For Tom and Mary Anater, opening their home as foster parents cultivated personal growth unlike anything they had ever experienced, and exponentially multiplied the love within their family.
The couple – along with their 13-year-old biological son, Max – eagerly welcomed Sam, now also 13, into their lives and hearts through Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care Program.
They shared their story with The Catholic Witness in observation of May as National Foster Care Month.
“You enter this experience as a husband and a father, but through the process you grow the relationships that already exist in your family and the new relationships and responsibilities you’re taking on,” Tom said. “You cannot possibly imagine, unless you experience it, where that takes you.”
Their journey began in a local courthouse, where Mary, as an employee there, first learned of Sam’s story. He had endured a tremendous amount of suffering in his life, and was struggling to find permanency in foster care.
“All of the people involved in Sam’s case were very upset because they knew what a great guy he was,” Mary said. “It piqued my interest because their reaction was stronger than usual and I could tell people really had great sorrow because of his situation.”
Looking at Sam’s file, Mary’s heart ached. She prayed, “Please, God, find somebody for this boy.” In response to that prayer, she heard, “What about you?”
That night, Mary discussed the possibility of fostering with her husband, who was immediately on board.
“You have your ups and downs as a family, smooth times and not so smooth times as parents, and we were in a great spot,” Mary said of her family, members of St. Leo the Great Parish in Rohrerstown. “Then I remembered a homily that our pastor, Father Hahn, had given years ago, quoting Pope Benedict: ‘The ways of the Lord are not comfortable. But we were not created for comfort, but for greatness.’ As soon as that thought popped into my head, I surrendered, and I felt the joy that comes when you say yes to God’s plan.”
The Anaters connected with Catholic Charities to begin their training to become foster care parents, with the goal of fostering Sam.
“They were thinking of him specifically as they got into the program, which is different than what most families do,” said Gwen Pfeifer, Program Director of Catholic Charities’ Adoption Services and Specialized Foster Care. “But they had a lot of patience and persevered.”
The Anaters officially adopted Sam on April 21 of this year. Although the ability to adopt the child being fostered is not always the outcome in the foster care system, Tom and Mary’s willingness to open their home and hearts is consistently a quality Catholic Charities seeks across the board in its foster families.
“We’re never looking for the perfect parent or the perfect family – there isn’t such a thing. We really just need foster parents who are ready to open their heart, be flexible and have patience,” Pfeifer said.
Single people, working families and retired couples can become foster parents.
“We’re looking for people who are willing to be there to provide safety, to eat dinner, take a child to football practice – whatever it is that gives kids a safe and positive relationship with an adult,” Pfeifer said. “Families can make a tremendous impact on a child by fostering, even if it’s just for a short period of time like a few months or a year.”
‘I Will Not Abandon You’
The Anaters’ journey with Sam was not an easy one. Although they desired to foster him full-time as soon as they completed the training and certification process with Catholic Charities, Sam was initially placed with them in a limited fashion: every other weekend for respite care from March to August of 2019.
But the Anaters waited for him, and stood by until the time would be right. They waited until Sam would be ready. They waited until the state approved. They waited for the agency’s green light.
“Whenever we wanted something to be the way we wanted it, it was met with resistance – internally, externally, from Sam, from the state,” Tom said. “I remember thinking, if all we were meant to do was to offer this child respite every other weekend, that would be fine. If nothing else, it re-centered why we were doing this in the first place. It was never about us, it was about Sam.”
“We always believed God’s hand was definitely in this and directing it,” Mary added. “We surrendered and decided to keep playing our hand until it didn’t play anymore. Even when there were struggles, in our hearts we never felt God saying it was time to move on. Until we heard that from Him, we were going to keep going.”
A week before the 2019 school year started, Sam came to live with the Anaters full-time in the foster system.
“As challenging as all this has been – and it continues to be a challenge – my heart went out to Sam,” Tom said. “Some of the most heart-wrenching moments were when he was hitting himself, or saying he was no good. …. He still has that streak in him. It used to be as wide as the Mississippi, but now it’s as wide as the Conestoga. It’s still there, and maybe it always will be there as a trickle, but we’re all working on it.”
Tom acknowledged the stigma associated with children who are fostered or adopted, but said their job as parents was to just love the child entrusted to their care.
“You go through mental exercises to think about how you’re going to introduce this child, but then you realize it’s simple; you say, ‘This is Sam.’ You don’t say, ‘This is the kid we offer respite care to every other weekend,’ or ‘This is someone we’re fostering and considering to adopt.’ You say, ‘This is Sam. This is my son,’” Tom remarked.
“Even before he was officially my son, he was my son,” he added. “And I tell Sam that when he is angry, when he is upset, when he is overwhelmed. I say, ‘You are my son, Sam. I will not abandon you.’”
Sam is an intelligent boy who is mechanically inclined towards cars and building craft models. He enjoys playing with Legos and Transformers, and frequently seeks affection – albeit on his own terms.
“We can both honestly say our family is better because of the whole process. It was such a growth experience for all of us,” Mary said. “Before this experience, we were very happy as a family. We loved Max and things were so happy. God gave us a bigger cup when we got Sammy, because he has made our family even better.”
Foster Parents Needed
Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care program provides safe and temporary homes to children who have been removed from the care of their birth relatives because of trauma – usually neglect and abuse. The program works with local county Children and Youth Agencies to find temporary homes for children as young as newborns to as old as age 18.
The ultimate goal for children in foster care is reunification with their birth families.
“County agencies work with the family to try to help them improve their situation, whether it is the home setting or parenting skills, while the child is placed in a safe environment,” Pfeifer said. “Reunification is definitely the goal.
“We do have children in foster care whose families, for various reasons, are unable to reach the target goals that the agencies have set, and the court will make the decision that it’s not a safe situation for a child to return home. In most of these cases, the children do become available for adoption,” she noted. “Typically, the foster family who is already with the child will become their adoptive family.”
Catholic Charities is currently seeking individuals and families to open their homes to children in the foster care system. The agency provides numerous hours of free training and resources to ensure families are as prepared as possible to have a child placed in their home. Once a child is placed, Catholic Charities offers round-the-clock support to help families navigate the challenges that might arise.
“It’s important for families to know that it’s a difficult process, but not without reason,” Pfeifer said. “They make that commitment and they really are interested in serving. They really want to care for these kids and have them in their lives.”
For the Anaters, having Catholic Charities’ support and expertise at their fingertips 24/7 was a great asset.
“Being a foster parent is not the same as raising your biological children, however Catholic Charities offers so many resources to help you. They offer expertise to help you, and we took them up on that, and it helped us understand that what was happening was normal for the situation,” Mary said. “If you take advantage of the resources and help available to you, you can make it through.
“Providing foster care to children is, without question, one of the largest ways that people can give back to the community. For those who are faith-driven, it certainly is an amazing way to serve,” Pfeifer said.
(Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities’ Specialized Foster Care Program.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness