Friday, December 22, 2006

Death of Marcus shocks Kentucky foster parents

Building a bond of love
Kreimer, Peggy. Kentucky Post, Sept. 6, 2006, pg. A1.

When Raenon and Jim Justice met their youngest son, he was an abused infant who doctors predicted would live only a few months because of a brain injury he'd suffered in utero when someone beat his pregnant mother.

The Justices decided to make sure the tiny boy didn't die without experiencing love.

They took him into their Fort Thomas, Ky., home and into their hearts, first as a foster child, then adopted him.

"He's almost 3 now, and he's sitting up," said Raenon Justice. "They said he wouldn't live. You never know what's going to happen."

When the Justices married, they wanted a big family. After their first son was born, however, they learned Raenon wouldn't be able to have any more children.

But there's more than one way to build a family, said Jim Justice, who teaches at Northern Kentucky University.

The Justices signed up for the state of Kentucky foster care training in 2003.

"Then we purchased a house that was the largest we could afford, in a good school district," Jim Justice said.

They got their first foster placement two weeks after moving in -- a 3-year-old boy and 9-month-old girl.

Those children stayed two weeks, but others followed.

In the past three years, the Justices have fostered 11 children and adopted two of them.

While foster children are living under the Justices' roof, they are part of the Justice family, said Jim Justice. It's a bond of love and trust that hasn't always been easy to forge.

"We've had kids who were sexually abused, physically abused, emotionally abused. We've had kids with severe medical conditions," he said.

He and his wife have dealt with hyperactive kids, children who were angry, hurt, confused.

Being a foster parent isn't easy, Jim Justice said. He believes most of the people who open their homes to troubled children are meeting the challenges with patience, love and a hefty amount of supervision.

That's why the news of the Clermont County couple accused of killing Marcus Fiesel, their 3-year-old autistic foster child, has hit the Justices and other local foster families especially hard.

Children with severe emotional, mental or physical needs can be difficult to handle, but nothing justifies abusing a child, said Raenon Justice.

"He couldn't help how he was," she said of Marcus.

Adults have free choice about foster care, she said.

"If you can't handle it, don't do it," she said.

"Sometimes the emotional problems are harder to deal with than the medical problems. But you say, 'I need a break.' You say 'I need a psychologist.' You always have options, even if you have to look for them on your own. There was no reason for that to happen to that child."

Patience is the key, said Jim Justice -- with the kids, with social workers, with biological families.

"You have to be willing to cooperate with all of those people. And you have to be cooperative with the state while still advocating for the child. The state doesn't always do what you think is the right thing," he said.

"You have to be willing to work with anyone involved because it takes all of those people to undo the damage that's been done."

Justice said every child in foster care carries scars from the problems that made it impossible for him to remain with his birth family.

"You've got to be willing to give the kids time to heal. They're recovering from abuse and neglect. You've got to love them and teach them what it means to love someone," he said.

Sometimes that requires a particularly difficult kind of patience.

"You can't force them to hug you, to give you a kiss," he said. "You just have to constantly be there to express your feelings. Eventually they learn to trust you."

Building a family through fostering and adoption has honed the Justices' parenting skills.

"We've had to deal with some situations that are fairly extreme," Jim Justice said. "This has helped be to become a better father, a more patient father."

Their eldest son has also matured in his big brother role, Justice said.

"He sees the effects of people's actions," Justice said. "We can say to him, the reason your brother is the way he is, is there is an adult out there who can't control his anger."

Gene Blair, a minister at Cornerstone Church of God in Erlanger, Ky., trains new foster parents for the state of Kentucky. He and his wife, Shellie, have been foster parents for 13 years and know the frustration of dealing with troubled children first hand.

"A lot of these kids, if you try to do it by yourself, it can be overwhelming," Gene Blair said.

"We always tell people you have to take advantage of the resources out there."

The Blairs have fostered 28 children and adopted three of them.

"This has been the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life," he said.

Their biological daughter was 2 when they decided to open their home to other children who needed someone to care.

"We started with infants," he said. "We felt we needed to keep children younger than our daughter, Kayla. As she grew, we got older kids."

Their oldest adopted child is a son, 9, who first came to the Blairs' home as an infant.

"We thought he went home (to his birth family) but we found out years later he was still floating around. He was 6 then and he had been bounced around in four or five previous placements," Blair said.

When they brought the boy home again, he had a huge case file that documented medical and behavior problems.

"It scared us to death," Gene Blair said.

"He had a genetic disorder that affected his liver. He was mildly mentally retarded. I read the school reports and said 'I don't know if we can do this.'

"We took it a step at a time. We found out you just can't judge a kid by his file," he said. "He's doing super now."

Their social worker helped them make connections with Children's Hospital Medical Center, therapists and support networks.

Blair said Marcus Fiesel's death has shined a light on the importance of finding caring families to open their homes to foster children.

"Everybody wants to be able to blame the agency or the workers," he said. "They have a certain responsibility, but this sounds like you had people fostering who shouldn't have been fostering.

"When we train, you work so hard to make sure this is the right fit for the family and the kids."

Blair has been training foster families for four years. The screening includes home studies, background checks, financial information and some gut assessment.

"We've had situations where we don't feel comfortable with the family and we ask them to drop out," he said.

"The majority of the families we see are good people who just want to make a difference in a child's life."


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