When Foster Care Becomes a Family Affair

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Nancy Fagan, director of child welfare services for JFCS, believes the big change over the last several decades, is to no longer look at Foster care as a permanent plan for children.

Sherri Dunn’s biological mother would shoot heroin into­­ her right calf when she was pregnant — and much of Philadelphia knew about it.

Even though she knew Sherri’s gender, her 30-year-old birth mother, Arlene Davido, still used the wrong pronoun when she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in a 1988 article that her unborn child was already addicted: “He won’t stop moving, this baby. When he moves a lot, it means he’s sick; he needs a fix.”


Dunn, 27, stood in her family’s home in Fort Washington and spoke calmly about how she was born addicted to heroin, how she was known as the “media baby.”

When the woman who would adopt Sherri and become her mother, Janice Dunn, went to the Free Library of Philadelphia, she found more than 40 articles about the baby. Even as a foster parent at the time, the retired teacher couldn’t handle the gruesome details.

“Even after a week,” said the elder Dunn, “she was my baby.”

As uncomfortable as Dunn, 69, was reading about Sherri’s experience, she later received another unsettling piece of information: She, too, had been adopted. More than two decades after that realization, Dunn’s biological daughter, Jodi Rosenbluth, also decided to become a foster parent and eventually adopted a daughter who was born addicted to drugs.

Between the time when Dunn was adopted and Rosenbluth adopted her daughter, the child welfare system improved significantly, largely because of legislation and legal action. Still, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and foster parents are only making the best of what is, at the very least, an imperfect situation for foster children.

Watching the family sit around a table this past March at Dunn’s home, eating pizza and discussing plans for a Passover seder of 80 people that Janice’s husband Jerry would lead, you couldn’t help but ask: How did they create a sense of normalcy out of abnormal circumstances?

The big change over the last several decades, said Nancy Fagan, director of child welfare services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service — the agency the Dunns have worked with — has been the increased “push for permanency.”

“It’s made clear right from the beginning to the children and the foster parents so they understand: Foster care is not a permanent plan for children, unlike 150 years ago, when there were children that literally grew up in foster care,” explained Fagan, who has worked in the field for 27 years. “Before we had the push for permanency, kids just lingered in the system.”

That focus on the clock and finding a stable environment is especially important in the case of children born addicted to drugs, as Sherri was. They are “at increased risk of aggressive behavior” and can miss developing the “early skills that you get in infancy,” said Jessica Shore, a psychologist with the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia who also works with JFCS.

But one of the other primary goals of government agencies and the courts is, when possible, to avoid terminating the birth parents’ rights. That can set up a tug-of-war between foster parents who desire a permanent arrangement and birth parents not willing to relinquish their parental rights.

“When children must be removed from their families to ensure their safety, the first goal is to reunite them with their families as soon as possible,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states in its policy guidance online.

JFCS policy, said Fagan, also favors keeping a child with birth parents or a biological family member if it can be proven that “they have a safe place for the child and [can] meet their needs.” The downside, though, of aiming for reunification is that families like the Dunns can then be left in limbo as they wait to hear what the courts decide.

“It’s a tough way to go, because you can get your heart broken,” said Rosenbluth, who grew up with foster children coming in and out of her home.

Janice Dunn, who had three children who were all pre-teens and teenagers by then, decided in the late ’80s that she wanted a fourth child, but “it wasn’t working,” she said. “I was already going to meetings for South American adoptions where you have to go and live there.”

Instead, Dunn, who, along with the rest of her family, belongs to Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, followed in the footsteps of some freinds who were looking at becoming foster parents. Janice and her husband went along to a meeting, signed up, took the classes and then took in a baby named Kevin, “a baldy. He had no hair and a big smile,” said Rosenbluth. “He was always happy.”

Kevin’s biological mother was bipolar, Dunn said, and had stopped taking her medication when she was pregnant. “However, anything the court said she had to do, she did.”

When Kevin was 11 months old, the courts decided to reunite him with his mother, despite Dunn’s concerns. Before he left, the family had given the biological mother all the toys they had for Kevin, but she later accused them of taking his rattle. Dunn, her husband and their three children stood on the front porch as the social worker arrived to pick up Kevin. They never saw him again.

Shortly after, in 1988, they became foster parents for Sherri, but the family was worried that the same thing would happen again.

At that time, the foster care system “didn’t have a real clear sense of direction,” said Frank P. Cervone, executive director of Support Center for Child Advocates, who has been an attorney in the system for more than 30 years.

After the initial article about Sherri ran, more than 70 people called the hospital to find out how she was doing, The Inquirer reported in a follow-up story. Despite Davido’s struggles with drug addiction, she would likely be able to take her home after the baby was healthy enough because of Department of Human Services rules, a pediatrician told the newspaper.

