- Leslie Gray Streeter Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Last Christmas, just as they had the year before, Sue Ellen and Suzette Calderon of Royal Palm Beach sent out bright, colorful greeting cards featuring their young sons Oliver and Christopher. But the 2016 cards were different from 2015’s in one major way - they were able to show the boys’ faces.
“We had to take (the photos) from behind and write, ‘From our family to yours,” explains Sue Ellen, 37. Though Oliver and Christopher had been in their home and hearts from the moment they met, Christopher was not yet legally theirs, because both boys came to them as foster children.
Now, through a series of ups and downs, the Calderons have joined the ranks of hundreds of other Palm Beach County families who have been completed through foster care adoption.
“When you first begin this process, you know it’s going to be hard,” explains Suzette, 36. “But you know you have to factor that in with the good.”
According to a report released by the National Council for Adoption, the number of children adopted from foster care has increased, although there are more kids waiting to be adopted. And it’s very noticeable at the holidays.
“Obviously a time for family, these issues resonate with people especially now,” says Larry Rein, CEO of ChildNet, a non-profit organization that governs foster care in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Rein says that emphasis begins right around Thanksgiving when the county celebrates National Adoption Day, where several children in foster care are permanently adopted. It “gives an opportunity for people to think ‘How else can we contribute?’ And that’s by making families permanent from foster care,” he says.
Families who take in foster children understand the arrangement is meant to be temporary. Some foster children return home or to birth family members, while others, like Oliver and Christopher, find their forever homes with those they were placed with.
Whatever the outcome, foster parents give a small piece of their hearts to every little life that comes through their doors.
“Quite simply, all children deserve to experience hugs, kisses and ‘I love you’s’ on a daily basis,” says Sharika Kellogg of Lake Worth, 2016’s Foster Parent of the Year and a friend of the Calderons, who she lovingly calls “The Sues.”
Kellogg has adopted one son, Matthew, from foster care, and is parenting two others whose permanency is still pending. “Life as a foster (parent) is crazy but it’s so worth it.”
Currently, there are about 200 kids in the county foster care system available for adoption through ChildNet and Children’s Home Society, says Julie Demar, executive director of that agency in Palm Beach County. About 100 of those have people who have been identified as likely adoptive parents. Many of the 100 or so children still waiting for forever families might be in care longer because they’re part of a sibling group or have specific emotional or physical needs.
Reunification with birth parents is the preferred goal, but sometimes that’s not possible. “Everyone who steps up and adopts is an incredible hero, providing a loving and permanent home for this community’s abused and abandoned children,” Rein says.
That’s what the Calderons were thinking when they decided to be foster parents. College sweethearts who met at the University of Tampa, it took them a while to decide on being parents. Sue Ellen, a fire investigator and inspector for the City of West Palm Beach, had helped raise one of her siblings and a cousin, “and thought ‘I’ve raised my kids,’” but was eventually convinced by her partner, a librarian at Wellington High School.
Sue Ellen says they were interested in adopting a child who’d been in foster care but whose parental rights were already severed, “because we thought ‘Why not give a child who needs a home a home?’ They hadn’t considered doing foster care because they knew from friends how difficult it would be, and “how easy it would be to get attached.”
But as the couple learned more about the foster process, they started to reconsider.
“Basically it came down to ‘Can you love on some kids?’” Suzette says. “And we said, ‘We can do that.’”
So the two went to classes to prepare them for caring for children unable to be with their birth families for various reasons, including neglect, abuse or a parent’s incarceration or drug abuse. The classes, the Calderons say, present the worst-case scenarios “because they assume that you’re coming in completely naive, and they need you to know this if you’re going to help these kids out,” Sue Ellen says.
She admits that after being driven to tears by the third class covering sexual assault, “We were like ‘We’re out.’”
But they returned, encouraged by the show “The Fosters” on the Freeform network, about a lesbian couple, one in law enforcement and one in education, like them, who foster and adopt a diverse group of children. After their ten weeks of classes, followed by paperwork and background checks and a home inspection, they met four month-old Christopher.
And as expected, “We were told upfront that chances are he was going to be reunified” with his birth parents, “but I don’t think we were really prepared for how quickly we would get attached,” Sue Ellen says. Still, the couple followed the process, working with the birth family and committing to frequent home visits, sometimes at the last minute, during work hours or naptime.
So it was heartbreaking, but not a surprise, when about five months later, “his worker called and said he was going home, and could they meet us somewhere to pick him up?’” Sue Ellen says. As sad as they were to lose him, Suzette says, “We realized this is what it must have been like for his birth mother when she lost him.”
Heartbroken or not, the Calderons had another reason to be positive - little Oliver, who’d been placed with them at just three days old, just two weeks before Christopher was reunited with his birth parents. “A little part of me wanted to shut the door, because we knew now how much this hurt, but we knew other children might need us. We were a little more prepared for it,” says Sue Ellen, who with her wife eventually took in a third child for just a week.
In the meantime, the Calderons kept in touch with Christopher’s birth family, even getting two visits, during which “he kept looking at us like he recognized us,” Sue Ellen says. Meanwhile, attempts to reunite little Oliver with his birth family were unsuccessful, and in April 2015, the couple, who had gotten married not long after Florida legalized same-sex marriage that January, were preparing to adopt him and celebrate with a trip to Disney World.
But Mickey Mouse would have to wait, because the Calderons got a call that after nine months with his birth family, Christopher was coming back into foster care. Were they interested? They were, but the news was bittersweet, because as much as they loved Christopher, it “meant that the reunion was not a success story, and we wanted that,” Sue Ellen says.
So now 18-month-old Christopher came back, and though they were told that this placement, again, was likely temporary, they loved him like they had before, watching him bond with Oliver.
Christopher remained through the holidays and those shot-from-behind Christmas cards, through all the visits and uncertainty, through not being able to leave him with anyone who wasn’t fingerprinted and approved by the state, even their family. Then there were awkward moments at social events when “other parents would say ‘Can we take this picture without your kids so we can post them online?’” Suzette remembers.
With all the uncertainty, the Calderons kept going as a family, until they got word that Christopher’s birth parents’ rights were being terminated. It took another several months for it to be finalized in September 2016, even in the face of winds of Hurricane Matthew - “That wasn’t going to stop us,” Sue Ellen says.
While the Calderons are not currently licensed as foster parents, Suzette they’ve considered once again opening their home, “because we know the process more now. And it’s easier because we get to go through it together. And now that we know what (these kids) can go through, you can’t look away.”
And as hard as it is, Sue Ellen says, she’s telling her family story in hope that someone reading it will decide they can’t look away either, and decide to adopt or become foster parents themselves.
“We’re not special,” she says. “I didn’t think I could do it, either, to have a child in my home that could leave. Yeah, it’s hard, but you have to remember that at the end of it, you have given someone a home.”