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Foster children ‘make you a better person’

Nurturing home: Malisa Butterfield’s family is one of 58 caring for 70 foster children in Bermuda (Photo supplied)

When Malisa Butterfield took on a teenage foster daughter, she was quick to lay down the rules.

“This is an honour roll house,” Ms Butterfield said. “My three older children were all honour roll students, and you will be one also.”

The teenager rolled her eyes. No one had ever demanded this from her before.

“She never said anything after that though,” said Ms Butterfield. “She just got to it. Now she thanks me all the time because she’s on the honour roll.”

Ms Butterfield’s family is one of 58 caring for 70 foster children in Bermuda. Children are usually removed from their biological families due to parental inability to care for them, neglect or abuse.

The Royal Gazette spoke with two women about the realities of the job as part of Foster Care Month.

Ms Butterfield is a middle school paraeducator. She was first a respite carer, taking kids in for short periods to give their foster parents a break.

“I have always loved children,” she said. “I used to run a summer camp and had foster children coming to the camp. It started because a foster parent had to be at work early and needed someone to drop her child off in the morning. At it happened there were several foster parents in my area who needed this help.”

This soon translated into taking foster children for weekends. A year-and-a-half ago one of her respite teens needed a full-time home.

“She asked for me specifically,” said Ms Butterfield, 45.

Despite that, the teen struggled to settle into her new home.

“In the beginning it was very, very challenging,” Ms Butterfield said. “She went from wanting me to wanting me to get lost. For the first year, she hated me. She wanted to do her own thing and in my house I have rules and structure. The social worker said it would take a year for her to settle down, and that’s exactly what happened. After a year, she was telling me she loved me.”

She said being a foster parent takes a lot of love, patience and lots and lots of prayer. She admits she now uses respite care herself.

“Sometimes you just need a break for the weekend so you can keep going,” she said. “The children don’t mind. They see it is as a sleepover somewhere.”

She happens to work in the same school that her foster daughter attends.

“I told her if she embarrasses me by misbehaving, I’ll embarrass her,” said Ms Butterfield. “She didn’t listen. So one day I came into her classroom and gave her the blast. I made her apologise to her teacher, in front of all her classmates.”

One of the challenges of being a foster parent is putting your heart on the line, she added.

“You never know if your foster child’s situation might change suddenly and they might have to move on. But you have to love them and give them what you give your own children. Otherwise, what is the point?”

But she said Bermuda is so small that she will probably always have a relationship with her foster daughter, no matter what happens.

This has proven true for Sheree Jacobs, high school coordinator for Young Life. She still keeps in touch with her first two foster daughters, now in their 20s.

She is concerned about the lack of assistance available to foster children when they reach the age of majority, 18.

“I was not ready to be on my own at 18,” she said. “At that time I was just going off to college. Some children can find themselves in bad living situations after being cut free. It’s something I’d like to talk with Social Services about a bit more.”

Her first foster child came to her in need of a home for “just ten days”. Ms Jacobs knew the 17-year-old through her work in Young Life. Ten days quickly passed.

“When I realised that this was going to last longer than ten days I really had to dig deep,” she said.

“I am a believer. I decided this was what God wanted me to do.”

The teenager stayed with her until she was 19, a year beyond what was required.

Her next foster child stayed for a year.

Foster child number three was a whole different ball game.

“They called me up and said they had a two-year-old in need of love and nurture,” said Ms Jacobs.

At first her answer was an emphatic no; the single 39-year-old had no experience with babies.

“My mother laughed when she heard I was taking on a baby,” she said.

“She knew I had no experience with small children. It was a real stretch for me.”

The child is now five years old, and still living with her.

Raising a little one was just as challenging as raising teenagers, Ms Jacobs said.

“You have to do everything for them. Teenagers can at least cook for themselves and they go out. Little ones have to be potty trained. They need so much. You have to be very selfless.”

Despite that having foster children has been the best thing to ever happen to her, she said.

“They make you a better person. They bring life and joy.”

• Social Services is always looking for more foster parents. Anyone over the age of 21 can apply, but there is a rigorous screening process. For more information, contact Selena Simons on 294-5871 or smsimons@gov.bm