It’s that special time of year again. The holidays, a time when gift giving, trip planning, memory making and wishlist writing, are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s a time when family-centered traditions are looked forward to by children and adults alike.
But, what happens for those without permanent families?
What happens when “a family” is actually at the top of many Christmas lists?
For the majority of children at Mobile’s St. Mary’s Home, all they want for Christmas is a “forever” family.
Founded in 1838, St. Mary’s Home serves as the first and oldest residential program for foster children in Alabama and the only Catholic residential program in the state. Currently, St. Mary’s Home houses 45 male and female children and teenagers between the ages of 8 and 18, who have been placed there by the Alabama Department of Human Resources. The average occupancy is 46 with a maximum of 52.
Statistics show the children have been in an average of nine other places, whether it be with relatives, foster parents or other group homes, since being removed from their parents and placed at St. Mary’s Home, according to Jill Chenoweth, director of development for St. Mary’s Home.
“We’re kind of the last stop,” she said.
Though first established as an orphanage, St. Mary’s Home has since evolved into a residential treatment facility for abused, abandoned and neglected children, Chenoweth said.
“We know statistically, and it depends on which day of the week it is and who’s here, between 85 and 95 percent of our children have been raped and raped repeatedly,” she said. “The public likes to say sexually abused. It’s rape.”
St. Mary’s Home offers three different programs — basic, moderate and intensive — to support their mission of providing support and education for destitute children, whose parents are unable or unwilling to support or educate them, and carry out their vision of seeing that all children live free from violence, neglect and fear.
“Our goal is to help them deal with what’s happened to them and make them understand it’s not their fault, that God loves them and to get them an education,” Chenoweth said.
Those placed in the intensive program, which is one step under a psychiatric program, simply cannot function in the public school system, according to Chenoweth.
“They’re angry,” she said. “And they have a right to be angry because what’s happened to them should never happen to any human. They’re angry and that anger comes out. That’s why we have three kids at home this week who are supposed to be in the public school system. That’s why we have kids in our intensive program … they read the same books, they listen to the same music, they love the same movies and they want what everybody wants,” she said said. “They want to be loved.”
Many of the children and teenagers at St. Mary’s Home are able to regularly attend school and participate in extracurricular activities within the Mobile County Public School system.
“Some of our kids are in band, some are in ROTC,” Chenoweth said. “We have somebody who played football this year. We’ve had kids play basketball, we’ve had cheerleaders and we’ve had baseball players. So, we try to give them as normal of a life as possible. If that’s possible.”
Further, Chenoweth said a typical day at St. Mary’s Home focuses on a structured routine that includes waking up, eating breakfast, going to school, doing homework, playing outside, eating dinner, watching television and going to sleep.
“That sounds boring, but for most of our children, they’ve never had that kind of life,” she said. “They’ve never had the structure. No one has made sure that they got up and went to school every day. Nobody made sure they went to bed at a decent hour. Nobody made sure they did their homework.”
According to Chenoweth, the average length of stay at St. Mary’s Home is 14 months before children are placed with foster parents, adopted or allowed to go back to their families. Last year, five children were living at St. Mary’s Home as a result of failed adoptions.
“Not only is it bad that your parents don’t want you, but now, a family who was supposed to adopt you doesn’t want you either.”
As of October, 476 children are in foster care in Mobile County alone and there were 4,907 foster children statewide, according to Angela McClintock, a licensed clinical social worker and director at Mobile County DHR.
McClintock said the DHR might receive reports of child abuse and neglect from the community, hospitals, police departments and other agencies. Once it is determined a child cannot return to their parents, the first order of business is to attempt to find a relative.
“They can still have traditions,” she said. “It helps them keep those traditions and memories.”
If DHR is unable to find a suitable or willing relative, the child is taken into temporary custody and becomes a foster child. Additionally, DHR tries to keep the children in the county because their ultimate goal to reunite the children with their families.
McClintock said the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1997, requires the state to call for the termination of parental rights (TPR) for children who have been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. However, just in the last couple of years, it has been reduced to 12 months, she said.
Furthermore, McClintock said each case is unique and may actually extend longer than 12 months if the parent is making “significant progress,” and the agency must file a stay of the TPR or submit to the court a compelling reason why it’s not appropriate to file a TPR.
“It can really take it’s toll, but we try to work with the family,” she said. “We try to refer them to resources and help with the underlying issue.”
If TPR is granted by a judge, the child can then be legally adopted.
McClintock said in 2014, there have been 48 finalized adoptions in Mobile County and approximately 547 total adoptions throughout Alabama, an increase over last year.
