by Moira Cullings
LAWRENCE — Who says large Catholic families are out of fashion?
Patti and Steve Fisher have only been foster parents for three-and-a- half years, but throughout that short time, they have welcomed 25 children into their home.
With open hearts and deep compassion, the couple has given everything they have to every child that has entered their lives — so much so, that they were recognized by DCCCA, a licensed child placing agency in Kansas, as the Foster Family of 2015.
Although the children come and go, the Fishers will always consider them part of the family.
They are now happy foster parents, but their journey didn’t start off as a stroll in the park.
Patti always felt called to have children. As a single woman, she participated in foster parenting classes but, with her demanding work schedule, it was hard to find the right time to take in a child.
Even though the wait was frustrating, Patti’s patience would soon open a door to a more beautiful life than she could have imagined.
In 2004, Patti met Steve at a Prince of Peace Parish event in Olathe.
“We met, and in so many ways, it could have not happened,” said Patti.
Steve wasn’t a member of the parish, so crossing paths with one another was a slim chance. The two agree it must truly have been meant to be.
Once the couple married, they were devastated by the discovery that having their own children wasn’t possible.
But they did not let their personal tragedy stand in the way of what both felt was a larger mission.
“We wanted kids,” said Patti. “And it’s not that we wanted to have our own kids even.”
The couple felt moved to help children in some way, “even if it was just for a little while,” she said.
So in 2012, the Fishers embarked on a journey to become foster parents.
Foster care process
The path to foster care starts with a 10-week class, a stack of paperwork and a state inspection.
Once complete, you have the freedom to decide the age range of children you feel comfortable with and whether you want to be licensed for police protective custody, respite care or long-term placements, among other choices.
With police protective custody, “you get a call in the middle of the night — some child came into care, and you go pick them up,” Patti explained. “They’ve got nothing.”
“You pretty much have to be very flexible. . . . That’s not really a light level of commitment,” she said.
With respite care, you might have the child or children for anywhere from one night to several weeks, depending on the family’s situation.
Longer-term placements tend to last several months.
In that case, you are responsible for enrolling the children in school or day care if need be, and the kids are settled into your home.
The Fishers chose to provide both respite and long-term care. But that was only the beginning.
“Once you get the kids, it’s not like, ‘OK, we’re licensed, now it’s easy,’” said Patti.
“Almost any appointment, [the agency] has to approve,” she said. “If there are any decisions to be made, it goes back to the agency and sometimes the parents.”
Both the children and the foster parents in long-term situations must meet with social workers on a monthly basis.
“There’s a lot of things besides just parenting that you have on your plate,” said Patti.
Fostering with faith
Despite the obstacles, Patti and Steve have gracefully adapted to each child that has entered their home.
As of now, they have taken care of children from 10 months to 15 years old.
The Fishers have been flexible — not just in regard to age, but also to special needs.
“We started learning about autism for [a few] girls we had, because they were coming back for respites every month or two,” said Steve.
“You get the call, and you may not know much about where they’re coming from or anything like that,” said Patti. “You just have to hope you have what they need.”
The Fishers, members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence, feel their strong Catholic faith has given them strength to face each challenge and an opportunity to introduce their foster children to God’s love.
“God knows them. They don’t always know God,” said Patti.
With permission from the biological parents, the couple is able to take the kids to church each Sunday and pray with them every day.
“Outside of church, when they’re struggling . . . and something will be going on, we’ll say, ‘OK, what do you think you should do about it?’” said Patti. “And the older child will say, ‘Well, let’s pray.’”
“So, I don’t feel like we forced it on them,” she continued. “We showed them that was there and something we do and that they can do, and they choose it.
“They want to be children of God. And we talk about that.”
The Fishers are currently fostering two siblings, ages 4 and 6.
They find themselves at a standstill, eagerly awaiting a hearing that will determine the children’s fate — reunification with their biological parents or continuing to stay in foster care.
“[The court says] they’re supposed to be protecting the children,” said Steve. “But they want to get the kids back to the parents, and the parents don’t always do what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Most kids come into care because of abuse and neglect, said Nancy Snyder Killingsworth, regional faith-based community specialist at KVC Health Systems.
KVC is a national leader in child welfare and behavioral health care, and it assists approximately 50 percent of all children served in Kansas child welfare.
“There’s so many opportunities [their parents] have not taken advantage of to become the parents the children need and deserve. And to me, that’s been hard, too,” said Patti. “The parents haven’t stepped up for their kids.”
In one case, the mother was out of touch with her children for over a year.
“I can’t imagine leaving my kids like that,” said Patti. “In a way, the children needed it. They needed to heal from all that. But it’s just so incomprehensible to me.”
Through all the time and effort the Fishers have dedicated to life as foster parents, they remain beacons of hope for every child that comes through their door.
“I was impressed by the way they cared for their foster children,” said Anissa Pfannenstiel, child placing supervisor at DCCCA.
“They always provided a wonderful environment full of love and healthy routines, honoring milestones and emotionally sensitive responses to their children’s needs,” she continued.
Pfannenstiel was moved to nominate the Fishers for the DCCCA Foster Family of 2015 award.
“They provide an environment that is very optimal for a child to feel secure, cared for, loved,” she said.
Patti and Steve go beyond their duties as foster parents by providing monthly reports to case managers, workers and even biological families when appropriate.
“In the beginning, it was just like, ‘Hey, we’ll try this, see how it works and all that.’ But do you imagine not doing it now? Could you walk away from it?” Patti asked Steve.
“I can’t,” he replied.
“It’s been amazing watching the two we have now,” continued Steve, “change over the past two years.”
“And how they’ve changed us,” Patti added.
Foster care today
Today, more than 415,000 children in the United States are in foster care.
Over 6,000 of those children are located in Kansas.
“That’s a staggering amount,” said Patti.
Help comes in many forms, the Fishers explained, not just by being a foster parent.
Buying presents for a foster care agency, especially during the holidays, is a great way to brighten a child’s life.
Running errands, making dinner and offering to baby-sit for a foster family are other ways to show support.
“These children are the responsibility of everyone in the community,” said Killingsworth. “Not everyone is called to be a foster or adoptive parent, but everyone in the community can do something to help children and families.”
“It’s not really something to jump into lightly,” said Patti. “But it’s out there, and it’s an opportunity through these kids, through these families, for people to know God differently.”
Both Patti and Steve agree you don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.
It can be a single person, or someone who lives in a rental home, they said.
“The thing is, just being there for those kids wherever you are is going to bless those kids,” said Patti.
“And it’s going to amaze you, what comes to you,” she added.
Though the Fishers have already given so much of their lives to their foster kids, they plan to continue to open their hearts and home to children in need.
They do hope to adopt some day, but, until then, will continue to care for foster children as if they were their own.
“We’re going to have kids one way or another,” said Patti.