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Nurturing a Home: Centre County foster families help create loving environments

by on April 28, 2017 1:05 PM

Centre County is known to be a wonderful place to grow up. It has all kinds of activities and highly regarded public and private schools.

But even in Happy Valley children live in situations that may not be wonderful and conducive to their healthy development. For that reason, Centre County has a foster care community that provides children with families and living arrangements that can give them a chance to have stability and to receive a level of care they may not be currently receiving.

“As of today, I believe there are 61 children [in custody of Centre County] between the ages of newborn and 21,” says Centre County Children and Youth Services (CYS) foster home specialist Robin Cain. “We take kids from birth to 21 who are children in need. … Kids come, go, get adopted. It’s a very fluid number.”

May is National Foster Care Month, and on May 2, the annual Change a Lifetime event happens on the steps of the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. The event helps recognize those who are already foster families and also the need for more foster homes.

According to CYS, of the 61 children in county custody, 34 have a foster family in Centre County, while 11 aren’t able to reside in the county because there aren’t homes available, and 16 children are residing in an alternative placement.

The process to place a child into foster care is clear, but it is involved and can take quite a bit of time due to, among other things, the research that goes into each case. By the time a child is removed from custody of his or her current parent(s) or guardian(s), the details of the case have been well-documented and a foster placement has been determined to be in the child’s best interest.

“The children that come into the care and custody of the agency usually come from … they’ve experienced abuse, neglect,” Cain says. “A lot of kids coming into placement, their parents have addiction issues. We provide several different levels of service to families.”

If Centre County CYS is made aware of a child’s difficult living situation, an intake worker can go to the home to make an assessment. If it is determined there is a need for ongoing monitoring, the case is elevated to Ongoing Protective Services, for which a caseworker manages and makes sure all aspects of the intake process are being addressed. OPS also involves parent education and support to the family. If a further determination is made that the living situation is not in the best interest of the child, the courts can become involved by request to have the child come into the care and custody of the agency.

“If we decide a child is not safe in their home, their needs are not being met, we get the court involved,” Cain says. “It can be an emergency in that we can act immediately. More hearings follow. An emergency custody can happen after a petition.”

Whatever the case may be, each fostering situation is different.

“A lot of times [the children have] been abused or neglected,” says longtime foster parent Hillary Haris of Port Matilda. “There can be developmental delays and initial behavior issues for kids that come into care. Often when they come into a foster home and they have stability, routine, and structure, these kids just grow by leaps and bounds. When they come into foster care and receive the love and attention from foster parents, they are able to meet their milestones and, a lot of times, exceed expectations.” 

Haris and her husband, Robi, started fostering children almost nine years ago.

“We got into it because my husband was a full-time youth director, so we had kids in our house all the time,” Hillary says. “We had teenagers in our house all the time for 10 years. For us, being a foster family is an extension of our faith, so we have chosen to do it. This is how we feel we are supposed to make an impact on those around us.”

Over the years, the couple has fostered a total of nine children, eventually adopting one of them.

“We told [Centre County] Children and Youth Services we would foster anyone but babies,” Hillary says. “But CYS called us because they were desperate. They had lots of babies to place. They knew we were not fostering to adopt. They called us because they were desperate and needed a family to care for a baby. So we picked her [Meghan] up at the hospital. She was 6 days old. After four months, we were willing to adopt, and we finally adopted her at 15 months.”

Along with Meghan, the Haris family also has four biological children, ranging in age from 15 to 22. Hillary and Robi also are actively employed.

“[It’s rewarding] just knowing that the kids are safe and that foster families are able to help kids,” Hillary says. “Some of the kids come into care for only a few hours until a family member is identified. Sometimes, it’s a lifetime.”

Center County CYS is the largest foster care agency in the area, but it is not the only one. There are some private agencies that also help children find families.

“You can foster through private agencies and through the county,” Hillary says. “Most foster care training is similar, but for the county, it’s lots of background checks, references, and six nights of three-hour classes. Every case is so incredibly different. The classes are merely the tip of the iceberg. It makes a big difference if you have support after the child is in your home. Each foster situation is unique.

