As reported by the Norwich Bulletin, December 18, 2007.

Many Foster Children Are in Need of Permanent Homes

By Marisa Maldonado

PLAINFIELD - Leilani Benoit loves the song "Frere Jacques," which she usually sings in church while the other parishioners are singing hymns. Her sister, Brianika, 4, sings the ABCs and loves Chuck E. Cheese, though their parents have limited those visits to once a year.

But when they moved in with Juanita and Andre Benoit last year, Leilani, who was 16 months old, only could say the word "meow." Both girls needed baths and new clothes. And when Brianika first came to the Benoits at 11 months old, she cried for three months.

Today, the Plainfield couple will become the permanent parents of Brianika and Leilani, now 2, -- or Bri and Lillie, as they call their daughters.

Brianika and Leilani future is looking brighter. But as people celebrate the holidays with their families, many children in Connecticut still don't have permanent homes.

The numbers

As of Sept. 30, 5,941 children were in the state foster care system in Connecticut, according to the state Department of Children and Families. Most were abused or neglected by their birth parents or original guardians, said Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF. About half of those removed from their homes eventually return, he said.

The state found permanent homes for 865 children between July 2006 and June 2007. But in 2005, the state had not established a permanent family placement for one-third of its children in foster care, according to Connecticut Voices for Children, a group that advocates for the well-being of all the state's children.

A permanent home is always the best situation for a child, said Geraldine Pearson, a child and adolescent psychiatric nurse practitioner at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

While leaving a stressful situation can be a relief for some children, many children love their parents and do not want to be separated from them, Pearson said.

"You've got a bit of a double whammy," she said.

Challenges with older children

Adolescent foster children face another challenge -- the developmental and emotional issues that come with growing from a child to an adult.

Finding homes for children older than 12 is typically more difficult because potential foster parents think the children would be too challenging or because the children do not want to become permanently adopted, Kleeblatt said. There are 2,938 children older than 12 in Connecticut foster care, he said.

Jean Fiorito, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, said prospective parents sometimes shy away from teenagers because they think their problems will be too difficult to handle.

Sometimes children say they do not want a permanent home, but really they fear rejection.

"Sometimes you have to work through all the bravado," said Fiorito, who spent 10 years as a social worker, working primarily with teenagers in foster care. "Sometimes I even think professionals believe that myth, because it makes it easier for us to sleep at night, because we didn't find a permanent place for that child."

Children with disabilities

There are 407 children in foster care in Connecticut defined as "medically complex," Kleeblatt said, including children with disabilities and who need extensive care. All foster children in Connecticut have health insurance through HUSKY, a state subsidized program that provides health coverage for uninsured children, Kleeblatt said.

Children with disabilities often have more support staff, including teachers, occupational therapists and social workers, Pearson said. Such children should have a professional overseeing all aspects of their care, which usually is a DCF worker, and not the foster parent, Pearson said.

"(Foster parents) could certainly be taught to do that, but they're not professionals," Pearson said. "It takes somebody with skills and training, professional affiliation."

Brianika and Leilani's story

The Benoits have hosted 17 foster children since becoming certified foster parents in 2002. Brianika, nearly 1-year-old when she arrived at the Benoits in Plainfield, cried for the first three nights.

Finally, Juanita Benoit discovered the problem -- she was hungry.

"All it took was loving, cuddling, and feeding that baby, and singing to her," Benoit said. "Ten days later, she had pink cheeks. She just blossomed."

When she was 2 1/2, Brianika returned to live with her birth mother. But Benoit said she noticed Brianika slowly losing self-esteem when the toddler visited about once a month.

"It scared me, because I thought, 'If they take these babies again, I don't know what would happen to Bri," Benoit said.

Benoit asked DCF to return Brianika to them if she ever needed to be taken away from her birth mother. Nine months after Brianika returned to her birth mother, DCF officials took away both Brianika and Leilani. The girls then moved in with the Benoits.

Today the Benoits exchange letters and photos with the girls' birth mother, whom they declined to name to protect her privacy. They said they when the girls are older, they will let them read the letters and contact their birth mother.

"We don't want to deprive them of that right," Andre Benoit said.

The Benoits want their daughters to have every possible advantage in the years to come.

"We want them to have a lot of self esteem, be sure of themselves," Juanita Benoit said. "to be sure of themselves, to love themselves -- because they can't love anyone unless they love themselves."