In the Freeport home of Marianela and Andres Casas, dinnertime was approaching on a recent Friday. Baby Amelia was napping in her upstairs bedroom while her parents lounged on the couch in the living room. Every few minutes, Marianela peeked at her sleeping baby through a video monitor.
Amelia was born in December. Marianela and Andres also had a foster daughter in their home, whom we’ll call Jenny. (Her real name is being concealed to protect her identity. Marianela and Andres also could not discuss their professional lives for security reasons.)
Jenny was 11 months old when she came to the Casas house in September 2016. Marianela said she was shocked to learn that the child would be so young.
“We’d been expecting older children,” she said. “We had the room prepared to welcome a school-aged kid, not a crib for a baby.”
Jenny was returned to her birth mother in December, shortly after Amelia was born and right before Christmas. She had been taken from her single mother by the Nassau County Department of Social Services. The child had suffered third-degree burns on her right foot from a curling iron that her mother had left unattended in her bedroom. A worker at the hospital had reported the burns to DSS.
“We had to dress her burns and care for them,” Marianela said. “It broke my heart to see her in such pain.”
The Casases grew close to Jenny during the 16 months that she stayed with them. The couple said they did not realize how much they would miss her when she left their home.
“We miss her,” Andres said. “But she’s with her mom, and she needs to be with her mom. That’s the hardest part of being a foster dad. It’s when you have to give them back to their family, but it’s not about me. It’s about Jenny and her well-being.”
In Nassau, there are roughly 160 children in foster care, for any number of reasons, according to DSS. Their birth parents might be addicted to drugs. They might neglect the children, or abuse them physically or sexually.
DSS has about 100 foster homes spread across the county. According to agency policy, children are kept with their birth parents whenever possible. If not, they are sent to live with a family member before foster care is considered.
Foster care is always the last resort.
According to Diane Jackson, DSS’s supervisor of family engagement and recruitment, keeping siblings together when they enter the foster-care system is a challenge. “We have a shortage of foster homes willing to accommodate or accept sibling groups of three or more children,” Jackson said. “Siblings entering the foster-care system must be placed together, which can be challenging when you have large group of four to six children.”
The process of applying to become a foster parent can take a few weeks. Applicants must attend orientation sessions, complete child-abuse clearance forms and be fingerprinted. They also are required to attend training classes, and must be willing to allow DSS workers to inspect their homes. Foster parents receive advance notice that they will be receiving children anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks beforehand.
“The foster care application process can be intimidating,” Andres said. “We were assigned a case worker, and they came to check the house, did a background check on us and even looked into our relationship.”
DSS recruits foster parents at informational sessions that it holds every three months.
Growing up in the foster care system can be challenging. In the past, many foster children moved from home to home. DSS, however, is now working to preventthat. Current placements last for at least a year.
“The first home the children are placed is usually the last home,” Jackson said. “This is also usually the home they will may be adopted or will stay until they can go back to their family.”
Reuniting children with their birth families in a year or less, Jackson said, is a priority for DSS. If reuniting a child with his or her birth parents is impossible within that time, DSS starts to look for an adoptive, or “forever,” family for the child.
“They just need to be loved,” Marianela said. “It’s amazing what happens to a child once they have stability and love.”
Through the Babies Can’t Wait Program, a collaboration of the Adelphi University Institute for Parenting and the Nassau County Child Welfare System, parents whose children have been placed in foster care have the time and are given the resources to kick their drug habits, undergo counseling and/or find secure employment.
Jenny’s mother worked hard to get her back, Marianela and Andres said. Now that the child is back home with her mother, the Casases have been named her godparents, and she visits them from time to time.
“Jenny is like my daughter,” Andres said, looking at his wife.
“Yeah, she’s our daughter too,” Marianela added. “She’s [Amelia’s] older sister, and they adore each other so much.”
“We never thought this is not for us,” Marianela said of foster care.