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My husband and I have been Tompkins County foster parents for just under four years. In the summer of 2009, grief-stricken after the unexpected move of a child from our home, we needed help coping with the loss. In fact, I needed help getting up off of our couch. Literally paralyzed by sadness, the only thing I could think to do was to walk slowly to the computer, google Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, and dial the phone.

I cried through my conversation with the intake specialist, who heard the desperation in my voice and set us up with a counselor as soon as she could. That’s how our love affair with F&CS began. For us, it really was where to turn. Since then, our home has continued to fill up with children dealing with trauma and loss, and we have continued to need all the help we can get. So far, the members of our family have seen five counselors and three psychiatrists in the span of two years. I’ve joked many times that we need a coffee shop-style punch card… nine visits and your tenth is free.

One of the toughest things about foster parenting is the incredible amount of control you have to relinquish over your family life. Of course, it’s not as though raising biological children is devoid of surprise … genetics and the outside world can be unpredictable. But as a foster family, planning is practically impossible – there’s no way to know what kids are going to come in to your lives, when, how, and with what baggage. The only way to prepare is to know how to get what you and your kids need, and therapy is one of the things that we need.

In our family right now, we’ve got parents, teens and toddlers. As parents, we continue to experience the vicarious trauma that comes with loving people who have been severely hurt, as well as some extant struggles from our pre-parenting days. Family and Children’s Service has helped us sort through certain issues and assess how our own past impacts us as parents and people. Our teens have issues with trust, anger, substance abuse and goal setting in addition to typical adolescent struggles and some educational ones – learning disabilities, for the most part, as well as some oppositional tendencies and school behavioral struggles. Attempting to intervene in the lives of people who are developmentally on target to reject parental authority is almost comically difficult. Having other adults to provide insight into the lives of our “big boys” makes our job as parents feel a little less like banging our heads against the wall.

Our older toddler came to us at the age of three fresh off a two-week hospitalization with a history of homelessness and neglect and a referral to Family and Children’s already in place, which was the shining beacon of hope in the extremely stressful days of early placement. Our littlest is the only one without a counselor of her own, and that’s not because we think her placement with us at birth has left her without issues. If and when the time comes that she needs external support, we know that Family & Children’s Service will be there.

In all seriousness, our family is a tricky business. It’s crowded and complicated and messy and loud and whoever said all you need is love clearly had no experience with complex trauma. But we parent the way we do because we believe that all children deserve a chance at a healthy, safe home, and we wake up every day to make sure that our home is that place. There’s a scene the recent film version of Where the Wild Things Are in which one of the wild things says to Max, “It’s hard being a family.” She’s right. It is hard being a family. It is exceptionally hard being our family, and we could not do it without the amazing resource that is Family & Children’s Service, and for that, we are all (whether the kids realize it or not) extremely grateful.

- Meryl Phipps, Foster Parent