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Fostering Lots and Lots of Love - Area families open their hearts and homes to needy children

May 22, 2017 10:38AM ● Published by Kevin

From left are Lori Feige of the Children's Network of Southwest Florida, foster parent Jennifer Fischer, who founded Foster Genies and Little Genies Boutique, and volunteer Katie Clark. Photo by Dayna Harpster.

Jennifer and Craig Fischer’s younger son was 3 years old and toddling about in his regular-but-good life, playing and learning and loving his mom and dad and even his older brother and sister. The family lived in Cape Coral and had the benefit of neighbors, good health, a grandma nearby and a Florida life. And then one day he made a baffling announcement: “I want to be a foster child,” he said.

Although hearing that from their biological son was strange, the Fischers figured it wasn’t all bad. As foster parents, they must have been making the children who came into their home feel special, and that was fine. Still, they wondered about their son’s impression of his place in the family. “We thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is his perception of foster care?’ ” Jennifer Fischer explains.  

A foster child’s arrival at any home nearly always happens suddenly, requiring the whole family to mobilize. At the Fischers’ home, there’s a bed to be made, clothes and toys to gather. The anticipated child—or children, as agencies try to keep siblings together—is special at this time, and often later, when the family takes a short trip somewhere the child has never seen or perhaps rounds up a bike or other childhood staple for the new family member.

Their son’s innocent statement helped shape the Fischers’ outlook on fostering as something that should celebrate the whole family—for however long that is. And that’s why Jennifer Fischer has involved children in the nonprofit Little Genies Boutique, which opened in February on Del Prado Boulevard in Cape Coral. It grew out of Foster Genies, an earlier effort of Fischer’s. She had organized a group of adults in June 2016 to raise money and grant wishes for foster families, like trips or other special experiences. Fischer soon saw that foster families’ needs were often more basic, such as clothes, books and diapers. So she signed a lease and recruited about 50 kids as volunteers for Little Genies Boutique.

Foster parents can come to the boutique and, within limits, pick out clothes and accessories for their foster children. Items are donated and often collected by the Little Genies, who must meet a “collection challenge” of so many items before they can join. Then they help with the boutique by sorting and hanging clothes and greeting the foster kids and their families.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Fischer.

Jennifer Fischer and Lori Feige agree the stipends that foster families get don’t go far enough. Feige is programs director for the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, which oversees the foster system in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. When children are removed from the home, every effort is made to place them with a relative. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is what the Fischers and about 250 other families in the five counties provide: non-relative care, for which licensed providers receive about $15 per day.

Children often arrive in the middle of the night with the shirts on their backs and nothing more, Jennifer Fischer notes. There are school clothes and supplies to buy and it seems extenuating circumstances pertain to nearly every foster situation. Take the arrival of one little boy some time ago at the Fischers’ home. The paperwork stated his 5th birthday was that day. “I knew I had to put a birthday party together real quick,” Fischer says. “So I baked a cake. My family went to the nearest store for some toys. My mom has a pool, so we went there and ordered pizza and gave him a party.”

Chris Dennis grew up in Cape Coral and was about 9 years old when she realized a foster family lived down the street. “I was intrigued, but I didn’t really understand what it was about until the mom sat me down and explained it,” she says. She remembers thinking then that someday she wanted to be a foster parent, too. So for the past nine years, Chris and her husband, Robert, have been. They’ve become instant parents to children of all ages, from a newborn to a 17-year-old. Their three biological sons, now 21, 18 and 15, have always been involved. Two of them say they want to be foster parents someday.

Someday can’t come too soon as far as Feige is concerned. The five counties have a great need for more foster parents, particularly Lee. Its numbers are disproportionately high, mostly because of drug abuse, Feige explains, whether it’s the direct or indirect reason children are removed from the home. She’s in a position to know: The Children’s Network is under contract with the Department of Children and Families as the nonprofit lead agency for child welfare in Southwest Florida. It subcontracts about 50 other agencies that provide a variety of services and support for children and families.

Foster parents undergo background checks, home studies and take classes as part of the licensing program. They commit to the goal of reuniting the children with their biological families if at all possible. And foster parents say that’s part of the reward as well. “That healing of a family is probably the most rewarding thing that happens,” says Chris Dennis. “I feel like I had a piece of those families.”

While their children are in foster care, biological parents have visitation when possible, usually about once a week, and stay in contact with the children and foster parents by phone, email or letter. After reuniting with their biological families, sometimes there is no further contact between foster parents and the children but usually they maintain some tie, even if just through social media.

Fostering Then and Now

The roots of foster care in the U.S. can be traced to the English Poor Law of the 16th century. Under it, children became indentured servants who learned a trade and thus avoided the harsh life of the workhouse, where they learned no skills. Attitudes began to change in 1853 with the Rev. Charles Loring Brace and the New Children’s Aid Society. Brace is largely credited with the modern fostering concept through his outreach to apparently homeless immigrant children in New York City. Beginning with Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, a movement of payment and oversight of a foster system evolved.

According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, there were 415,129 children in the U.S. in foster care on Sept. 30, 2014, the latest data available. That year, 264,746 children in the U.S. entered foster care, which is one child every two minutes.

A myth about foster care persists, according to local foster parents, that these children are unmanageable. While both families interviewed have had to ask for a child to be removed from their home after placement, it isn’t the usual course of events, and during their time as foster parents, the Dennises estimate they’ve cared for about 75 kids.

Understanding that any acting out is the result of trauma helps, explains Jennifer Fischer, whose has a degree in special education. Chris Dennis also holds a teaching degree. Both are at-home parents of their large families now.

Craig Fischer is a licensed massage therapist who works primarily with people recovering from injury or surgery. His outlook on fostering seems also to be based on healing. “Life, no matter what it looks like, is generally a mix of hard and easy, good and bad. With each child we bring in comes a set of challenges. The kids are all a different kind of good. And I love every single kid that comes into my home. I’ve never had a child removed that I didn’t cry over,” he says. “The walls (of the house) expand, time expands, your heart expands.”

Indeed, the Fischer family now includes Breana Sireci. She lived with them in foster care since age 16 and asked to stay when she “aged out” at 18 last September. As a result of a traumatic brain injury suffered while living with her biological family, Sireci has reached only about a third grade academic level, the Fischers explain. But she’ll graduate from high school this spring. “I am in special needs,” Sireci notes. “I stay after school—I go to the technical school—and do classes. And I’m working because I want to become a nurse.” Sireci works with children in day care at Lee Memorial Hospital. “I love that hospital,” she says. “And I love kids.”

That’s apparent to the Fischers, because Sireci readily helps with the family’s younger foster children. “They end up having their own kind of children’s government,” Jennifer Fischer says with a smile. “In our family, the older one wants to cook dinner every night, and regards it as a punishment if she can’t. One likes to pick out the pajamas. One likes to do hair. And there is one who is sure fire going to rat out anyone who does anything wrong.”

Sireci has learned what the Fischers and Dennises hope all the foster children learn: What a loving family acts like. “It’s different now because I get more attention,” Sireci says. “My mom wasn’t really giving me anything like love. I never got woken up for school or told to have a good day. Or told ‘I love you.’ None of that.”

Her relationship with her mother has improved to the point where Sireci forgives her. But Sireci also has absorbed Craig Fischer’s philosophy: “Family isn’t always blood,” he says. “Family is in the roles that are filled in your life.”

Written by Dayna Harpster, a writer living in Southwest Florida.
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