Delray foster mom, a professor at FAU, finds her calling
By Shana gruskin
November 14, 2003
A single mother and foster parent off and on for 14 years, Ellen Ryan knew the joys and pitfalls of fostering abused and neglected children.
So after settling in as a social work professor for Florida Atlantic University, Ryan of Delray Beach decided she was ready, once again, to care for little ones.
She knew that meant giving up some of her free time, now that her four other children are adults. But, she says, it's well worth it.
"I really have to say that even on a bad day, I guess I just was meant to do this. I really do enjoy the process," said Ryan, 55, about caring for an energetic 5-year-old boy and his shy 3-year-old sister.
Currently, there are 193 foster homes in Palm Beach County. Child & Family Connections, the private agency taking over foster care from the state Department of Children & Families, wants to add another 43 homes by the end of the year. It recently hired three other agencies to recruit, retain and support foster homes.
Of the 1,720 Palm Beach County children who have been taken from their parents because of abuse or neglect, about 600 are living in shelters, group homes or foster homes. The rest of the children live with relatives or friends.
While always a preference, keeping siblings together has become a priority for the county's transitioning child welfare system.
Living in a troubled home and being removed from parents is traumatic enough for children, said Keith Johnson, Palm Beach County program coordinator with Kids in Distress, a private agency responsible for recruiting foster homes in Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.
"Oftentimes, the only thing the sibling groups have are each other," he said. "And if you have to split them up, they don't even have that. And that's pretty disheartening for children."
Johnson said Kids in Distress and the two other recruiting agencies, Camelot Community Care and The Children's Place at Home Safe, are focusing heavily on finding parents who will take in hard-to-place children: sibling groups, teens and teen mothers.
"They deserve a chance just like the other kids do," he said.
To give children that chance, Johnson said foster parents don't need to be rich, married or homeowners. They simply have to have enough room in their home so a child has his or her own bed and a place for his or her belongings. Children older than 1 cannot share a bedroom with an adult, and children 3 or older cannot share a room with a child of the opposite sex.
Most important, Johnson said, foster parents need to have space in their hearts.
"We're looking at somebody who is going to be able to provide a safe, loving, nurturing environment, to be tolerant to the behaviors of the children ... and be able to recognize and meet the needs of the children that are placed in their home."
Johnson said those behaviors can vary from bedwetting to defiance.
Ryan said she had to teach the 5-year-old boy that he could rely on her to take care of his needs and the needs of his little sister.
"He really wanted to see who was the authority and who was going to be in power," she said. "He also had some street wisdom for 5 years old, some language and kicking things."
But she said the pleasure she gets interacting with the children -- talking, reading, playing and snuggling with them -- far outweighs the day-to-day struggles.
A lot of people, she said, are scared off by the stories they hear about foster children.
"Sometimes if you just start it .. You rise to the challenge," she said. "A friend of mine said you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying it."
Foster parents have to understand early on that they may need to let go -- a child may be returned to a birth parent or adopted by another family, Ryan said.
"A lot of people say what's going to happen and I say, `I really don't know.' That's a little bit of a challenge, you have to be able to live in the moment."
While the foster parents emotionally support the children, Kids in Distress and the two other private agencies are there to support the foster parents, Johnson said.
"Whenever they're running into some difficulty or have a department worker or a case manager who doesn't return their call, or they feel what they've been told about a child doesn't seem accurate, they can call us," he said.
The goal, Johnson said, is to help the foster parents so they don't get burned out and prevent children from being bounced from one home to another.
"We want to make sure we don't move these kids, because every time you move them you damage them," he said.
If there's a problem between a foster parent and a child, Kids in Distress mediates, provides therapy or respite services.
Kids in Distress, which has been providing foster care services in Broward County for six years, has kept about 95 percent of the children placed in its foster homes stable until they are returned to their parents or adopted.
Shana Gruskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6537.
From November 16, 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel