Room for one more: Foster hope, foster love

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

— Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

This is our Thanksgiving edition and we expect that most of our readers, like ourselves, are happy to be gathering with family for a feast of good food, yes, but also of love and happiness.

But what about those without a place at the table?

What about children whose homes are so unsafe that they had to be removed from the families into which they were born?

We thought about them when we made a visit last Friday to 112 State Street in Albany, a building filled with county offices. We went through a security gate on the first floor, were sent to check in with a guard on the fourth floor, and finally made it into an office on the third floor, wondering what in this building was so valuable that it needed so many layers of protection.

We found out in a meeting room where four women were seated, waiting to talk with us.

Each woman spoke with passion and precision about her work.

These women are protectors of children. Their work involves finding homes for kids who live in unsafe places. Sometimes the children get to return to their original homes. Sometimes they are adopted by their foster parents. Other times, they wait for a home.

Valerie Johnson, caseworker with the Foster Homefinders and Adoption Unit, has been with the agency for nine years. She is a mother with two children of her own. What keeps her at it?

“Overall, I’m committed to helping people,” she says simply.

Chelsea Stewart, the supervisor for the Foster Homefinders and Adoption Unit, has been with the agency for 12 years. She started as a community service worker, helping caseworkers. “I became a caseworker, doing investigations, knocking on doors, interviewing kids, doing removals,” she said.

As she knocked on those doors, she said, “You don’t know what you’ll find.”

She’s able to keep on because she said, “I’m easygoing.” And she always has foremost in her mind: “How can I help the family?”

Michelle Dowe, director of Child Welfare, said she started working at St. Anne’s right out of college, when her daughter was 2 years old; her daughter is now 23. Dowe worked her way up, doing intakes, investigations, and working as a family facilitator.

“This job opened me up to a lot of things,” Dowe said. “It made me a better parent. It made me appreciate what I have,” she said.

Gail Geohagen-Pratt, commissioner for the Albany County Department for Children, Youth and Families, looked around the table at the women who work with her and for her — she said most of the workers in her department are women — and said they experience “a lot of vicarious trauma.”

She went on, “You see things you might not otherwise see — neglect, abuse. You have to process that and manage that, and not become debilitated … We stress work-life balance and self care.”

Geohagen-Pratt said she started at the department at the same time as Dowe, 21 years ago. She was a caseworker and moved through the ranks, learning as she went.

“You can’t stay in this work if there isn’t a level of commitment to see lives of children and families improve,” she said.

As commissioner, Geohagen-Pratt said, “It’s more about the system level, looking at ways to address the challenges, how we can more effectively do the work we do, so there is a positive outcome.”

She went on, “It’s not just one thing, so many factors contribute.” She named families, communities, school systems, mental health, and substance abuse.

So, from her commissioner’s chair, Geohagen-Pratt works with the state’s education department, for example, or the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports.

“No one system is responsible,” she said, “and no one system can fix it.”

But individuals can and do make a difference. Right now, we were told, there are 240 children in Albany County’s system and 170 to 180 of those children board at homes. More homes are needed.

Federal legislation, part of the 2018 budget, prioritizes family-based foster care, limiting federal reimbursement for some residential placements — New York like some other states got a delay until Sept. 29, 2021.

Dowe put it directly: “We need foster homes.”

So, in our story this week, we outlined the process and requirements involved in becoming a foster parent.

What isn’t in our story is the joy and satisfaction that comes from helping a child who needs a home. Love is a two-way street. Often, in helping someone else, we help ourselves, too. When parenting, we’re reacquainted with the wonders of the world, as seen through the eyes of a child.

We wrote a profile this week of a foster mother, Sharon Astyk, a remarkable woman. She and her husband became foster parents eight years ago and now have 12 children: four biological children, six former foster children whom they have adopted, and two foster placements.

Astyk has this to say to people who are considering becoming foster parents: “If you ever want to run a marathon or climb Mount Everest, this is the home-life version of that.” She stressed, “You can do it as an ordinary person.”

She also said, “I wouldn’t trade this for a million dollars.”

We took home a packet of information about Albany County’s fostering programs. The title on the outside of the folder says: Open your heart, Open your home, Become an Albany County Foster Parent.

We hope as you, our readers, are counting your blessings this Thanksgiving that some of you will consider sharing them in this way. It starts with a phone call; we’ve printed the number. We’ve outlined the training, which gives you a chance to see if this is the right path for you.

At this time of year, our pages are filled with appeals for donations for food and coats and toys and more — all material goods that are generously donated and distributed to people who need them.

But this is different. Opening your home and your heart is harder. It involves a far greater commitment but it also may offer a far greater reward.


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