Family Afoul

When you open your heart to foster children, as Joan Andre has done,you also open the door to heartbreak

Fear is a natural state for parents, even temporary ones. Foster parents have to be especially wary of falling into the trap of becoming overly protective and/or possessive because, ultimately, the children they watch over are not theirs to keep. Add to that the often confusing milieu of the legal system -- in which the welfare of the child is imperfectly weighed against the rights of the parents and the responsibilities (not to mention liabilities) of the multitude of individuals acting on behalf of the government. Enough stories have been written about the Department of Children and Families and the courts in recent years that it is generally understood the system is unwieldy and underfunded at best.

Andre thought she understood this. After six years as a foster parent, she had seen plenty. She'd dealt with wacked-out parents, indifferent social workers, weary judges. It had taken years to adopt Jennifer, Christian, and Morgan, after the legal process of terminating their mother's parental rights began.

Noma Bliss

Andre had begun by taking in baby Morgan, who was tiny and suffering from numerous health problems owing to pre-natal exposure to crack. Her respiratory problems were exacerbated by her suffering through chemical withdrawal. Watching the baby fight to breathe made Andre angrier than anything she can remember. "You just wanted to go find the mother and bitch slap her," she recalls. Instead, she got a breathing machine for Morgan and closely monitored her medications. Three months later, a nurse revealed that Morgan had two older siblings, still living with the mother.

A DCF investigator checked it out and, according to Andre, found both parents smoking crack in front of Jennifer and Christian, then ages five and three. They were holed up in a filthy trailer off Biscayne Boulevard. DCF brought the children directly to Andre. "They were covered in seeping bruises, and the dirt was literally caked on them," she remembers. "They were so skinny. I thought, Oh my god, how do you let kids get like this? They were scared to death." Like most children abruptly plucked out of the only home they knew, they were scared of their new family at first. Jennifer, a pretty, almost coltish girl of ten with brown hair and eyes, remembers being frightened and not sleeping much. "When we stayed awhile, I liked it," she says. "I felt more protected than I ever was."

As it happens, the day the siblings were deposited at Casa Andre, the house was filled with relatives in town for a wedding. Alexandra, swanning about in a pink tutu, didn't know what to make of her instant family. The children were also covered in lice, so the entire house full of guests had to be treated. Andre bought nice clothes for the kids and took them to the Rusty Pelican for the reception. She says she caught Jennifer going around to all the tables and collecting mints in her skirt. She explained to the surprised grownups that if they got hungry, she had all this treasure to eat or to sell.

For months, both children squirreled away extra food whenever they were fed. "They would take the food and hide half of it," says Jené Andre. "We'd find it in drawers upstairs. They wanted to make sure they had food when they needed it."

Joan Andre says extensive therapy revealed that both children had been sexually abused -- Jennifer by a neighbor boy, and Christian most likely by one of his mother's tricks. "The mother claimed it never happened," Andre snorts. "But he has peri-anal warts and the doctor said that's the only way he could have gotten them. He has to have an operation on his little butt every year."

Andre initially attempted to help the mother get her act together, in terms of work and a place to live, and supplies for the children when they were in her care. But eventually, when she judged the situation to be hopeless, she began the process of adopting all three children, which was finalized about two years ago.

Jennifer and Alexandra then hatched a plan to bring more troubled children into their home. Andre remembers the day the children trouped into her office with a sweet entreaty. "They said, öMom, we've been talking about it. We have a big house. Can't we help some other kids?' We had a family meeting and decided to do it." Jennifer says her and Alexandra's motivation was mainly to have a baby to dress up and play mommy with. "We wanted another baby," she confides. "They are just so cute."

Andre enjoys giving her children what they want, part of her tendency to indulge. For instance, she says a large part of her motivation in becoming a foster parent was to quickly provide Alexandra with the little sister she wanted. Similarly, she thought Christian ought to have a little brother to play with. She adopted a cat for each child because she'd read somewhere that it was a good way to teach them about adoption. "I had supportive parents and a great childhood," she says. "I was so loved, this is my give back."

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