LIMA — What kind of person takes in children with known behavioral issues — and sometimes with histories of physically violent outbursts and property damage — in hopes of helping them turn their lives around?
A foster parent. That’s who. And more specifically, Joe McDonnell, of Lima.
You might recognize McDonnell, 55, as one of the friendly faces greeting you at the Lima YMCA. But over the span of 15 years, he has touched the lives of 146 children through Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth as a licensed foster parent. He and his wife at the time couldn’t have children of their own, so they decided to explore fostering in the early ’90s. McDonnell started off at a receiving center for SAFY, where he lived and fostered a maximum of five children at a time.
“You had to have, back then, I believe it was 80 hours of training. Because we knew we were getting tough kids,” he said. “So you just didn’t get a tough kid and not know what you were going to be getting into. These foster parents were foster parents who were in it to help. … It wasn’t just a place for the kid to get out of the home and be warehoused. We literally went to work on their problems.”
At the receiving center, SAFY provided evaluations on children, who came in from different agencies and counties, to determine whether they were suitable for therapeutic foster care (which is what SAFY specializes in) or if they needed more help from a group home or residential treatment. McDonnell would take in each child for 30 days for a thorough evaluation. If a child was able to be placed through SAFY, there were more than 100 families in the area that child could be matched with. Children who couldn’t be placed through SAFY would go back to the county, and the county would take over treatment.
“I was 24/7 there. It was my job to get the children in, and they have a term in foster care called honeymooning,” McDonnell said. “Generally they’ll put a facade up. ‘I don’t have any problems. I shouldn’t be here,’ and so forth. It was my job to get them comfortable so that we could see the true child and what they presented for why they were in foster care. And then I had a caseworker who … kept an office upstairs. And they would come in at least once a week. I would keep a log of each child, of their 24-hour cycles — what had been going on, what they had been doing, my interactions with them. I had five at a time, and so you had all different kinds of individuals. Some you could place right away — we knew that they were appropriate. But then you had other children that we clearly couldn’t help them, but we were committed to maintaining that child for a month.”
McDonnell seemed to have a gift for getting through to especially difficult children — even when it initially seemed like they wouldn’t benefit from what SAFY had to offer. For example, one child who was taking medication decided he didn’t need it anymore. He ended up going into a rage, putting a hole into a door and assaulting McDonnell. He beat him with a guitar until it shattered and broke a speaker over his head before police arrived.
“The fact that I didn’t send him packing, even after he had assaulted me, it dawned on him, ‘OK, I guess this guy does care.’ He ended up taking the medicine again. And it was one of those things where he thought, ‘You’re going to boot me along like every other foster parent, when I start to get uncomfortable or when you’re starting to get to my sore points, I’m going to act up and you’ll leave me alone like everyone else.’”
Eventually, the receiving center was phased out and SAFY moved toward a direct admissions approach, which matched children with families who could play to that child’s specific issues. Because of this, he transitioned to a regular therapeutic foster parent, where he lived in a typical house in a residential area.
“Because I was one of the few homes that had the man as the primary provider — because my wife was a pediatric nurse — because I was a male, I got a lot of the tougher cases. I got a lot of the teenage boys who would be a little more physical,” he said. “So I did that for several years. As soon as I would have a bed empty, boom, I would get another child right away. I ended up getting lots of children from Cuyahoga County.”
Eventually, McDonnell started working mainly with kids who were older and getting close to emancipating, or leaving the system.
“Because it’s like, once you’ve been a part of the system, once it’s over, what do you do?” he said. “So at that point, I started working on making sure — I was getting kids who were behind in school — and so we made more of a push toward getting them either toward a GED or getting caught up in school, working. Then I got too sick to continue on. So I had to give it up.”
McDonnell’s health issues are what ultimately caused him to step away from his work as a foster parent. He suffers from a condition called stiff person syndrome — a neurological disorder characterized by progressive muscle stiffness — and one of the triggers for that is stress. Although he stopped fostering back in 2005, he said he’s not ruling it out more fostering in the future.
What he learned
“I’ve found that a lot of people just give up on the kids, which is how I ended up getting them,” McDonnell said. “And so many of the kids, they were just used to thriving on chaos. That was what made them comfortable. And they would do their best to recreate chaos so they would feel comfortable. But there’s a phrase — I don’t know where I picked it up — but it’s being firm, fair and consistent. Some children weren’t as difficult as other children, but you had to make sure that you were applying the same rules to everybody.”
“What I found, with a few exceptions, is almost everyone can be reached,” he said. “Once a child found out that rules weren’t so bad, that living within boundaries wasn’t such a bad thing, then all of the sudden they’re excited. They want better for themselves … I had everybody from kids that were depressed to kids that would go as far as cutting and so forth. I said, ‘This isn’t the life you want for yourself. And it certainly isn’t the life I want for you.’ Once you make yourself available and you show an interest in them, and they found out that they didn’t have to act up to get that attention — they didn’t have to have negative actions — they would thrive. They would do better.”
“I had two, it was a brother and sister, and I didn’t deal with sibling groups often,” he said. “But it turned out they were gas and flame together, and I inherited them. But two of my most challenging kids turned out to be two of my best kids. I still have contact with them today. One got his college degree and the other is a barber and has a nice clientele.”
“I’ve had foster children bring their babies by,” he said. “But then I’ve also had children that I saw in the prison system. And so there are those that you can reach out and you can try and try, and some slip through the cracks, but I’ve had many more success stories than I’ve had negatives.”
Advice to couples considering fostering
“First off, as a couple, you need to be rock-solid, on the same page,” he said. “Because the kids, like I said, they want chaos — if they can get you going, that takes the attention off them. I went through it. They got me and my first wife twisted up, until you realize OK, let’s put on a united front. But you both have to be on the same page.”
“Just don’t become a warehouse. They’re there for a reason and generally, they want listened to. And if you’re going to do it, just don’t give up when it starts to get a little difficult. They’re trying to make it that way. They want out, too. They don’t want to work on the problem. And when it starts to get tough, it means you’re getting somewhere.”
After they stopped fostering, McDonnell and his wife at the time ended up adopting a child from Guatemala, Evan, who is now 16.
“He’s actually a Mayan Indian,” McDonnell said.“He was 10 days old when he came on the registry, but you can’t go get them for three months because they can’t pop their ears (on the airplane). Well, while we were waiting, 9/11 happened. And so all the embassies around the world closed and so forth, so Evan was in Guatemala. He had been at this point raised in a Mayan village with a Mayan grandmother. So we was actually in a papoose on the back until five months, until they reopened the embassy, we were able to travel and go and get him.”
These days, McDonnell has his son, Evan, four stepchildren with his current wife — plus the 146 children he has fostered through the years. And who knows? That last number could continue to rise. Now that McDonnell’s health issues seem to be under control, fostering might once again be part of his life in the future.
“I don’t think I”m going to do well with an empty nest,” he said, referring to Evan graduating in a couple of years. “I’m not ruling it out. Never say never.”