On a night 11 years ago, Kim Sanderson wept and rocked her 18-month old baby boy until midnight, knowing it was the last time she’d get to hold his little body close to hers.
She’d never again get to tuck him into bed with a nighttime story and wouldn’t be the mom he’d run to when he scratched his knee or fell off a bike.
The boy, whom she won’t name, was the first foster child she and her husband, James, took in.
There is always a need for foster families in Cortland County, said Allison Veintimilla, director of social services. There are 42 open foster homes in the county, where 49 foster children are now placed.
Another 11 children are in residential treatment centers or group homes, but still considered to be in foster care, said Veintimilla.
Veintimilla noted the difficulty of foster care: It is a hard job to love as your own a child who faces a host of challenges, give everything of yourself, and then work toward reuniting that child with birth relatives.
“We seek individuals who are patient, understanding and caring to the whole family,” she said.
The Sandersons had that first child from 12 months old to 18 months and saw him grow from a malnourished baby holding a dirty bottle to a chubby toddler with a happy gap-toothed grin.
But what Sanderson thought was a routine court appearance brought a blow: The judge delivered the boy back to his biological father.
The night before he left, Sanderson, a Cortland Senior-High School band teacher, had to direct a concert, an obligation that still haunts her.
“I didn’t get to put him to bed,” she said, wiping away tears. “I remember trying to keep it together knowing the little boy we know and love as our own would be leaving.”
That loss didn’t stop the Sandersons from loving each successive foster child — they’ve had nine. “My husband and I always joke, we play for keeps,” said Kim Sanderson. “We’re all in.”
There is always the hope the child will be reunited with the biological family, she said. That is always the end goal and they are prepared for it. But the grief, a unique and lonely experience, said Sanderson, is always with you.
“We know what it is like to love and lose a child … even though that child is still alive, and grieve at that level,” she said. “It will always be with you, it is a grief you always have.”
Some of the foster children they have parented throughout the years have been adopted by other families, some have been returned to their biological families. They adopted two: Allie and Marc, each after the biological parents’ rights were terminated.
The Sandersons adopted Allie when she was 4, she’s 8 now and frequently ran up to her mother over the course of an hour, to throw her arms around her neck and say she loved her. Marc was adopted a couple of weeks before his second birthday and is now 29 months old. He’s had developmental delays, some linked to being born addicted to drugs.
You never know what you’re getting with a foster child, Sanderson said.
“You are taking children in who are heartbroken,” she said. “Hearing a child that’s saying, ‘I want my mommy, I miss my mommy,’ you have to work through that.”
Fostering is the Sandersons’ way of giving back to the community. Kim Sanderson said she and James decided not to have their own children, instead giving to so many children in need of it, a home and love.
“And providing them that magical childhood every child deserves,” she said.