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Maza’s Musings: Helping children and foster families

As I sit down to write this first column for the Longmeadow News, Father’s Day weekend is upon us.

With this in mind, let me say that I am the luckiest man in the world. I have a beautiful wife, an adventurous and precocious 1-year-old daughter, a career that I love, a great home, and a loving and supportive family. I am truly happy.

But this weekend is always a bit complicated for me.

As I look upon the gifts of handprints and footprints my daughter has brought home from daycare that sit proudly on our refrigerator, I am cherishing this time when she is small and full of wonder. I also think about how exciting it will be to watch her continue to grow. Occasionally, though, when thinking about this, my thoughts drift to another. You see before my daughter was born, my wife and I made the decision we wanted to adopt a child through the state foster care system.

After months and months of classes and training to become certified and having strangers probe into our home and personal and professional lives, it was all worth it. We welcomed a days old baby boy into our home. He was beautiful. We loved him like he was our own and our families instantly fell in love. He was ours, mind, body and soul.

During the training, you are warned that there is a chance the child you take in could be taken back and it could happen for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of care you provide that child. That is what happened to us. After three months of late nights and early mornings, feedings, changings, laughs, cries, and new experiences every day for us and for him, we were abruptly informed that he would be leaving us and returning to family.

It was crushing.

No matter what you’re told in a classroom or how ready you think you are for the possibility, there is no way to gracefully take that gut punch. Later, we made the hard decision to close our home to future placements. Another blow.

Truthfully, I didn’t take any of it well. I wanted to tear it all down. I cried – a lot. I yelled – a lot. I went on social media rants. I wrote and called legislators.

I had a single focus: the system was broken. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but my approach and attitude were.

The truth is, the system is broken and there are a lot of reasons for it.

Of late, stories of neglect and abuse have hit the major media outlets and sparked a response from Gov. Charlie Baker. He talked about reform, but ultimately his solution was to throw money at the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, money helps. There are too few social workers, family resource workers and staff for the number of cases the Department of Children and Families have to handle. But there are deeper systemic problems and one of the biggest ones is the way the state treats its foster families. The Department of Children and Families consistently sends out appeals for more foster families and they are indeed desperately needed. But you can’t get something without giving a little in return and this is where there is a disconnect.

Under current policies, everyone has rights – the state, the children, the biological parents. Everyone except for foster families. With the way the laws and regulations are currently written, foster parents are essentially regarded by the state (at best) as independent contractors. Do foster families get stipends? Yes. But it didn’t even cover the cost of diapers and, in truth, I would have traded every cent to have felt respected or appreciated, to have access to information, resources and support, or to even have phone calls or emails returned in a timely manner or, heck, even returned at all.

The system helps many, many children and there have been so many positive outcomes for them and for families and I don’t wish to make it seem as if every situation is like mine. But there is a growing need to bridge the gap between what foster families need and what they receive – and it’s not about money. Until the state is willing to take a hard look at stripping this thing down to the studs and rebuilding the way it approaches its laws, its policies and its practices, it is up to us to pick up the slack. And boy is there a need, especially here in Western Massachusetts.

The Department of Children and Families has 31 offices, including area offices and the central office. Western Massachusetts has five offices covering our four counties. According to the Department of Children and Families’ second-quarter report for fiscal year 2019 (October to December 2018), those offices serviced 2,110 of the state’s 9,183 children in placements. That’s 23% of all placements. The same report showed that as of the end of December 2018, there were 564 adoption cases (these are cases where reunifying children with their birth parents isn’t an option and adoption is now the goal) in Western Massachusetts. Thirty-five adoptions were legalized. Of those 35, only five were legalized within two years of the child or children being removed from their biological parents. A total of 691 Western Massachusetts children (nearly 33%) were in placement for two or more years. An unbelievable 218 of them had been in continuous placement for more than four years.

The current system just isn’t cut out for this and these numbers help bear this out.

That’s where organizations like All Our Kids Inc. come in. All Our Kids is a 501(c)(3) regional nonprofit that supports Western Massachusetts foster families and children by, among other things, providing mentorship and resources, an active online community, local networking, special events, and quarterly in-person social gatherings.

They are that bridge for our local communities.

Over time, I’ve stopped looking to tear down the system and have decided I want to be part of supporting those involved in it. That’s why I, with the help of my friend Blake Bryan, established an annual event called the Homebrew Showcase for All Our Kids. It combines two of my passions – craft beer and the awesome community that exists around it and helping families. This year’s Showcase takes place Aug. 3 from 12 to 3 p.m. Now in its third year, this special event at Paddy’s Irish Pub in Springfield has raised nearly $5,500 in support of children in foster care and the families that open their hearts and homes to these children.

Putting this together is a labor of love for me. It’s a way I have found to connect to a son I won’t get to see grow up the way I’ll get to with my daughter. It’s a legacy born from the love my wife and I will always have for him and I like to think he’d be proud to know that he is the reason we now help so many others.

Tickets are available in advance or at the door and more information can be found at https://jumpingcometbrewing.wordpress.com/homebrew-showcase/ or the Facebook event page.

I hope you’ll consider joining us or at least visit http://fosteringaok.org and support the great work of this organization.

This column is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the ownership and management of the Longmeadow News and the Westfield News Group.