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Wolffs named Foster Parents of the Year in county

May 20, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

After five years as foster parents, Elaine and Gary Wolff of Keedysville realize that love and sanctuary isn't always enough to fix a broken child.

But small breakthroughs keep them trying, they said.

Since 1997, the Wolffs have parented eight school-aged children and provided a temporary home for others in need of emergency placement. They now have four foster children and are preparing for a fifth child this summer, they said.

Every square on the wall calendar in the couple's kitchen is filled with child-related obligations - Little League games, school fund-raisers, Girl Scout meetings, medical and dental appointments, summer camps, social workers' visits.

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The Wolffs recently bought a sport utility vehicle with a third-row seat to accommodate their growing family.

They attended special "treatment foster care" workshops to better equip themselves for the challenges of raising children with serious emotional troubles, they said, and continually participate in seminars to hone their skills.

"There's a real need for foster parents if you really like children. They need role models, and there's not a whole lot of heroes out there," Gary Wolff said.

"You have to love kids to get into this. It's like that old saying, 'the toughest job you'll ever love.' "

The Wolffs were seasoned parents before they entered Washington County's foster care program, having raised their own daughter, now 25.

Past experience didn't fully prepare them for foster parenthood, they said.

"It was such an eye-opener when we first started into this," said Gary Wolff, 51. "You don't realize what these kids have gone through. It's absolutely horrendous."

Abuse and/or neglect have warped behavior, eroded trust and silenced the ability to express emotions, the Wolffs said.

One child dove into a living room corner every time the automatic garage door clanked open. Another hoarded food in his bedroom. One little girl followed Elaine Wolff everywhere she went because she was afraid of being left alone.

Some of the children wet their beds night after night and soil their clothing at school. They tremble with nightmares. They're afraid of the dark.

Some children haven't been taught to bathe regularly, brush their teeth or clean up after using the toilet, said the Wolffs, who keep a hygiene checklist posted in their upstairs bathroom.

Most of the children closely guard their emotions. Few trust others.

"You can't always love them enough to fix them," said Elaine Wolff, 46. "You just plug away at it day to day."

The Maryland League of Foster & Adoptive Parents recently honored the couple as Washington County's foster family of the year for their "willingness and commitment to go the extra mile for the children in their home," said Nancy Hopkins, resource home coordinator for the county Department of Social Services.

The Wolffs balance the individual needs of their foster children with the best interests of the entire family in a structured yet nurturing environment, Hopkins wrote in her nomination letter.

As foster parents, they assume ever-shifting roles as child advocates in the community, teachers, disciplinarians, counselors and household diplomats. It's not an easy job, the Wolffs said.

"It's not all sweetness and light," Elaine Wolff said. "You have to have the patience of a saint. Every now and then, a two-bedroom condo starts looking pretty good."

The couple once took overnight shifts to supervise a youngster with a history of starting fires. They've had to restrain out-of-control children. They've mediated squabbles among children in the house. They've watched some of their foster children regress after visits with biological family members, they said.

And they've struggled with loss when forced to part with children they've grown to love, the couple said.

"Getting attached," Gary Wolff said, "is the toughest part."

Sometimes a strong bond between foster child and parent remains intact despite separation, the Wolffs said.

The couple regularly visits the group home to which they finally sent one of their first foster children to live after years of trying to help him heal in their home. They recall small triumphs - a rare two-way conversation with the boy, a glimpse into his briefly unguarded emotions - when they try to explain why they continue to foster children despite the inherent heartache and headaches

"It was always just 'yes' or 'no' with him. Deep down, I thought I would never be able to reach this boy because he had such a fear of men," Gary Wolff said. "It hit me like a brick" when the boy finally opened up, he said.

"I won't ever stop considering him my son."

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