POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 11, 2011
There is no happy circumstance by which a child is placed in foster care. But for nearly 900 kids over the past 19 years, there has at least been the consolation that Linda Dean and her family were there to quell their fears, tend to their hurts and make "the system" feel a lot more like that thing called home.
Dean, 62, insists she's just one small part of a network of foster families, social workers and administrators — an overburdened community of child advocates too often tainted by the misdeeds of a malign few — who are committed to providing care and shelter to Hawaii children who need it most. Yet, her record argues that she is in fact something exceptional, even among those who routinely go beyond the call for the children they shelter.
Dean, a native of Battle Creek, Mich., moved to Hawaii with her family in 1988. Shortly after their arrival, she saw a commercial for foster care on TV and was smitten with the idea. The Dean home had always been a hub for neighborhood kids. Why not open it again for those in need?
Starting in 1992, the Deans opted to serve as "general resource home," accommodating as many as five foster children at a time. Some stayed for just a night, others for years.
Shortly after they started, a young boy named Tony was placed with the family. It was just three days before Christmas, the child's birthday. Tony was shy as could be, but the family quickly fell in love with him, so much so that when he came up for adoption, they decided they couldn't let him go. As they took steps to become his legal parents, the Deans received word that Tony's mother had just given birth to another child, who was also to be put up for adoption. They decided to make it a twofer. Tony and brother Jordan were later joined by another boy, Bailey (also known as BJ), with whom Dean fell in love the moment she spotted him with one of her regular social workers.
Though the Deans would later divorce, Linda Dean, her three daughters (another son was on the mainland) and her three adopted sons would play host to a revolving door of foster children. From 1997 until last year, Dean served as an emergency shelter parent, providing a ready home for children taken immediately from dangerous or detrimental situations. Though rewarding in many ways, the experience also forced Dean to confront challenges she never imagined. She still vividly recalls the little girl who showed up with the rectangular shape of a hot iron burned onto her chest. She's tended to bruises and broken bones and all manner of gut-wrenching signs of abuse. She's also developed an eye for the more subtle, more heartbreaking signs of sexual abuse.
"It's something else when a 2-year-old swears at you," Dean says. "We've come across some hard-core toddlers."
Dean's final year of service was perhaps her most challenging and her most rewarding, as the Department of Human Services launched its new Project First Care, which dispensed with the foster family's traditional anonymity in favor of direct contact with birth parents. She didn't care for the idea at first, but eventually came to value the close connections she was able to forge with the parents and the way these helped in reuniting families. Dean officially retired as a foster parent this year, although she hopes to lend a hand in training new foster families via Hui Ho‘omalu.
Dean keeps an album featuring nearly all of the children who have passed through her doors. She also has more immediate reminders. Many of the children call or write or even visit. Many of the children were too young to remember their time in Dean's home, but sometimes their families remember and they too stay in touch to let Dean know that all is well.
"It can be sad when a child leaves, but it's also good to know that it's because Mom and Dad worked hard to make it happen," Dean says. "I got a sense of accomplishment being a part of that success, and I learned a lot from having had those experiences."
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.