Great Positive Story: Foster family ties

Date: Monday, August 25, 2014
Source: The Lynn Daily Item (MA)
Author: Sean Leonard

At age 43, Gary Zerola is a successful Boston criminal defense lawyer. His clients and colleagues alike describe him as tenacious, confident and focused in his practice. In his personal life, however, Zerola admits to coping with occasional bouts of anxiety – and “an overwhelming level of anxiety” whenever he’s faced with moving.

That’s understandable. From when he was just 2 to age 14, he was placed in a dozen different foster homes, a traumatic experience that he said still haunts him.

“My father walked out on my mother when she was just 24 or 25 and left her with seven children. I was the youngest,” Zerola said. “She got very sick after that,” he said, adding that it wasn’t long before the state intervened and took custody of him, his two brothers and four sisters.

“We all got ripped away, lost everything we had ever known,” he said. “I remember all my stuff was put in a trash bag, and I was sitting in an office for hours, and then it’s ‘Here ya go, this is your new house,'” Zerola said. He remembers being placed with families for varying lengths of time in Lynn, Everett, Malden and Revere.

“My siblings were placed in more homes than I was. There is absolutely nothing good about bouncing around,” he said. “We always would temporarily stay with our maternal grandmother when in between homes, she was kind of the glue that held us kids together and kept us informed as to where the others were.

“All of us were separated in different homes, but once in a while two of us landed in the same one – with no notice we would be seeing our siblings we hadn’t seen in years,” Zerola said.

Foster home jackpot

When Zerola was 14, his stroke of good fortune came “and I hit the foster home jackpot.” It stemmed from his sister Donna’s placement with a family five years earlier, in about 1980.

Donna struck up a friendship with a classmate, Stacy Hollingsworth, and at the time Donna did not have a foster family. Stacy asked her mother, Mildred “Millie” Hollingsworth, if Donna could stay with their family. Mildred at the time was married to her first husband, David.

“I said to Stacy, ‘Well, she can stay for a couple of weeks until they find a place for her,’ and she just never left,” the woman now known as Mildred Hollingsworth Bowes wryly observed during an interview at her neatly kept single-family home with an in-ground pool at 32 Range Ave., Lynn. “She stayed until she was 27.”

After the death of her first husband, Mildred remarried, to attorney Robert Bowes. And with their respective biological children already raised – Mildred has a son, Chris – Mildred and Robert continued to take in foster children- so far nine and counting, as Robert, today, in his 80s, continues to work as counsel to the state Senate.

It was about 1985 when Donna invited Gary to ride his bicycle over to the house one Sunday to go for a swim.

“Millie sat me down and asked me if I needed a place to stay, and I moved in,” Zerola said. He remembers being apprehensive at first.

“I didn’t talk much. I didn’t eat or drink. It took me awhile (to adjust),” he said, and to realize that what he had found, finally, is a permanent family. He found stability, guidance and role models in the people today he calls “Mom and Dad.”

Zerola acknowledged others who helped him along the way, especially his Lynn Vocational Technical Institute electronics teacher Chris Speropoulos, “who literally dragged me to college.”

“Teachers – to foster kids – take on a much more important role than just educating. And my teachers at Lynn Tech were critical to my survival and my staying out of trouble.”

But he attributed all of his success today to Millie and Bob.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today talking to you if it were not for what they have given me.”

Zerola said it was Bowes who inspired him to become a lawyer. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Suffolk University and law degree from Suffolk Law, and he was a speaker at both his undergraduate and law school commencements.

He lived in the Hollingsworth Bowes home until age 24, when he began law school.

“When I turned 18 I started paying $25 a week rent and it went up every year, until it got to the point where I’d be paying the same for my own apartment,” he said. “So when I signed a lease and told Mom and Dad I was moving out, Mom said, ‘What are you talking about, moving out?’ and Dad said, ‘Good. We’re going to use your room for an office.’ Then Dad gave me a check for all the rent I had paid since I was 18 and a roll of toilet paper.”

Strong set of values

By the time they’re ready to move out on their own, Hollingsworth Bowes said her hope is that she and her husband have given their foster kids a strong set of values.

“You need a lot of patience, time and humor” to be a foster parent, she said. “I use humor a lot to ease any tension.”

The foster children they take in are placed by the Lowell-based Plummer Foster Care, formerly Casey Family Services, affiliated with the Plummer Home for Boys in Salem. Plummer launched a foster program 18 months ago and shares the same goal as its predecessor, Casey, to find permanent homes for intensive foster children, those with behavioral and emotional struggles.

“The kids come to us when they’re older and really have deep problems. So if you just help them hold their own and hope they take some of your values when they leave,” Hollingsworth Bowes said. “The first few months they call it the honeymoon period.

They’re checking you out and they’re being cool, seeing how much they can get away with.

After that three months everything hits the fan.

“I treat the kids as if they’re my own. If we go on vacation, they come with us. When they come in, they don’t get treated any differently than any other kid I would have in the house. The punishments and groundings are all the same. It’s a sense of fairness. You have to be fair with the kids.”

And if for any reason the foster children are not happy, Hollingsworth Bowes said, they’re encouraged to speak up instead of run away.

“A lot of these kids will just run away if they’re not happy. I tell them not to do that. Just contact the social worker. There are no hard feelings. I want you to be happy, and I don’t want you to be miserable in my house. Because if you’re miserable, then I’m miserable.”

Challenges along the way

Seeing the kids evolve is extremely satisfying, she said, but, to be sure, there are challenges, and not every placement succeeds.

“One of the boys I had in the house I always figured I lost. I wasn’t successful with him. He came from a home and he stayed for awhile, and we just couldn’t get him to function like the way other kids would function. He ended up joining a gang, and I think it started while under my roof,” Hollingsworth Bowes said. “Once he left here it just progressed, and got worse and worse and worse and he ended up in jail.

