JOE EBERLE/STaff Photographer
MAPPING ABUSE: Burt Marshall, director of Niagara County Social Services, shows a map detailing suspected child abuse cases. Reports are expected to be at 3,000 this year, compared to 2,700 last year. When children are taken from parents who won’t try to change abusive situations, they are eventually put up for adoption.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: The Haag Family of Appleton includes, front row from left, Donavan, 11, Michala, 10, Olivia, 4 months, and Hannah, 7; back row, Terence, 12, Michael, 15, Felicia, 17, Zachary, 12, Daryl and wife Jennifer. The Haags adopted Donavan, Terence, Michael and Felicia. They have three foster children in their home (who cannot be shown) and hope to adopt more children in the future.
A home of my own
Success stories: A look at how children are fostered and adopted through Niagara County’s protective services
By Michele DeLuca
It sometimes seems like the only thing people know about orphans is what they see in musicals like “Annie” or “Oliver Twist.”
The reality is that there are hundreds of children looking for families in New York state. The local library can provide an armload of catalogs in which children’s photos are organized by age, gender, race and medical needs.
Computer users can access that same information online through New York’s Adoption Service photo album. A recent Web site check showed almost 500 faces of children who are without parents of their own.
The situation is a little different in Niagara County, where, on a recent day, there were 22 children in the process of being “freed” for adoption but virtually no children available for adoption.
“We do good in this county,” said Burt Marshall, director of Social Services. “We find families for all our children.”
“Two things make a difference,” he said. “The caseworkers go out and put in the actual labor to find the families to match up to the children. Other counties don’t make the effort. They may just list the children in the blue books. We’re going to fairs and adoption exchanges. We go all over looking for families.”
That’s the good news for children placed in the county’s adoption system. The bad news is there has been a troubling increase in abuse and neglect reports which are what lead to the county seizing a child from parents in the first place.
Department members just completed a map that shows the location of the 2,700 reports of abuse or neglect reported in the Niagara region last year. At the rate of calls coming in this year, the county expects to surpass 3,000 calls.
Children are taken by the county when birth parents refuse to change actions that led to the reports of abuse or neglect. The child is then placed in foster care.
“If a child is in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, our department must file to terminate parental rights,” said Robin Lundy, who has been in the Niagara County Department of Social Services for 30 years. “Most children get adopted by their current foster parents.”
The saddest part of her job, she said, is encountering the children of children she has dealt with in the past, she said. The happy part is, in her current job, she goes into court to aide the adoption process.
There are 60 foster families in Niagara County, Lundy said, and more are needed, especially in Niagara Falls. Those considering adoption might consider being a foster parent first, which requires a 10-week class the department offers twice a year, she said.
In her current job, she hears from a lot of grateful foster parents.
“They’re saying, ‘Thank you for linking me with this child. This child is part of my family now.’ This is what I need after 30 years,” she said.
On a little patch of land in Appleton, four horses graze contently, dogs bark and children play in the back and front yards of the neatly kept home. In the kitchen, a couple of the teens bake cookies, and the smell fills the house.
Eleven children live at the Haag house. They fish with their dad, ride the horses and jet ski, and work on cars. Sometimes they fight, but their parents agree that most of the time they’re pretty good together.
A visitor might not ever guess that one of the teenage girls, a set of brothers and a trio of foster siblings weren’t actually born into the family. Everyone seems pretty happy to belong in this large, energetic household.
“I would adopt 100 more if I could,” said Daryl Haag, father to the brood.
Daryl and his wife, Jennifer, have four biological children: Zachary, 12, Michala, 10, Hannah, 7, and Olivia, 4 months. The family has adopted Felicia, 17, and brothers Michael, 15, Terence, 12, and Donavan, 11. They are fostering a second trio of siblings, but have also fostered at least six other children.
Felicia, the oldest, was found by the Haags during an online search. She recently went to the Dominican Republic with the family’s church group to talk to orphans there about her life and to give them hope. When she was in a foster home in Herkimer, she remembered praying every day to be adopted.
“I’m very, very blessed,” she said, smiling.
Daryl, a manager of Stedman’s Nursery in Newfane who also runs his own car dealership, just took the boys fishing in Canada with Jennifer’s dad and is working with them to restore an old Plymouth Roadrunner. The girls like to ride the family’s horses, and several of the children play musical instruments or sports.
It’s a lot of work, the parents admit, but they must make it look worthwhile because four sets of their friends have taken in foster children or adopted children.
Jennifer cautions that foster parenting is not for everyone, particularly because often the children are returned to their birth parents, but she encourages people to think about giving it a try.
“There are so many children out there who need families,” she said.
In Niagara Falls, Evyonne Mack knows all too well what it’s like to be in the foster care system. The mother of two grown daughters spent her entire childhood being moved from foster home to foster home. She has never met her blood relatives.
As an adult, she has become a foster parent herself. She recently adopted a 7-year-old boy, Deione, whom she has been fostering since he was 3.
When Deione came to her, he had apparently been abused and was non-communicative. He did not know how to use a fork and a spoon, and he would sit alone and rock back and forth.
The child has come a long way since then, she said as he greeted a visitor with bright eyes and a high-five. He plays with two other toddlers Evyonne is fostering.
“Somehow when they come along, I just can’t say no,” she said of the fostering. “It’s in my blood.”
When asked if she planned to adopt more children, she said she couldn’t see herself sending any young child “back into the system.”
“I feel like I can make a difference,” she said. “Why let them feel like nobody wants them?”
Contact editor Michele DeLucaat 693-1000, ext. 157.
JOE EBERLE/STaff Photographer
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