Sherri was in intensive care, in an incubator attached to tubes, for months as doctors weaned her off heroin and methadone. Davido, who had already had two children born addicted to drugs, had visited her “just enough” to satisfy rules put forth by DHS, the pediatrician said at the time. “She knows the tricks.”

But in the end, when she was able to leave the hospital, DHS put her in foster care instead and JFCS arranged for her to stay with the Dunn family. Even though Davido continued to struggle with drugs and eventually died in 1992, it took three years before the family was able to adopt her.

“Total relief,” Dunn characterized her reaction when the courts awarded her and her husband custody of Sherri. “We never knew whether she would end up back with the birth parent. We did not know what she would be going back to” if Davido had regained custody.

Since then, there have been numerous cases involving foster children that have attracted media attention and revealed problems in the foster care system.

There were a number of lawsuits at the state and federal level — one, the “Baby Neal” suit, concerned a child who was born with syphilis and addicted to cocaine at Hahnemann University Hospital, where he remained in a crib for two years — which were filed to speed up the clock when placing children in a permanent home.

Cervone said that around the time the Dunns started acting as foster parents, “the system had a clear ‘F’ failure rating.

“These days,” he added, “it ranges from ‘A-minus’ to ‘C-plus.’ ”

So why did Dunn and, later, her daughter, decide to ride the emotional roller coaster that is the adoption process?

Shortly before adopting Sherri, while still acting as her foster parent, Dunn was driving in a car with a lifelong friend and said to her, “I’m so different from my parents, I must be adopted.”

“Would you want to know if you were?” her friend asked.

Dunn said she knew immediately by the tone of her friend’s voice that her friend had been keeping a secret from her. In keeping with the mores prevalent when Dunn was born seven decades ago, her parents were afraid of the stigma associated with adoption and hid that aspect of Dunn’s identity from her.

The revelation jolted her.

“My parents aren’t my parents,” Dunn recalled of her reaction. “My grandparents aren’t my grandparents. My children aren’t my children.”

Searching for answers, she broke down to her husband.

He said to her, “Well, why are we bothering to adopt Sherri?”

Dunn was incredulous. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“You won’t really be her mother,” her husband answered.

“What do you mean I won’t be her mother? I was her mother the second they dropped her off.”

That was the point, Dunn’s husband concluded. “Well isn’t it the same thing?”

At that moment, Dunn realized that in some sense, caring for and raising other people’s biological children runs in her family. The same is true of her 42-year-old daughter, Rosenbluth.

She grew up with different children coming and going and by the time she was in her teens, she loved acting as a quasi-parent. When she and her husband, Bart, decided they wanted a second child, they also became foster parents. They eventually adopted Gianna, who like Sherri was born addicted to heroin, and is now a healthy 4-year-old quick to giggle and who makes a mess of pizza. (The couple continues to serve as foster parents. Bart Rosenbluth will sometimes get home from work and his wife will say, “Guess what? They’re bringing foster kids home tonight.”)

In Gianna’s case, the timeline was slightly shorter than with Sherri — the courts terminated the biological mother’s rights when Gianna was 2 — but before then, there were still seven postponements before they finally got their first hearing in court, Rosenbluth and her attorney said.

Among the foster children JFCS handles, said Fagan, about 40 percent are reunited with their parents, 40 percent get adopted and the remainder either age out of the system or the foster parents become their legal guardians.

Throughout the process, JFCS and similar organizations work with whomever is caring for the child to make sure the children are meeting their physical and mental “developmental milestones,” because oftentimes — particularly in cases involving drugs — the parents did not get the prenatal care they needed, said Fagan. Even though children born addicted to drugs are at higher risk of having neurological problems, to her surprise, she sees children who later have no related problems.

That appears to be the case with Sherri, who works as a hair stylist. A few years ago, she reconnected with her biological grandmother and sister over Facebook and talks with them regularly. She also will sometimes offer pregnant women advice.

“Some people, when they’re pregnant, they get crazy,” said Sherri. “Like, ‘Oh, I can’t eat fish, I can’t eat chocolate, I can’t have coffee.’ And if I’m around them, I’ll tell them, ‘My mom was shooting up heroin every day when she was pregnant with me and I was fully addicted and I’m fine. I have all my hands, all my toes.’ ”

She and her mother are both comfortable with their stories, but when Dunn learned that she had been adopted, there was one part that still bothered her: the family medical history she had given doctors her entire life had no relevance. After Dunn learned the secret, her adopted mother still didn’t want her to tell people.

But then Dunn’s daughter-in-law, Linda Dunn, called asking about the family medical history. After initially lying about the fact that she was adopted, Dunn called her daughter-in-law back and told her the truth.

“Oh, that’s funny,” Linda Dunn responded. “I’m adopted, too.”

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