This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“It’s one of those trips where you think you’re going to the Shore,” says Ernesto Pineda, “and you end up going to the mountains.”
Over the last 20 years, Pineda and his wife, Robbin, estimate that they have had 40 foster children. They now have five foster children in the home plus four they have adopted.
It wasn’t their idea when they first got married – each had children from earlier relationships – but when they found they couldn’t have kids together and they knew they weren’t done parenting, foster children seemed like the likeliest option. But not the easiest option.
Foster children have run off from the Pinedas’ home in Douglassville, Berks County, stolen from them and brought them into schools to try to head off a suspension.
“The house is like Fort Knox,” says Ernesto Pineda. “There’s a combination [lock] on everything.”
But both are upbeat as they talk about the slow but steady progress of many of the children as the fear drops away and the kids find they are finally “home” after the traumatic experiences that brought them to foster care.
Although experience has certainly helped the Pinedas deal with the challenges of foster care, their training in trauma and its effects has also played a major role.
The couple first began working with the Montgomery County Office of Children & Youth but eventually switched to Turning Points for Children because of their large Philadelphia caseload. “There was a much bigger need down there,” says Robbin Pineda.
And they say that training from the Together as Adoptive Parents (TAP) agency headed by Phyllis Stevens has been particularly helpful, with more sophisticated workshops such as “Adaptive Disorders,” “The New Age Bully,” and “Reactive Attachment Disorders.”
“All these kids have been traumatized by previous experiences,” Robbin Pineda says. Under stress, “they revert back to old behaviors and we understand that. Trauma presents differently in different children.
“Some of the experiences are pre-language. They can’t talk about being left in the crib to cry and cry and cry.”
In fact, Ernesto Pineda says one of the areas covered by the TAC classes was how to recognize different infant cries, such as hunger or needing a diaper change.
For older children, the Pinedas both say, the key is patience and not overreacting.
“At first,” says Robbin Pineda, “they’re frightened of him [Ernesto] and abusive towards me.”
Ernesto Pineda recounts a story of one foster youth who scattered stones along the winding country road in front of their home.
Pineda’s first reaction was to start picking up the stones himself. When they had returned to the house, the boy asked why. Pineda replied, “Because I love you.”
Reporting on issues related to youth in the child welfare system and exiting it is made possible by a generous grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.