We made a commitment to him and it was a commitment to his family."

Hills said she and her husband would take turns bringing Perkins to visit his parents at prisons in Goffstown and Concord.

"We were able to share in his emotions, experience his ups and downs," she said. "We had arguments, cried together, laughed together. Trevor ended up realizing he had all of these people who cared for him. He went from being a D student to high honors at graduation from Exeter High School."

Perkins just completed his second year at Southern New Hampshire University. His parents have since gotten out of jail, maintained their marriage and are living together.

"We keep that door open for all of our foster kids even after they've left. At the DCYF, we talk about how we're similar to the mob. Once you're in, you're in. I'm the mob boss," Hills laughed.

Hills said meeting these "kiddos" is a feeling similar to giving birth to one's own children.

"One time I was like, 'How can I love so many kids?'" Hills said. "But then we had a worker that came in and said to my kids, 'Your mom's heart keeps getting bigger and she gets a new little spot for every child.' She was right. I didn't know if they were going to be mine for a day, a week, a year or whatever. Some have gone on and had great lives and others haven't. We laugh, we cry, we cry some more."

Hills said she will continue to foster as long as she "feels happy when they come and sad when they leave." However, Hills said she is never happy about the circumstances these children find themselves in to end up in foster care.

"We love them 150 percent while they're with us," she said. "I'll do foster care for as long as I'm feeling the way I feel right now."

Katie Cassidy, foster care specialist and recruiter with CFS, said no part is too small when it comes to fostering, as the state's current foster care crisis calls for an "all hands on deck" approach.

According to DCYF statistics, foster care placements in New Hampshire exploded from 567 in 2014 to 763 in 2017 so far. The opioid epidemic is a sizable contributor to these displacements, as 329 children were taken out of substance abuse environments in 2015 compared to 89 in 2010, a 387 percent increase.

"We don't have enough homes," Cassidy said. "We're trying recruitment strategies to get the word out there. You really don't have to be perfect, you don't have to make a million dollars. There are a lot of things people think they need to be to be a foster parent. All you need to be is a loving parent and have a safe and stable home, and we're probably willing to work with you."

A potential foster parent is able to work and does not need to own their own home, but all residences must be up to necessary code. If a parent has work conflicts, a child's social worker will assist in arranging childcare options. A child's medical expenses are also not the responsibility of a foster parent, as children in care are typically eligible for Medicaid. However, a foster parent may choose to cover the child under the family's health insurance.

To become a foster parent, a 21-hour DCYF comprehensive training course called FACES (Foster and Adoptive Care Essentials) is required. In addition, ongoing training is provided for licensed foster parents. Foster parents are reimbursed at a set rate for care and supervision, however, the rate has not changed for several years and CFS statistics show the reimbursements are 30 to 40 percent less than what it typically takes to raise a child.

Giving a home to a child, Cassidy said, "I can't think of anything more remarkable than that."

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2qkSTGF

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For more information: Portsmouth Herald, www.seacoastonline.com

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