They come from the Sudan, from Guatemala, from down the street. They come wearing their possessions on their bodies, or stuffed in garbage bags, or with none at all.
They come speaking Spanish or Somali or Pashto. Some come not knowing where their parents are, or if they’re alive, or if they’ll ever see them again.
They survived war and genocide and oppression; now they need a new home and someone new to love them.
These are the children that enter Commonwealth Catholic Charities’ foster care program.
Since 1982, Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) has provided foster care services to hundreds of children from infancy through 21 years old. Its program is one of the oldest and largest in the country. Most of the children served by CCC are Unaccompanied Refugee Minors, which means they are children who fled their native countries due to war or persecution based on their race, religion or political affiliation.
Their parents or other adult relatives have disappeared or died, and the children have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles alone, coming from all over the world. CCC currently helps place children from more than 20 countries including those from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America.
CCC located in Richmond served 70 children last year. BéBé Tran, CCC foster parent specialist, explained the horrors that some refugee children face to get here.
“Our refugee children fled from war-torn countries and during the chaos, they got separated from their parents and ended up in refugee camps. Some of them stayed in refugee camps for years before becoming eligible to come into our foster care program,” she said.
Noting that the biggest difficulty for children is their “unknown future,” Tran continued, “They are in constant fear for their life. Some witnessed the killing of their own parents or family members, witnessed violence, or got abused or raped during the journey.”
As these children often arrive with nothing, CCC provides a backpack — “comfort cases” filled with shampoo and toothpaste, as well as coloring books and a stuffed animal, no matter the child’s age, so they feel welcome and safe.
Refugee minors can only enter the country after gaining permission from the United Nations and the U.S. State Department – sometimes a lengthy process. Once the children arrive in Richmond, CCC takes legal custody of them within 24 hours and then places them with an approved foster family.
One of these families is the Porzios. Daniel and Lindsay Porzio have been fostering children through CCC for several years.
“We both felt a calling to become foster parents,” said Daniel. “We also liked the levels of foster care at CCC and their work with refugees. We are both in education and often talk about bringing our students home with us, and becoming foster parents helped us to do this in a different way.”
Lindsay is an elementary school principal and Daniel is a high school social studies teacher. They are currently fostering two children from Honduras — a 16-year-old boy and 20-year old girl. The couple admitted that being a foster parent is not always easy.
“There are many ups and downs, but we try to focus on the ups,” Lindsay said, adding that their foster children “fill our lives.”
The children come knowing little to no English, and they sometimes have to communicate using a translation app on their phones, especially in the beginning. Two of the children the Porzios have fostered have graduated from high school, a huge milestone and accomplishment for a refugee.
The Porzios also have two adult biological children and, just like any siblings, there is occasional bickering among all of them. However, the couple said the easiest part of fostering is having each foster child become part of the family.
Daniel and Lindsay, members of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, have relied on their faith through the highs and lows.
“Being Catholic has helped us because we continue to know that when things get hard, God has called us to do the work and that he’s behind us,” she said. “Service above self is a huge part of our faith that we bring to being foster parents.”
CCC works to provide constant support to foster families. They visit the homes regularly, host dinners and cultural events throughout the year, provide financial assistance and 24-hour on-call emergency support, and are there to provide guidance along the way.
The process to become a foster parent takes about five months of training, assessment and approval. One must be at least 25 years old, financially and emotionally stable, provide references and pass a criminal background check.
According to information provided by CCC, foster parents can be single or married and from any cultural background. They must understand what they are undertaking and have the time and temperament to welcome a child into their home.
Because many foster children have survived severe trauma which results in behavioral challenges, a higher degree of patience and understanding is needed on the part of the foster family.
CCC offers training to teach parents methods for coping with children who are going through trauma, separation and loss, and how to effectively discipline, embrace diversity and build relationships.
Tran said that the hardest children to place are teenagers, especially boys, and children who are Muslim, LGBTQ or have special medical needs. CCC’s Richmond office has about 30 foster families, and Tran hopes to add another dozen in 2020. There are also CCC offices in Roanoke and Norton that offer foster care, and the program is beginning to branch out to Charlottesville and the Hampton Roads area as well.
While CCC is always looking for volunteers to help with various events throughout the year, the most urgent need is finding foster families.
“Our children have been through a lot,” said Tran. “They are the most vulnerable among us. All children need a safe place to live. They need loving families so they can start the healing process.”
Editor’s note: For further information on becoming a foster family, contact BéBé Tran at 804-545-5949 or [email protected].