ON THE COVER

Area fam­i­lies open their hearts and homes to needy chil­dren

Cape Coral Living - - Front Page -

A foster child's ar­rival at any home nearly al­ways hap­pens sud­denly, re­quir­ing the whole fam­ily to mo­bi­lize. At the Fis­cher home in Cape Co­ral, there's a bed to be made, clothes and toys to gather. It's a spe­cial time fraught with an­tic­i­pa­tion and some chal­lenges.

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. 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-yearold. 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 five coun­ties have a great need for more foster par­ents, par­tic­u­larly Lee.

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.

Foster par­ent and Lit­tle Ge­nies Bou­tique founder Jen­nifer Fis­cher soon saw that foster fam­i­lies' needs were of­ten more ba­sic, such as clothes, books and di­a­pers.

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.”

Dayna Harp­ster is a writer liv­ing in Southwest Florida.

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.

Gabby Cra­gle (left in pho­tos above) and Bella Lau­zon (right in pho­tos above) sort do­na­tions at Lit­tle Ge­nies Bou­tique. As Lit­tle Ge­nies, they have met a col­lec­tion chal­lenge to be mem­bers. Bins at the bou­tique (bot­tom left) hold nec­es­sary items for foster chil­dren. Din­ner at the Fis­ch­ers' home (bot­tom right) takes place at a pic­nic table, so all nine chil­dren can sit to­gether.

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