GEORGIA — This winter, Joseph brought his son to the hockey rink like many other dads. The weekend outing was one both father and son looked forward to each week.
On the ice, Ben’s pleasure could be seen as he played alongside the other skaters, all kids who were participating in the Special Hockey program, the first of its kind in SASA history.
Ben, who was diagnosed with autism at two years old, and his parents, have overcome many challenges to enjoy the life they are living.
Joseph and his wife Jessica, who knew they couldn’t have children of their own, came into parenthood through foster care. At that time they were not planning on adopting a child; they just wanted to help a child in need.
“My grandmother was a foster parent for many children, so I grew up with that. I knew I wanted to be a mom, even if it was just temporary,” said Jessica.
After deciding foster care was the right path to follow, the couple filled out their application and mailed it on a Monday, by Friday, they had a call that there was a child waiting for them.
The child coming their way had medical needs, something Jessica had volunteered to take on since she had experience with Home Health and in-home care.
The couple fostered that child for nine months, continuing to take the required foster care classes as they cared for him.
“It was our first time being parents,” said Joseph. “We met his parents, and we knew all along that our goal was to help him return to them.”
“Ideally, foster care provides an opportunity for parents to get educated about what they have to do to better care of their child; the goal is to reunite the family,” agreed Jessica.
Saying goodbye to that first child was an emotional time for the family.
“We knew it needed to be done, but when it happens, it’s really difficult,” said Joseph. “We knew he’d be loved, but when I was packing his things, I lost it.”
The couple had known the goodbyes wouldn’t be easy, but they knew the needs of the children they’d foster were greater than their sadness.
Before that first child left, the couple received another call, this time for an emergency placement. This child was just two years old and arrived at night.
After observing the child as he walked through the house the following morning, Jessica, who’d studied about the condition, suspected he was autistic. A doctor later confirmed her suspicion.
Jessica and Joseph worked with the youngsters, teaching them sign language to help them overcome non-verbal barriers.
Jessica recalled when Ben, the younger of the two children, said his first word.
“We were getting ready for church, and he looked at me and said ‘Uh, uh’ which was ‘up.’ I started crying,” said Jessica candidly. “I was so proud of him!”
Jessica and Joseph began to understand what Ben was saying, and they learned he tended to try to ‘bolt’ from the house, a typical autism behavior. The couple taught him visual barriers to help him know his boundaries.
As time went on, the couple saw a marked difference in the two cases. While the first child’s family worked diligently to improve their care, the second case wasn’t going as well.
After about a year, DCF decided to pursue terminating parental rights and asked the family if they would be willing to adopt Ben and they agreed.
The process required court dates, and it was Jessica, the primary caretaker, who had to take the stand.
“I don’t like the spotlight,” said Jessica. “It was hard to testify against another parent; I knew I’d be saying things that could make her lose her child.”
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but I knew it wouldn’t be in his best interest to go back to his birth family.”
The court ruled in favor of terminating the parental rights of the birth parents, and for the first time, they were officially parents to a child.
Today, Ben is in elementary school, and he’s thriving; he’s participated in the Special Hockey program for two years.
“He’s more social now and more verbal. Every little bit of progress he makes is a big deal,” said Joseph.
The month of May is ‘Foster Care Month,’ and Joseph and Jessica are eager to see kids in need find help to succeed.
“I went from knowing nothing about foster care to realizing what a great need there is for all these children,” said Joseph.
“Our experience has been amazing and helped us grow, but it also makes you more aware of the situations that are happening right here in Vermont.”
Jessica and Joseph both complimented the work of the Vermont Department of Children and Families.
“Our social worker was one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. She was always making sure the kids had what they needed,” said Jessica.
When it comes to fostering, the family had a few words of advice.
“There’s a quote, ‘everything I want is on the other side of fear,’” said Jessica.
“I wasn’t sure if I could deal with the parents who’d be upset with us or if I could give a child back, but I decided to think about what the children needed and what I could do for someone else.”
“The kids are just kids in bad situations, and they need someone who will step up and help them. I don’t think any amount of fear could have kept me from stepping up to help them. This changes you, heart and soul.”
Joseph and Jessica encouraged those interested in fostering to reach out to DCF.
“They are there to help you in any way you need,” said Joseph. “They want to see the foster child and foster parents succeed.”
The names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the family.