Church, faith and service are central to understanding Debbie and Sal. In fact, this couple met at a church in North Haven where they both volunteered as Lay Youth Ministers. They fell in love and soon were married. Debbie and Sal began their married life like many couples do; they had three kids (two girls and a boy) in short order. Still extremely involved in the church, they felt called to reach out to the youth in their congregation who lacked adult support. Debbie says, “Nurturing was natural for us. We took in a lot of kids who needed the extra. We housed several teenage girls who were pregnant and saw them through their pregnancies. In fact, we still keep in frequent contact with some of them. While raising their children, the couple continued to minister to children in this voluntary and “unofficial” capacity. A change in church homes, as well as a family move to another town resulted in a halt to this ministry.
Debbie is a diminutive woman whose essence is anything but. Her kind and gentle manner convey a strong commitment to children and the unshakable belief that she is doing what she was meant to do. Once her children were grown she felt “empty-nested” in her words. “All of the kids were off to college so we got a puppy but that wasn’t enough for me.” Searching for another way to help kids, in 2007, with the blessing of her children, she and Sal attended an Open House in Cheshire. Life, though, has a funny way of intervening in the best laid plans. Soon after, a young lady who needed a home unexpectedly came back into their lives. Cydney, considered by Debbie and Sal to be another of their “kids”, had lived with them as a toddler. She asked to move in once again as an adolescent. Debbie worked with Cydney’s grandmother who was caring for Cydney, to be able to let go and take back the role of “grandma.” Debbie and Sal took temporary guardianship through Probate Court and Cydney remains with them to this day. It is so clear that Debbie is proud of Cydney when she talks about her. “Cydney graduated from high school, and is attending a local college full time as well as working full time at a daycare.”
In 2008, with Cydney comfortably installed in their home and ready to jump back into the foster care licensing again, the couple attended PRIDE classes. Even before the ink was dry on their license, issued in 2009, Debbie received a call from DCF regarding a sibling group. In fact, when they called, she said she did not think her license was issued yet. The DCF worker assured her they were printing it out at that very moment. A sibling group of three, two boys and a girl, ages 2, 4, and 7, needed a home. The oldest child at 7 was just enrolled into Kindergarten and the 2 year old was not speaking yet. Miraculously, the 4 year old seemed developmentally intact. Debbie had only one bedroom available at the time so DCF issued a waiver in order to keep the kids in the same home. On May 11, 2009, Debbie and Sal met the kids at a Safe Home. They were placed in their home on May 15th. Bionca, the oldest and very protective of her brothers (and her biological mother), told the boys that the parents looked like nice people. “It was love at first sight,” says Debbie. “They seriously looked at us with such hopeful eyes. I still love looking into their eyes to this day.”
At the time, Debbie worked at a daycare, which was very convenient. She became the Toddler teacher for one of the boys once she registered them there. “Daycare was my biggest support system,” she explains. “My husband was working 70 hours a week at the time.” Sal worked as a carpenter at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown where the explosion occurred in May 2010, killing 6 and injuring at least 50 workers. Sal was there that day and has not worked since. He acts as full-time dad to the kids. Debbie thinks that caring for the kids is actually what sustained him through the long and difficult process of healing from the trauma of that day – that and their faith.
Initially, the kids’ case plan was reunification, and Debbie worked with the birth parents to help them achieve this. “My DCF workers were phenomenal. We initially thought we would only be fostering kids. Adoption was an unexpected turn of events, but there was no question that we would adopt the kids when we found out that the plan was changing. Our only concern was college – at our age we were concerned about saving enough. When DCF told us about the availability of help for college costs it was a done deal. We were really relieved.” On July 26, 2011, the family went to court and made the adoption official.
Debbie still keeps in close contact with the birth parents. They text and from time to time plan visits in the community so that they can see the kids. Right now, however, both birth mom and birth dad agree with Debbie that it is not in anyone’s best interest for visitation, so they confine their interaction to contact with Debbie, a not unusual occurrence in open adoption. There are many adoptive families who find that the type of contact that is appropriate will metamorphose over time – changing back and forth depending on the stage of developmental stage of the child as well as the mindsets of the birth family. The kids do still visit with a 14 year old half-sister and at some point might visit with some of their other four half-siblings.
Some readers might find Debbie’s name sounds familiar. Three years ago, while visiting the CAFAP website to register for an event, she noticed a job opening for Regional Liaison for the Meriden DCF office. She sent in an application and at the banquet she had just registered for, she introduced herself to Diane Orlando, the Program Manager. They had a nice long “chat” and soon after Debbie was offered the position. Debbie is very enthusiastic about her job. “I love working with the families and I particularly love facilitating trainings and support groups.” She speaks of “her families” with such obvious affection and devotion. Diane Orlando, Debbie’s supervisor, speaks of her with obvious affection and respect. “Debbie and her husband are such caring, loving parents. And Debbie shows that same care to the Meriden area foster, adoptive parents and relative caregivers daily. She is an asset to our organization.” Dina Kelly, Regional Program Manager for the Meriden FASU, also speaks highly of Debbie, “Debbie is a true joy to work with. She has endless energy, wonderful ideas and loves to help in any way she can. The foster families she supports have only positive things to say about her. She listens to their needs and advocates for them in effective ways. We consider her a true partner!”
Asked about the changes to their lives since beginning their foster care journey, Debbie laughingly states, “We traded in a 25 year wedding anniversary cruise for Sesame Place season tickets. Sometimes we think about going on a vacation by ourselves but we would just miss the kids.” Then she gets serious. “This is our ministry, just the natural thing for us to do. Foster care is a way of life.” And for this family, it truly is.
-written by Deb Kelleher for Annie C Courtney Foundation, Inc. – all rights reserved.