“It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons.” Johann Friedrich Von Schiller
Single fathers raising sons are more the exception than the norm in our culture. Rarer still are single male foster or adoptive parents. Sometimes, though, that is exactly what a child needs to thrive – a home where there is a single male parent whose time and attention can be concentrated solely on one child. How wonderful it is when circumstance happens to bring the two together at just the right time.
Phil did his graduate school work in New York City where he also served as a volunteer working with children with AIDS. After he graduated Phil became a teacher working in the boroughs of NY. “I kept coming across kids from difficult backgrounds,” he says. Phil found himself thinking about becoming a single foster parent. “I thought about it for 3 years before I went ahead. I knew it would not be all roses and lollipops.” But the pull to become a foster parent was strong and Phil felt that he could help make a difference for a child so he eventually became licensed after moving to CT.
Fast forward to 2002. Like many foster parents, newly licensed Phil became friendly with other families who provide foster care. Through one foster family Phil met Luis (pronounced Louis), age 6, and his brother, 18 months older. Often the boys would come to Phil’s home for a weekend – respite for their foster family and fun for the boys who looked forward to weekends with fun-loving Phil. The boys were eventually freed for adoption and despite caring deeply for both boys, the pre-adoptive family felt they could only adopt the older boy as Luis needed more than they felt they were able to give him. Knowing how fond Phil was of the boys, the family asked him if he might consider being a resource for Luis. The DCF worker also felt this might be a good placement for Luis so she and Phil talked it over. Phil absolutely wanted to take Luis. Cindy, the DCF worker, now had the job of discussing these changes with Luis.
Luis remembers the situation like this, “The coolest part was that day we were having a barbeque at Phil’s. I was sitting in the pool with my brother and I mentioned to him that I would like to live with Phil. My worker came over to me right after that and asked me if I would like to live with Phil. I was so excited! I don’t even remember if I went back to the foster home or if I just stayed with my dad after that.” Luis was 7 ½ at the time and had already lived in at least four foster homes. He says, “I was used to moving around. I had a lot of anger and a hard time with self-control.” Being placed with Phil was perfect for Luis. He already knew Phil and was fond of him. Phil would be open and agreeable to the boys continuing to visit. And Phil was a “good fit” for Luis’ needs.
The plan was for Luis to be adopted by Phil and that did eventually happen. But this plan would move slowly – at times more slowly than either Luis or Phil wanted. Because his parental rights were terminated and it was deemed not to be in his best interest, DCF did not facilitate a relationship with his birth parents. But Luis had other ideas…
In 2008, after repeated requests by Luis, Phil took Luis to a store that Luis remembered from his early childhood. “Luis had been asking for months, and months and months to stop at the store his father used to manage. So, finally I said, let’s go. It’s on your mind, let’s go. We went inside the store and there was a man behind the counter. I explained to the man who Luis was and that I was caring for him. As I told the story Luis’ mom, who happened to be in the store, came out from around the corner of an aisle.” She looked at Phil and Luis and she explained who she was. Phil smiles and says, “They ran into each other’s arms. It was a Hallmark moment. Totally unexpected and unplanned. It was where they both needed to be.” Luis listens and nods and smiles as his dad relates the day’s events. It is clear it is one of his favorite stories. Phil says, “We went back to see her many times, once Luis went with a list of questions.” Among them: “What was my favorite toy?” The answer: a spoon. “When did I learn to walk?” One of the more obvious questions was not one Luis felt compelled to ask. Never did he ask her why he ended up in foster care. He remembers the day he was removed. He remembers the police cars and states he did not feel he needed to ask his mom events he remembers so well.
Luis and Phil have continued to maintain a close relationship with Luis’ birth mom. She has shared contact information with them on how to reach Luis’ other 3 siblings. She, as well as some of his siblings, has been to visit them and Phil has even surprised Luis by flying his brother up from Florida for a visit.
What makes this family able to do so well? Phil was ready for tough behaviors and feelings. He really wants Luis to succeed so he and Luis work hard to address the issues and his behaviors. Phil remembers getting calls from the school to pick Luis up at least 3 times a week some semesters. Phil says, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You’re scared and hurt. Under all the hurt and anger is a child who needs a family to grow up in. They may say that they hate you. But they don’t really.” He reflects on being a foster and adoptive dad. “You will have your doubts along the way. When the kids are angry know that they don’t want to be that way and it’s your job to make it work out for them. You learn to measure over time the changes. Be patient. Look for positive changes. Remember that these small changes will eventually get you both where you want to be.” It is very clear that Phil is proud of Luis. They sit next to each other and Phil often pats Luis on the shoulder or touches his arm as Luis speaks. Phil’s eyes convey his pride and love for this young man.
Luis grins a lot during the interview. He declares his love of skateboarding and since he never stops moving its seems good he has found a positive outlet for his abundant energy. The wild blue streak in his hair definitely suits his personality. He keeps busy photographing “nature” along the path. He yells to his dad from across the park and runs back and forth adding comments. At one point he sits right next to his dad and states, “I would never be the person I am if I was not adopted by this amazing father.” Then he hugs his dad. We all have tears in our eyes. Luis talks a little about what it feels like to experience foster care. “When you move into a new foster home it’s scary. The scariest part for me was when you are walking into a new school. Going in you feel alone AND you feel alone at home. After a while you realize – once you’re with your dad – that this is what home is supposed to feel like.” He smiles, apparently “home” means something really good now. Luis continues, “I still feel angry and stressed and can’t figure out what it’s about. I tend to pull everything on my shoulders and think everything is my fault. Now my outlet is creative arts – piano and guitar and I draw a lot. My life is getting better and better. I’m taking huge steps forward and I know I am going to be successful. I’ve even had people tell me that I am their hero.” He looks so deservingly proud.
This year Luis will attend the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. He is really psyched and maybe a little nervous about another new school – but he has his dad and his home and he knows that his dad will be waiting for him at the end of the day no matter what.
written by Deb Kelleher for Annie C Courtney Foundation. All rights reserved.