“It’s very important to have your whole family on board when deciding to foster. It has been a real blessing to our family. My kids have learned so much through this process of fostering, and I have no regrets walking down this path. It’s been really good … difficult at times, but really good for my biological kids.”

Along with the Haris family, the Leddy family has its own story to tell, also fostering multiple children over multiple years and eventually adopting twins whom they fostered as newborns.

“We have twin girls we brought home at 12 days old,” says Thea Leddy. “We’re adopting them in two weeks. They are 16 months old. I never wanted to adopt, and I had never wanted to foster. I told people I couldn’t do it, it’s too hard.”

Leddy and her husband, Scott, had a moment prior to deciding to adopt the twins, and it all had to do with conditions being right to adopt, including conditions being right for their biological children.

“I looked at [Scott] and said, ‘I think we’re supposed to foster,’ ” Thea says. “He looked at me and said, ‘I think we’re supposed to, too.’ We completed a six-week class, and in November 2015, we were offered twin girls. We have three biological children — two boys and one girl — and we wanted a 6-year-old or younger. Our daughter is 8 now, so we wanted someone younger than her. Honestly, I never thought we’d get an infant.”

One of Thea’s biggest delights is how well her biological children have taken to their new siblings.

“They love it,” she says. “They adore the twins. We talked to them a lot prior to fostering. We sat them down and said this is what we think we’re supposed to do. If one of them was strongly against it, we wouldn’t have pushed the issue. We talked to them frequently. We wanted them to know that they can come to us. But they adore the twins! From the moment we brought them home, they were attached.”

For Sheri Neale, the decision to become a foster parent emerged from a deeply embedded conviction and has led to continuous involvement in fostering since she first made the decision.

“I guess you can say being a foster mom was something I have always wanted to do,” she says. “When I first moved to PA at the age of six, I would go with my aunt to do home visits. We visited families who were in very sad situations. I always felt bad for the children I met.”

Like many other foster parents, Neale now blends her biological children with the children she fosters.

“I have two biological children, ages 29 and 25, and I always wanted more children,” she says. “I figured as a single woman this may be challenging, but I have the heart, experience, and a few empty rooms, so the process started in the fall of 2015. The children are still with me, but due to confidentiality concerns I am not able to share any details about them. They are in the reunification process with their biological family.”

In the end, the process is about community and family building, for Neale, and she plans to continue to be involved in fostering.

“I want to be involved with mentoring and supporting fostering families in the future,” she says. “I will see what that looks like when the time comes. In my experience of being a foster mommy, I have met some amazing people. I have friendships with people that I hope to never lose. There are so many awesome families out there doing great things for kids in our community. My words of advice to those who have any interest in being a foster parent, connect with people who are doing it, as they are resourceful and knowledgeable.”    

Both Hillary and Thea also exude positivity, optimism, and a vision for their family’s future involvement in foster care, as well as what they love most about it.

“For me, it’s obviously helping these girls have a safe and loving environment to grow up in,” Thea says. “I have a pretty good relationship with the biological parents. Not only does it make a difference in the lives of the children, it makes a difference in the lives of the parents. I had said we were done with babies, but if God told us, ‘I want you to foster again,’ as difficult as it would be, we would do it.”

Hillary emphasized how her foster and adopted children became a complete part of her core family unit.

“There is no difference, and it’s hard to understand how that can be,” she says. “Before I adopted, somebody told me, ‘Oh, you’ll love them all the same. You’ll love your [biological children] the same as the adopted.’ It’s so true! It’s not even part of your thinking to think otherwise. Life at times is easier to live when you don’t get involved in the icky stuff of life that happens to kids. So sometimes you have to dig into your resources, and that’s why support is so important. You don’t know how long foster kids will be in your care, but while you do have them, you have the opportunity to love and care for them and provide structure that will have a significant impact on their little world.”




Kevin Briggs is a writer, musician, and teacher who writes for local publications and performs music at venues across Central Pennsylvania.
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