Hey Everyone --
As you hopefully saw earlier, our first non-profit partner is Project STAR - the foster care arm of The Children’s Institute! We are beyond delighted to have them on board! To help inform you of what they do, and why we are so ecstatic to support them, I’ve asked Abby Pittinaro, Community Giving and Digital Marketing Manager, to share a little about their work.
Here’s what she shared:
Project STAR promotes the right of all children to grow up in a safe, loving, and lasting family. With permanency in mind, our programs are designed to nurture, support, and maintain the family for all amazing kids. We work with counties across western Pennsylvania to support families in need and offer solutions for Plans of Safe Care requirements. Our services fall within these main areas:
• Foster Care
• Intensive Family Support
• Infant Intensive Family Support
We are an affiliate member of SWAN, the Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network, and we’ve served over 13,000 families over the past 5 years!
First of all: 13,000 FAMILIES!! That’s a lot of lives changed!
But secondly, I want to share a personal story having been a Project STAR foster family, that will hopefully paint a deeper picture of what these services look like IRL. Sometimes significance gets lost in a bullet list, and the services listed above have a real impact on the lives of people like me and my family.
So travel with me back to February 1st, 2018; the date on which my life got flip turned upside down… but instead of moving to Bel Air with wealthy family members, I had my heart ripped out of my chest with a melon baller.
On February 1st, 2018, our county caseworker stopped by for our monthly home visit. Without a sideways glance, she casually informed me that based on some new information, the county had decided not to continue pursuing adoption despite the full calendar year the children had spent in our home and, instead, to reunify the children with their biological father in just 90 days.
Now, in some cases, this could be very hopeful news. I believe in healing, and there are times when birth family reunification is warranted, mutually desired and beautiful.
...That was not the situation in our case. In our case the children would have been “returned” to a home they’d never seen before, with a person who loved them, but was very much struggling to meet his own needs at the most basic level.
There was no advance indication that big news was coming that night, so my husband hadn’t left work early to be present for the visit. Getting this news without him was hard enough, but the case worker’s flippancy was a twisted knife. Have you ever heard people make completely benign comments about something, and ask if “it’s awful of me to say that?!”
EG: “Maybe I’m crazy, but I just can’t get into hot yoga. ...It makes me so tired. Like -- is that awful of me to say?” And then the other person says some combination of the words: “Right? No! Totally!”
Have you had this experience? Can you imagine the insincere tone, the exaggerated facial expressions, the “even I don’t actually care about the words I’m saying”-ness of the conversation? That was exactly our county case worker’s tone and body language for the duration of the conversation. Not horrifically rude… just pretend. Which somehow felt worse than rude.
In addition to my concerns for the children’s safety and well being, I was also completely, completely, completely devastated on my own account. For a full year, we had been building a life together. For a full year we had learned to be a family. We had imagined a future.
I was the only mom our son had ever known. The thought of him waking at night in a strange place, crying for me… it was beyond what I could bear to imagine.
Fortunately, the county caseworker wasn’t the only caseworker in our home that evening. Our Project STAR worker had also come for a home visit.
The county’s update was a shock to both of us, and I was very grateful to have an experienced professional there to ask questions and provide the county with her perspective.
I avoided eye contact, aimlessly pushing my food around my plate as the county case worker piled on about what was expected of me during the transition.
Aghast and befuddled I asked “Is this officially decided? It’s just such a drastic change in the case plan since the last time we spoke…”
“If you want, I can have my supervisor call you to verify, but yes: this is the county’s official decision. Just remember: this is what you signed up for.”
She pooched her bottom lip out in the exact show of empathy one gives if they’re telling their roommate that the ice cream is gone… because they ate it all.
“....Right.” I said. “Whatever is best - we’ll do whatever the kids need us to do.”
In case it’s ever helpful to know, “Whatever is best” is foster mom code for “This is F&*%ING terrible and I HATE EVERYTHING, but I will comply because I legally have to.”
“Unless you have any other questions, I should get going.” she said cooly as she stood and checked her watch.
Once she left, our Project STAR worker and I sat silently at the dining room table. The tears I had been biting back were now flowing freely.
“Do you want me to go?” she asked quietly.
“No.” I said “I don’t understand what just happened.”
It was at least 6pm. Our Project STAR worker had done everything she was supposed to do: the children were delivered after their supervised visit with their birth father, she had seen inside our home for her bimonthly visit and she had checked in with the county worker. She had already spent a full day supervising other visits, transporting children to various appointments, testifying in court, delivering diapers, car seats and backpacks full of supplies to new foster families and arranging services for all of the kids assigned to her caseload.
By all accounts, our Project STAR worker had put in her time, and could not have been faulted for saying “Hey, I really should get going too. Call me if you need anything.”
… but that’s not what she did.
She sat in heartbreaking awkwardness with a grieving mom. She listened to my fears about the next day's daycare drop off - the first thing that surfaced in the sea of raging emotions.
See, our little one had dealt with heightened separation anxiety. In his short life he had experienced more than his share of loss, including separations that happened with no goodbyes and no guarantees of return. Every morning he would scream and cry and beg me not to leave when I dropped him off. He would lock his little arms around my neck and refuse to be put down.
In time we developed a ritual to help him feel calm and part peacefully. “Cooper” I would whisper in his ear. “How many times does Mommy come back?” He would smile and whisper in my ear “Always, always. Every time.” “That’s right - always, always. Every time.” I would say back.
...But everything was different now. “That’s not a promise I can keep!” I sobbed to our Project STAR worker.
She couldn’t give me the answers I wanted, or say “Psych!!!” and make it all go away, but she could do the most important thing: treat me like a human person versus Case #305721. Something very few people in the foster care system manage to do.
She acknowledged the devastation of losing children, regardless of our legal relationship. She recognized my motherhood, despite the asterisk of foster care.
She stayed with me until Kyle got home, and helped me update him on the new information. The next morning she texted me just to check in. “I’m not giving up yet!” she said reassuringly.
And she didn’t! Point for point until our adoption day, our case worker was there supporting the kids, supporting my husband and I, advocating for the children and being the human embodiment of “intensive family support.”
To us, Project STAR isn’t “a foster care agency.” They are the people who make foster care possible.
Foster care is harder than hard. Foster care is spirit-crushing uncertainty for every person involved. It’s literally NOT SURVIVABLE without the guidance, support, assistance and soul-level camaraderie from agencies like Project STAR. Their level of support and empathy are truly exceptional.
If you are in the Greater Pittsburgh Area, and you’re considering becoming a foster parent, I highly recommend fostering through Project STAR. Here is where you can learn more about becoming a resource family.
If you’ve got $10,000 or so burning a hole in your bank account, and you’d like to off load it on a truly fantastic, deserving and critical group of servant-hearted angels, here’s where you can donate directly.
And of course, we hope you’ll check out the products we’ve just launched to spread joy in your coffee, wardrobe and journaling time!
Thank you for being on this journey with us!
PHOTOS FROM ADOPTION DAY: