Dozens of family photos from vacations, birthdays and graduations adorn the buffet in Pat Robinson’s dining room in Stratford, Conn. (pop. 49,976), where the 62-year-old foster mother has welcomed children into her heart and home for 15 years.
“She treats us like we’re hers,” says Quanitra McCray, 18, who has lived with Robinson since 2002. “If I was still with my mom, I’d probably be on the streets right now.” McCray’s biological mother is in prison and her father is deceased.
At 15, McCray became pregnant and missed part of her junior year, but Robinson insisted that she continue her studies at home. When McCray was rushed to the emergency room and went into early labor, her foster mother held her hand. Together, they kept a hospital vigil as baby Laniya, who weighed 2 pounds, 3 ounces, grew stronger.
There was never a doubt—at least as far as Robinson was concerned—that McCray would graduate from high school and attend college. “She pushed me,” McCray says. “She’d get me up in the morning and get me to school.”
McCray graduated from Bunnell High School in Stratford last year, and today studies criminal justice at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport and works part time at a department store.
McCray appreciates how Robinson guided her and helped her gain confidence. “She’d have me take a city bus to the baby’s doctor appointments to learn my way around. And she taught me how to budget money and put me on a schedule. I’m very grateful.”
Robinson, who works part time at a local law office, always has provided hot meals and motherly advice to troubled kids. When her two biological sons, Ernest, now 44, and Kareem, 33, were growing up, their friends knew they could depend on her to listen.
“In order for kids to succeed, there usually is one instrumental person who believes in them and is a mentor,” says Kareem, who owns a security company based in Bridgeport. “In a lot of different cases, Mom made that difference.”
In 1992, after her sons were grown and she had retired from a management position at IBM, Robinson’s home was quiet and she missed having a household full of kids. So, Robinson took classes to become a foster parent for Casey Family Services, headquartered in nearby New Haven. Since then, she has fostered eight children full time and provided short-term care for many others. Today, her family includes McCray and Laniya, 2, Latasha, 17, and former foster children Lydie and Willie Vainqueur, ages 27 and 26.
“She is my mom,” says Lydie, who was placed in Robinson’s home in 1996. “I could not pick a better one.” Lydie was 15 and her brother, Willie, 14, when they moved in. Natives of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Lydie and Willie spoke only French when they arrived in the United States. As with many foster children, some details of their family history are sketchy and others are best forgotten.
“I’ll never know the story of how my mother ended up here,” says Lydie, who was 4 when her mother came to the United States. “When she knew she was dying, she sent for us. My mother brought us to this country for a reason. She wanted us to experience better opportunities.”
Just 14, Lydie nursed her mom and ran the household. “Whatever English I could put together, I used. It was a survival thing.”
When her mother’s health deteriorated, Lydie informed a social worker at school, and she and her brother were placed in foster care with Robinson. Two weeks later, their mother died.
For Lydie, the biggest adjustment was learning to be a child. “Lydie was tough,” Robinson says. “She was accustomed to mothering her brother. Once she let me be the mother, she enjoyed being a child herself.”
Beyond loving children, a foster parent needs vision, Robinson says. “You have to look beyond what you see when that child walks through the door.”
Adds Lydie, “She had vision for me when I didn’t have it in myself.” Today, the college graduate works as a senior buyer for Brooklace, a paper products manufacturer in West Haven, Conn.
Moms and dads needed
Across the United States, about 513,000 children are in foster care because of parental neglect or abuse. About 140,000 foster families provide homes until the children can be reunited with their biological families or placed in a permanent home through adoption.
“There just aren’t enough foster parents,” says Marvin Ferneau, president of the National Foster Parent Association, headquartered in Gig Harbor, Wash. “Some kids are living in group homes and shelters.”
Marvin and his wife, Melody, of Montezuma, Iowa (pop. 1,440), became foster parents in 1991 when their biological daughters, Melissa, 31, and Christine, 29, were teens. Since then, they’ve cared for 30 teenage girls—some for a few days and others for a few years—and adopted two foster children: Neisha, now 25, and Kelly, 22.
“Everybody needs a mom and dad to come home to,” Marvin says.
Home at last
A child longs for the security of a permanent, loving home, says Myra Magee, 58, of Angie, La. (pop. 240), who understands the heartbreak of a broken home. As children, both she and her husband, Mitchell, were shuttled among caregivers.
After their own five children were grown, the Magees became foster parents in 1994. “I wanted to make a difference,” Myra says. “It was just in my heart.” The couple since have adopted six of their foster children: Sabrina, 11; Omeisha, 12; Richard, 12; Raven, 12; Raechelle, 13; and Calakeisha, 14. The children sing in the choir at local Center Baptist Church and most play instruments in their school bands.
Mitchell, 58, a self-employed logger, and Myra, a stay-at-home mom, budget carefully. Their home had to be gutted after Hurricane Katrina and has been rebuilt as far as the insurance coverage would stretch. Although most of their belongings were destroyed, the family returned home last September before school started.
“We don’t have fancy stuff, but nobody goes lacking,” Myra says.
Best of all, the Magee children have parents and a permanent home. “I made a commitment to my babies that they won’t have to move again from home to home,” Myra adds.
Forever family Foster parenting is hard work, but the reward is to better the life of a child, says Donna Coraluzzo of Dover, N.H. (pop. 26,884). She and her husband, Mike, have one biological son, Anthony, 10, and have been foster parents for three years to Kayla, 15.
“It’s our job—all of our jobs—to take care of these children,” says Donna, 38, program director at the Dover Children’s Home, a residence for troubled adolescents. Mike, 39, is a state trooper, and both he and Donna see firsthand the need for safe homes for children.
“Kayla was gaunt and had cold sores from stress when we got her,” Donna recalls. The oldest of four children, Kayla had cared for her siblings when her mother left them unattended for days. Both of her birth parents have spent time in prison.
Today, the bubbly teen bounds up the stairs to show off her bedroom, furnished with a vanity brimming with perfume bottles, makeup and jewelry. Nearby is a cluster of track trophies. The honor student is involved in gymnastics, drama, chorus and photography.
Being placed in foster care completely changed Kayla’s life. “Now I feel like I can have a life and not have to make everyone else a life,” she says.
Earlier this year, Kayla received thrilling news. “I get to change my last name to Coraluzzo,” she says, beaming.
Donna hugs her daughter. “We’re a forever family,” she says. “When we meet new people, we say, ‘this is our son’ and ‘this is our daughter.’”