03 May Pamela and Fonda
A family portrait hangs in the living room of Pamela and Fonda’s home. The photo is of the couple surrounded by their seven young children. What’s unusual about the picture is that it was taken on one of the rare occasions when everyone was together. Six of the kids are Pamela and Fonda’s past or current foster children; the seventh is King, who was a foster child the couple adopted. The photo was taken at King’s sixth birthday party, where the gift he asked for was to have the whole family together for the day.
Logistically, this took a little doing, but everyone was very happy to accommodate King’s request.
The family portrait dispels one of the biggest myths about fostering. People fear they’ll be heartbroken when it’s time to say goodbye, because they think they will never see the child again. At Angels Foster Family Network, 70% of all foster children are reunified with their biological families, and it is always the goal. But many foster parents continue to have relationships with the children, and their families, for many years to come. “A lot of people told us they could never be foster parents because they could never give the child back, but when you’re in the situation, you can see the positives of reunification,” says Fonda, as she slices strawberries for the youngest of the three boys at home. There’s King, who’s now in first grade, and a sibling set of toddlers. “Some people just need a reset,” she continues, referring to parents whose children are in foster care. “If you can help keep a family together, it’s a good thing.”
Fostering was initially Fonda’s idea, as she was a foster child herself in Miami, Florida. So when Pamela started talking about the couple having children, Fonda suggested fostering. “There are so many children who need homes,” Fonda says. Pamela immediately liked the idea, and was confident in her caregiving abilities, as she had been babysitting since she was 12 years old and was a nanny when she was in college.
Still, they had concerns. “The not knowing was scary,” says Pamela. “What if we got a medically fragile child? What if we couldn’t take care of the child? How do we interact with the birth parents?” They also wondered if they would face discrimination as a same-sex couple. “In reality, it was no big deal,” says Pamela with a laugh. “Our social worker gives us tips and advice on our foster children and on King,” says Fonda. Additionally, the couple connects with other foster families through the Angels network. Pamela adds, “Angels has meet-ups at parks during the day.”
They also liked that Angels connects foster parents with children under five years old, and requires families to foster one child or sibling set at a time, so children can get the attention they need.
As it turned out, Pamela’s and Fonda’s fears about interacting with biological parents were also unfounded. They have remained close to all of their former foster children and their biological families. They beam with pride when they talk about the biological mother of their first foster child, a baby girl. The mother struggled with addiction, but was able to begin to rebuild her life while her daughter was in Pamela’s and Fonda’s care. “She’s now in college and has a very healthy and strong family,” Pamela says.
Each foster child brings new joys and challenges to Pamela’s and Fonda’s lives. For example, as Fonda walks to the fridge to more get berries, the youngest child tracks her with his eyes, and assures himself aloud that she’s coming right back. “He likes for everyone to be together,” Fonda explains. And still, King needs a little extra time to adjust to changes in his routine. “If there’s a substitute teacher at school, he can act out, but he also has the biggest heart, and the behavior is very situational.”
As for saying goodbye, both Pamela and Fonda are very pragmatic, explaining that our society would be a better place if children had safe, loving foster homes to stay while their parents are given the time needed to get their lives back on track. It’s bittersweet, they say. Pamela says she’s been known to shed some tears when they’re least expected, like while watching Monsters, Inc. “When Sully and Boo said goodbye, I lost it,” she says. Fonda smiles and nods, remembering the first reunification of a foster child with her mother. She has a different reaction, though. “I look at it like this opens space for another child who needs us, and we never know what we’re going to get – a girl, a boy, what age? The wondering, it’s like Christmas Day.”