“We’re always trying to improve permanency for kids and shorten the length of time and care, so we’ve really tried to streamline our efficiency … we want to have everything already ready so they don’t have to languish in the system,” McClintock said.
In Wilmer in west Mobile County, two local foster parents have given 11 young people, who were all once foster children, a “forever family.”
After becoming licensed foster parents in 2001 and rearing two biological children of their own, Bill and Michelle Douglas said their whole world was turned upside down when they believed they were only getting one foster child but ended up getting two children just one week after receiving their license to foster.
“God has a set of kids waiting for us,” Michelle Douglas said. “Little did I know what we were getting ourselves into, but it’s been one of the best journeys we’ve ever made in our life.”
The Douglases, who started with a modest three-bedroom home, have since constructed a 1,500-square-foot addition and turned their garage into a master bedroom to accommodate their not-so-traditional family.
“We do it because I know this is what God made us for,” she said. “My husband and I both agree 100 percent this is what we were made for on this Earth is to love kids and take care of them for however long they are with us.”
The Douglas’ son David, 18, was taken into their home as a foster child four years ago. His adoption was finalized last November. According to Michelle, in only a year and a half, David lived in six different places, including two months at a group home, before being placed at the Douglas home.
“Everything came to us, like school, church and we even had counseling on Tuesdays,” David said about the group home, recalling sitting in his room alone for hours on end.
“If I had a marker, I could put days on the walls that I was there,” he said.
According to Michelle, it took nearly three years for David’s parents’ parental rights to be terminated.
“[It’s] sad because it’s not fair to the kids,” she said. “A lot of times, they’re ready to get on with life. So, you get these children who are stuck. But it has gotten better. They’ve gotten to the point now where TPR is not taking so long.”
Though she admitted to hearing horror stories about foster children, Michelle said every child deserves a home, and one piece of advice she would give to anyone considering becoming a foster parent is that teenagers deserve a chance.
She said David became a different person once he was adopted and has since graduated high school, enrolled in college and held a job for about a year and a half. He even tutors foster children at the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home.
And just like a typical college student, David is currently debating about changing his major — he’s thinking about becoming an electrical engineer.
The Douglases also adopted David’s biological brothers Jason, 10, and Michael, 4. The rest of the family includes their biological son Joey, 24, Charles, 24, Ariel, 21, their biological daughter Kasey, 21, Michael, 20, A.J., 18, Drake, 15, Hunter, 12, Kaitlynn, 8 and Aaliyah, 8.
“They all bring something unique and great to our family, and we need them,” she said. “We need them as much as they need us. It’s changed me to be a better person and I couldn’t live without them. It’s a miracle God brought us all together.”
While they currently have two foster children, Michelle said they will return to their family soon.
“We’re a little sad about it, but we also know that God has a plan and you don’t know how long they’re going to be at your home, but you know that while they’re there, you want to love them and try to change them for the better,” she said.
The Douglas family is looking forward to the holidays, but back at St. Mary’s Home, Chenoweth said the holidays can be very hard on the children. While Halloween and Easter are not so bad, she said Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are especially difficult.
“Those are horrible times for our children,” she said. “We are very fortunate Christmas is always taken care of, but it’s always on Christmas Eve or the day before that we always get kids in … can you imagine being pulled from your family on the 23rd or 24th? We are just very fortunate that people think about these kids,” Chenoweth said.
Andrea Rehm, director of volunteer services and public relations at St. Mary’s Home, spends countless hours coordinating the children’s Christmas lists with many individuals and groups that they rely on to make wishes become reality.
“They don’t have anybody,” she said. “But they have the community.”
Serving as the “mother hen,” Rehm said each of the 50 children are like her own and she wants to ensure all are taken care of during the holidays. Sorting through wish lists that name everything from hot Cheetos to Polo cologne, Rehm said each child receives anywhere from eight-to-10 gifts per year thanks to the generosity of those in the community.
“That’s through the grace of all the different people,” she said. “God works wonders through the generosity of others. It’s awesome.”
While many foster children will ask for iPods, tablets, dolls and actions figures for Christmas, McClintock said, in her experience, what foster children really want are families.
“They want to be able to remain safely in their homes or be returned safely to their family,” she said. “They want to be placed with their siblings so that they will not feel alone. They want to feel ‘normal’ and not be branded a ‘foster child.’”
McClintock said if foster children cannot safely return home, they want to live safely with relatives who will care for them and help them to retain their sense of family and tradition, and if they cannot safely go to relatives, they want to be adopted and be given an opportunity for a “forever family.”
“They want to know that there is a loving safety net for them called family,” she said.