“I would hear from him from time to time, and then I saw a picture in The Item of him and another boy who are doing outreach work now, and he is going to North Shore Community College. So, ya know, he might have picked something positive up here.”

Seventeen-year-old Kayla Sutton has been in the Hollingsworth Bowes house for about two and a half years.

Sutton said, “Millie and Bob are truly a blessing to me and everyone else in this family. I love them very much, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. I was only supposed to be here for two weeks, but they ended up taking me because I never wanted to leave. I loved them and felt that this was and still is my home. They showed me what family really is.”

The family faced a different kind of challenge the in Sutton’s first year in the house.

“Kayla moved in in November and by April, she was pregnant,” said Hollingsworth Bowes. “The baby is upstairs.”

Hollingsworth Bowes was asked, “Was that a surprise?”

“Yes, to put it mildly,” Hollingsworth Bowes said, “but we got through it together.”

When Sutton turns 18 in October, she plans to find a place of her own with her daughter, Aalyah Castillo.

“Millie and Bob have helped me tremendously with my daughter, and I will always be grateful for that,” Sutton said.

Michele Meltzer, a social worker with the Plummer Home and Plummer Foster Care who was on hand during The Item’s interview with Hollingsworth Bowes, pointed out that Aalyah is not in foster care, since Sutton has custody of and is caring for her daughter. Meltzer explained that foster children have the option to leave foster care at age 18, but they do not age out of the program until age 22. Search for permanent families James Lister, executive director of the Plummer Home in Salem, and Nicole McLaughlin, director of strategy and advancement for Plummer Home and Plummer Foster Care, held breakfast meetings with North Shore business representatives last month, one in which The Item participated, to discuss the urgent need to find more permanent foster parents in Lynn and around the North Shore to take in intensive foster children.

“Our group home has worked with kids for over 100 years. A few years ago we decided we wanted to expand to offer more services to kids in foster care, and a critical part of that was to add a foster care program,” McLaughlin said. “We can take care of kids with pretty highend needs in our group home, but when they no longer need that level of care, we move them over to a foster home.”

McLaughlin said the emphasis locally and nationally “has shifted from less and less group homes and more foster homes.” She said the Plummer Foster Care began 18 months ago. Casey at the time was getting out of the foster placement businesses and focusing on other youth services.

We started with 17 families and a core staff in Lowell. 

Clinically, it’s been going really, really well. We’ve been finding families for these kids and getting them adopted. However, we’re not recruiting new foster families as quickly as we’d like.”

Lister said for every 100 calls from people inquiring about becoming foster parents, 10 are really interested, and only between two and four actually become foster families.

“It’s really about the volume (of inquiries) and turning those into foster families,” he said.

The ideal situation for the foster child, he said, is for the foster parents to adopt him or her. But McLaughlin pointed out, “then we become victims of our own success because we lose that family as a foster family.”

Lister said the Plummer Foster Care works to place children from all over the state into homes on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley. When possible, he said, children are placed in communities they came from and are familiar with.

“We’re looking for people who are willing to open their homes, commit to helping our kids find a permanent family. We hope they would have an expectation of adopting, and also a willingness to work with the birth family to make family connections,” Lister said.

McLaughlin said that unfortunately, “because of the way foster care has developed over the years, in many cases kids bounce and bounce and bounce” from one foster family to another. “We want to stop the bounce,” she said.

McLaughlin said every effort is made to ensure a placement is successful.

“(Foster parents) have been told that if they’re having trouble, no problem, give us a call and give us 10 days notice and we will move the kid. What we say is sure, you have a right to do that. But we will do whatever we can to make you not give us that 10 days notice. We there to help 24 hours a day. If you need support, if you need a vacation, we’ll find someplace for the child to go for a couple of days,” McLaughlin said.

Successful foster families, McLaughlin said, “tend to be working-class people because their lives generally include more adversity, and so, in many ways, they are more flexible â[#x20ac] they have to understand that some of the kids really struggle with behavioral issues and challenge you. The ideal foster parent is someone who recognizes when they’re getting to their limit and when they need help.”

McLaughlin said the time it takes to become a foster parent can be about two years, from inquiry to placement.

“It’s not something you jump into lightly. There are classes (for prospective foster parents), and that’s where the vetting out process occurs.”

Family support

Cayenne Isaksen, director of public affairs for the state Department of Children and Families, said that statewide there are 7,000 to 9,000 children in foster care at any given time. And of those, about 20 percent are what’s known as intensive foster care children, those with high-end behavioral/emotional struggles.

The Plummer Foster Care works to find placements for between 30 and 40 intensive foster care children each month.

McLaughlin said a foster family can have two intensive foster care children in their home at one time, unless there are additional siblings, in which case the family can seek a waiver from the state.

The daily stipend provided by DCF to foster families is $56.59 per child in intensive foster care. There are additional stipends: for holidays ($100), birthdays ($50) and quarterly clothing allotments of between $185 to $282 per child.

“We are paid well,” Hollingsworth Bowes said, but she emphasized that a paycheck should not be the motivation to become a foster family. The desire to help children, she said, should be the motivating factor, and the work to create family bonds.

Hollingsworth Bowes said she keeps in touch with most of her foster children, “and Gary and Donna will always be in our lives.”

She joked, “I call Gary anytime the kids need pizza.”

Zerola said during one of his recent visits home, where foster children in the home today call him “Uncle Gary,” he asked his parents – his mother in her 70s and father 86 – why they’re still involved in foster parenting.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Gary, it’s just what we do.’ And thank God for that.”

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