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'One child led to 132': Hawthorn Woods couple finds spiritual rewards in foster care

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 10/3/2017 By Frank S. Abderholden, Chicago Tribune
Susan Vrenios of Hawthorne Woods smiles at one of the two babies under a year old she cares for as a foster mother through UCAN, which helps DCFS take care of wards of the state. © Frank Abderholden/Chicago Tribune/TNS Susan Vrenios of Hawthorne Woods smiles at one of the two babies under a year old she cares for as a foster mother through UCAN, which helps DCFS take care of wards of the state.

HAWTHORN WOODS, Ill. - Susan Vrenios held the baby boy, less than 6 months old, in her arms as the infant cooed and flashed his big heart-melting smile.

Over the span of nearly 30 years as a foster parent, Vrenios has become a pro tending to infants and children in the care of the state. Vrenios and her husband, Tom, so far have touched the lives of 132 kids, including two children the couple adopted into their own family.

"We couldn't keep them all," the 53-year-old Vrenios said with a laugh. "They don't make cars for 132 kids."

For the past 10 years, Vrenios and her husband have worked with UCAN, which is one of 70 social service agencies that work with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services helping at-risk children.

"Foster parents like Vrenios provide stable and nurturing care for youth whose world has been upended by loss, abuse or neglect, and whose families have been unable to safely care for them," according to Derrick Baker, vice president, marketing communications for UCAN.

According to DCFS statistics, as of July there were 13,953 children either in foster or relative care, institutional homes or group homes after being removed for abuse or neglect. DCFS licenses foster homes, and private agencies such as UCAN license their own foster homes.

UCAN is headquartered in Chicago's North Lawndale community, and has other offices around Chicago, along with the one in Vernon Hills, Baker said. UCAN currently has about 170 foster homes, Baker said. About 65 of them are in Lake and McHenry counties, and the agency is always looking for more foster parents, he said.

Foster parents receive a stipend from the state to support the youths in their homes, with the amount varying from $500 to $2,200 depending on the needs of each child, Baker said.

"It's important that you want to take care of children," Nancy Hencier, who is based out of UCAN's Vernon Hills office, said.

Hencier said it takes four to six months to become a licensed foster parent, and candidates must undergo a background check and fingerprinting.

"I'm always looking for foster parents. Once we place one child we need another foster parent," she said.

According to information posted at UCAN's website, the organization began in the 1860s at the start of the Civil War when St. Pauls United Church of Christ decided it would take care of the children of fallen soldiers and in 1869, after a piece of property was donated for a permanent home, the state legislature incorporated the Uhlich Evangelical Lutheran Orphan Asylum.

Today UCAN serves approximately 10,000 at-risk children, youth and families in Illinois. They offer more than 30 programs to either prevent violence, help children aging out of the system deal with independent living, workforce development, support for pregnant teens, youth leadership classes and foster care placement.

The agency tries to help affected youth through their therapeutic youth home and they run a K-12 therapeutic day school. Clinical and counseling services are provided as well as help with regular medical issues.

"Whether it's our adolescent program, specialized foster care or traditional foster care, UCAN has a strong track record. It is not easy work," UCAN President and CEO Zack Schrantz said in a statement about the professional fostering program in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

"We know that sometimes family dynamics can change with the addition of a new person in the household. Some young people may come with physical, mental health or developmental challenges that a family may not be prepared to handle," added Schrantz, who himself has been a foster parent for nearly seven years.

UCAN staff members provide Vrenios and other foster parents with services and support to direct them in support foster youths while their family works to overcome the circumstances that led to them being placed outside of their homes, Baker said.

On this day, Vrenios is in Vernon Hills because one of the babies she is fostering has an appointment to spend time with a parent. In the meantime, Vrenios, takes the other baby to the doctor for a check up.

Foster parenting seemed to come to Vrenios naturally, she said.

"We had no children of our own, and we felt very blessed by life. We wanted to give back, so we decided to become foster parents, and one child led to 132," Vrenios said.

"My husband and I have also had 12- and 13-years-olds, up to age 18," she added, saying the "reaction to foster care varies widely" from child to child.

"They can be scared or happy and excited. (They) want this new norm, because the old norm was neglect and abuse," she said. "It's very different for every child."

Even newborns babies are traumatized when separated from their biological family, she said.

"It's still considered trauma," she said. "Any baby requires a lot of patience and calm parenting. You feel like you had a part in helping this infant."

With babies, "My focus is largely, 98 percent, just nurturing," Vrenios added.

Vrenios said UCAN is very strong about advocating for the parents, and it is always working in the best interest of the child.

"No parent wants their child in foster care," she said. "That's a safe assumption. As part of the team, you assure the parent that foster family is a temporary home until they can get back on their feet. You work together for the health of their child.

"And then you say goodbye. That's a real hard one. But now there is a healthy, happy child and a family reunited."

Contact with biological parents varies by each case. The agency sets up the visit and foster parents provide a note to the parent telling them how the week went and what is new with their child.

"This agency encourages the contact, but they are realistic," she said.

For one of her babies, the parent, a father, will visit twice a week with his son at the Vernon Hills office.

"That relationship has continued to grow," she said.

Susan Vrenios of Hawthorne Woods smiles at one of the two babies under a year old she cares for as a foster mother through UCAN, which helps DCFS take care of wards of the state. © Frank Abderholden/Chicago Tribune/TNS Susan Vrenios of Hawthorne Woods smiles at one of the two babies under a year old she cares for as a foster mother through UCAN, which helps DCFS take care of wards of the state.

"My husband and I see the need and value in there being good foster parents," she added. "When it has been appropriate and with guidance from our UCAN case manager, we have enjoyed our involvement with the birth parents. Often times, it has led to a healthier relationship between child, foster parent and birth parent.

"I feel there is nothing better than helping children for a brighter tomorrow," Vrenios said. "You understand the goal is a mature healthy adult."

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