Fostering affection saves one lost boy

Family: Richard and Sue Miniter almost gave up on their foster son -- but didn't.

March 26, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

In the end maybe the bee sting made the difference.

Richard and Sue Miniter had reached their limit. For 12 months, they had cared for a 10-year-old emotionally disturbed foster child, but life with him was like living on a roller coaster. Robert was hostile, sullen, anti-social, a fire-starter, a bed-wetter, impossible by any standard.

Just as the couple was ready to give up their quest and return this lost child to the authorities, something unexpected happened: He was stung by a bee.

"Mommy, Mommy, help me," he cried to his foster mother.

Hearing the word "Mommy," used for the first time, or as Rich Miniter would later describe it, the fact that the boy "forgot for a moment that he wasn't allowed to show how much he's come to need Mom," struck a chord with the family.

The Miniters held on to their foster son. He made vast improvements. A youngster once thought to be mentally retarded soon caught up with his age group in school.

And Miniter wrote a book about it all. Entitled "The Things I Want Most" (Bantam Books, $12.95) and recently released in paperback, the book has been hailed by foster care advocates as an honest and straightforward account of the challenge of rescuing an abused child.

Miniter and his wife had had no previous experience as foster parents. Although the upstate New York couple had raised five sons and a daughter, Miniter soon learned they were ill-prepared for the demands they would face from "Mike," (the pseudonym he uses in the book to protect the boy's privacy) from the moment the youngster arrived in 1993.

"The reason we didn't immediately send him back is that we had six children already," says Miniter, 55, a manufacturing consultant who, along with his wife, also owned and managed a country inn at the time. "It wasn't our nature to send one back."

Actually, many of the child care professionals quoted in the book kept reminding the couple of how they were on a "honeymoon" because Robert wasn't behaving worse. And the couple's frustration was often not so much what he did, as the inexplicableness of his behavior.

Often, the Miniters had to play detective to find out what was bothering the child so much that he'd destroy his room, refuse to do anything but watch TV, or punch out a window (which he ended up doing about 50 times).

"It's the hardest thing we've ever done," Miniter says. "People ask, 'Would you do it again?' The answer is yes and no and yes and no. It depends on when you catch us."

Before Robert arrived, his social workers openly referred to him as "unplaceable," Miniter recalls. He regularly assaulted staff at the facility where he was housed. He was uncooperative, and suicidal.

As a child, he had been severely neglected -- not bathed, fed, or dressed regularly -- and was once beaten into a coma. The physical scars had healed. The emotional ones ran far deeper.

"In retrospect, I really don't know who would have kept him considering the types of behaviors he was doing," says Joanne Dalbo, a family specialist with Harbour, the non-profit agency that placed Mike with the Miniters. "Their tenacity was unbelievable."

Miniter's book is drawn from the diary he kept during Robert's year with the family. Its title is derived from the 3-item list the child once wrote of the things he wanted most in life: "A family. A fishing pole. A family."

Charm, it turns out, is something the blond-haired boy could turn on from time to time. The Miniters soon discovered Robert had an affinity for their dogs, a talent for cooking, and was far brighter than the "experts" had judged.

"In a lot of ways, he was always a winning character," Miniter says.

Miniter's own, mostly grown-up children were initially skeptical of their parents' ambition to bring in a foster child. Some never got particularly close to Robert that year. There were moments of jealousy and anger in their encounters with the boy.

"It was a very personal, very emotional time," says Susanne Warren, 31, the Miniters' daughter and one of the family members who initially opposed the placement. "It's a little difficult to read (the book). You are reminded of the emotion of it."

The Miniters also ran afoul of the authorities. They decd to take Robert off his medication and enroll him in a mainstream school despite protests from Dalbo and others. Both choices end up working out, but only after some struggles.

"Sometimes, it was like, 'Oh, God,'" recalls Dalbo. "I'd wince, but I felt like these were the people hanging in there and doing this. They needed to do what they felt they needed to do."

But it was a close call. There are times when Sue Miniter was left sobbing on her bed. Rich Miniter, an ex-Marine, made his share of wrong choices -- like waving a test in Robert's face (the boy is deathly afraid of failure) to scare him. It caused him to retreat into a veritable zombie state for days.

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