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For a large segment of foster parents, the prospect of supporting and helping pluck a child from the grips of a family crisis is compelling. But more often than not, it is the older children coming under the authority of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families who face the greatest challenge being placed — especially in long-term foster households.
Here in Newtown, Nancy Henne Schreiner, her husband, John, and their own children have provided that elusive environment where older children in crisis can find peace and acceptance, along with dogged tenacity and devout advocacy that bring some sense of normalcy to their often troubled lives.
Unfortunately, it is not a stretch to imagine that teens with fully formed convictions, attitudes, and sometimes vices, might be less desirable to foster parents than younger charges. This leaves a proportionately greater number of older youths in crisis either languishing in institutional facilities or group situations that may not be as appropriate a fit as a one-on-one single family foster environment.
The Schreiners’ latest foster addition is Skylar Wolf.
An older teen, she is the perfect example of a young person who was suffering unwanted and insurmountable challenges in her own family’s home. Facing neglect, Skylar was removed by DCF late last year before being welcomed warmly into the Schreiner family household as a long-term foster child.
“As soon as DCF removed Skylar from her father’s home they called us,” Ms Schreiner explained. “Because we tend to work best with adolescents and teens, whenever a name comes up in western Connecticut, they tend to call us. So within a very short time after she was taken out of her own home, she was sitting down having dinner with us.”
Ms Schreiner said she and her husband are dependable go-to foster parents who are known systemwide because they advocate so strongly for every child who is placed with them. Some of those placements, like Skylar, can last for many months, while others may be placed for a day or less, occasionally to provide respite for other foster parents or non-immediate relatives of some of the children.
“One of our kids was living long-term with his aunt during the week, and we were able to take him in during the weekends so she could have some time to do things for herself,” Ms Schreiner said.
For the Schreiners, Skylar represented a very special case. She is on the high-functioning borderline of the autism spectrum, and presents no differently than any typical shy teen finding her feet in this rapidly racing world. But she has not held back in articulating how very fortunate she feels to have come under the gravitational pull of her Newtown foster family.
“At first Skylar didn’t show a lot of emotion,” Ms Schreiner observed. “But from the start we found she was so gracious — while at the same time never holding anything back. She engaged us right from the start. We found Skylar an easy person to get to know, and to be there for.”
As the third and latest long-term foster charge, it became clear in an essay Skylar produced as part of the application process for Western Connecticut State University that the Schreiners nurturing presence represented something very new and unaccustomed to the astute teenager. In an excerpt from that essay, she writes, “Families are supposed to help each other grow and support one another, and despite some difficulties, they are supposed to work through them in unity so that everyone in the family knows that they can all depend on one another.
“However, some people have families who are simply dysfunctional for one reason or another. These families have no mutual trust between the people involved, and the children in these families may grow up with the unconventional idea that family is actually not important,” Skylar’s essay continues. “Some children are unable to recover from any experiences living with this kind of family, but some children miraculously manage to put their family history behind them and start anew, and come out stronger than anyone could ever guess. This was my life. This was my family.”
Because of the dysfunctional situation Skylar was immersed in with her birth parents, she confessed that “The only one who could help guide me was my godmother, who was chained to my father through her mistakes and his deceit. She truly wanted to help me, but she did not have the power to save me. I grew estranged from the mere idea of a ‘family’ and convinced myself that families are not truly important for a human being…”
After abruptly being pulled out of her father’s home and placed into foster care, Skylar wrote that she was “terrified because of the uncertainty. Who would I be placed with? Would they truly desire to love me, or would they simply be doing it for some selfish reason like you read about in those ‘horror stories’ about foster care?”
Her fears were soon alleviated when Skylar got to meet the Schreiners.
“They are nothing like the ‘horror’ stories tell,” she wrote. “My foster mother is nice and caring. My foster father is fun and strong, and the people whom I have met through them have become incredibly supportive friends to me.”
During a brief chat with The Newtown Bee recently, Skylar was initially hesitant, but opened up when she was engaged about a budding interest in computer-generated animation, a field she might very well pursue in college next fall.
“Writing was always one of my main things,” she said. “But I do a lot of drawing and animations. I draw on the iPad, but I can’t really do a lot of animating because I don’t have a computer.”
But Skylar cleverly found her way around that dilemma by adapting a handheld video gaming console to formulate some basic animation of her own designs.
The Simple Things
Among the simple things that Skylar said she enjoys most is just “sitting in the kitchen and being around people.”
“Usually I sit at the table and that’s kind of in the middle of things, so when people walk through I can engage with them, or sometimes just say hi,” she said. “It’s something I never did at my old place. And it’s something I never thought I’d do — actually sitting in the kitchen where I can see or talk to people instead of being locked away in my room all the time.”
Ms Schreiner said she and her family feel blessed to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of the occasional foster children who come into their home.
“These are all troubled kids who have been through trauma,” she said. “All they are looking for is someone to be in their corner. So in our case, when we demand respect, we get it. But we also give it. And for too many of these kids, it’s the first time in their lives they have ever been respected.”
Fortunately, the youths who have been fostered by the Schreiner family have received a lot more than just respect. For some, Ms Schreiner said, they are receiving some of the first true orientation in areas of personal responsibility, hygiene, even the proper use of a knife and fork at the dinner table.
This holistic care has not been lost on Skylar, who concluded her college application essay writing: “Through them, I have been able to grow as a person. I have been able to discover who I am, rather than focus on building walls to keep myself, whom I did not know, safe from what I did know. Now, I know what I value, what I will do with my life, who is important in my life, and even my name.
“My experience in foster care was the turning point of my life, from uncertainty and ignorance to knowledge and bliss. I now know more than I ever could have learned with my blood-family, and although I do wish that I could make things work out with my true kin, I am eternally grateful to my foster family for giving me the chance to understand,” Skylar concluded. “So now I aspire to learn more, to create more, and grow even more as a person, as a result of the love and companionship I have obtained from that one fateful day when I was taken from my old home and placed in a palace.”