Irene Kish Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /
Irene Kish with a child in foster care Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

One hundred and five children have called Irene Kish mom — so far.

Already the parents of three adopted children, she and her husband decided to become foster parents as well after reading a story in a local newspaper about homeless children living under a bridge near her home.

And when one of her first foster children was diagnosed with a severe medical condition – unknown to her and the Department of Children and Families when he was placed – she decided to get the training she needed to enable him to stay in her home.

Twenty-two years later, she has taken in 105 children in crisis to live with her family. Most have severe mental health or medical conditions.

She’s thought about not taking in any more foster children, she says, but she eventually comes around.

It’s a good thing, because Kish is a foster mom in a state that is desperate for capable people willing to take in children who have no other safe place to live.

Connecticut has been under federal court oversight for 25 years for failing too many abused and neglected children that need help. Attempts to increase the number of foster families — an effort to reduce the number of vulnerable children who need costly and sometimes impersonal group home care —  have regularly fallen short.

The Mirror sat down with this mom at her home in Watertown to hear her story.

What’s your typical day like?

I get up at six and I go to bed at 11 and I am constantly running. I have so many things going on with all the kids and school activities and all of that. Our school buses start going out at 10 minutes of seven. But those are just my teenagers.

I also have my son, Jamie. He is 31 and he still lives here. We have Shaun who’s going to be 21 in July and Brendan who is going to be 16 years old in August. So those are my older kids. I have three children who have moved out. I have 10 children altogether.

Our oldest daughter, who’s 38, and then her brother is also 38. She is our biological daughter and we adopted her brother from Romania. Our 31-year-old is from Korea. Our 26-year-old is also from Romania.

Our 23, 21, 16, two 10-year-old twins and our 5-year-old are all from DCF. They all have medical and mental health issues. I am a medically complex foster parent. Our 10-year-old twin has a heart condition, a tracheostomy, and she has a muscle disorder. She has an airway disorder and she also has mental health issues. Her twin sister just has mental health issues. She’s healthy.

Our 5-year-old has a seizure disorder.

Our 16-year-old was a shaken baby. They told us he would never walk, never talk, never hear, never see – and now he is a straight-A student and he does all the above. Yes, he’s our miracle Brendan. You know we adopted him and they all thought that he was the worst shaken baby that they had seen. He’s a great, great kid.

Why did you decide to become a foster mom?

We had Erika and we wanted more children. We adopted from Korea. We went back to Korea and our paperwork and everything was done and then Korea shut down and stopped doing adoptions.

Later we saw a 20-20 [TV] episode on Romania. So I packed up my bag and I went to Romania with my mother-in-law who had never flown, never been out of the New England area. My husband followed behind us. … Our daughter came from an orphanage.

And then when we came home, there was a family in our town living under a bridge and they needed a home for those kids. So I said to my husband, ‘You know what? Maybe we could help out our own community.’ Because we had already decided that we were not adopting any more children because after three kids, we were done.

That article in the Watertown paper about this family needing help and that their kids were going into the foster care system and they didn’t have a home got us thinking. So I said to my husband, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘We could try it.’

So we went through all the training and we got our first placement: three children. And I found out two days later that the little boy that I had could die within an hour because he had a very rare disorder. … His kidney and his intestines weren’t put together. So they did a procedure, but if he got an infection and it went into his blood he could die within an hour.

DCF called me up and they were like, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And they asked, ‘Well do you want to keep them or do you want to give them up?’ But I decided, how can I leave them? I mean, they’ve already been moved from their parents and that’s just heart wrenching. So we said, ‘Yes. We would keep them.’

So I had to go to some medically complex classes for training. I did it with two other women in the community here. It’s kind of a generalization of all different kinds of things that you could have in your home, like a tracheostomy, asthma, seizures, all those kinds of things. And it was something that I knew nothing about.

What are some of the challenges you face?

It was scary. It was very, very scary for me…. He looked like ET. He had skinny, skinny arms and skinny, skinny legs. He was abused horribly by the parent. He had this big, big stomach with a big scar across it and I asked when they brought him to me, I asked if there was anything wrong with this little boy? They told me he was fine. Two days later he was not fine.

And so his first infection, he was very off, had a little tiny fever and he was like wiggling. And so I called the doctor and I said, ‘You know, I think something’s wrong.’ So I brought him in. Little did I know when you bring him in you can sit in the ER for 10, 12, 14 hours. And so they were like, “We’re not really sure. So we would like to keep him overnight.”

Okay, so now I have my kids at home, plus the other two foster kids. I called my husband and said, “I’m stuck here.”

As time went on he was put on a liver transplant list, but he was moved by that point to a pre-adoptive family because we didn’t adopt those three children. Those three children had significant, significant issues. They were so horribly, horribly abused. It just wasn’t a fit. I mean, we talked about adopting him. But as time went on, the drugs that she did and the issues that those kids had. He would come up, I’d be like cooking and he would come up to me and bite me in the leg and my husband would have to like pry his jaw off of me. The little girl would start stripping and stripping and trying to open up the door while I was driving and throwing her clothes and her shoes at me. They had just had a lot. They asked if we wanted to adopt them, but we just couldn’t do it.

How many children have called you mom?

We’ve had 105 foster children. Our baby in there is our 105th foster child in 22 years. Maybe 75 percent of them are children with medical issues. I have got a lot of emergency calls, ‘Can you take this child? We’re going to try to find a home for the kid.’ So those were short-term, maybe three days, eight days, 10 days, and then they would move on to a relative placement or pre-adoptive placement. So there were some short-term ones in there, but there were a lot of long-term ones.

At one point in time I had a little boy who was from the Department of Mental Retardation. He was deprived of oxygen to the brain. He was 6 months old. They had tried suffocating him and drowning him. And I also had a little girl who had dextrocardia, who had 13 meds a day, three shots a day. And then I had my own kids.

There were times when we got our twins, I had three other foster kids, so I had five foster kids.

At one point in time in our little tiny house in Oakville, we had 12 kids in our house. We haven’t always lived here [in Watertown]. We only moved here six years ago because my mom lives downstairs and I take care of her, too. She’s 88. She’s slowing down, but the baby that we have right now — she came for a respite for the weekend and then didn’t go home.  My mom just adores her and, so she feeds them. She holds them. She rocks them. She’s very helpful.

Matt, one of our 10 year old twins, is extremely close to my mother. So every morning she makes her breakfast and gets her coffee, and they sit and they talk before the bus comes and so on.

There’s a big push for DCF to keep more children with their relatives. Do you have an opinion on that? Do your children have relationships with their families?

My girls have a relationship with their whole paternal family and their dad.

We have the most fabulous relationship with them and their grandmother has become one of my best friends. She comes on every trip with us. She comes to every holiday.

And now their dad and his new wife, who is just a dream, do a lot with us also. They’ll actually be here for our picnic Sunday. He’s a good kid, you know, who went down the wrong path. We said to him, ‘When you want to see them, if you’re going to behave and do what you need to do, then, yeah you can see them. And if you screw up you’re done.’ And of course he hasn’t screwed up.

I will tell you that I think as long as the relatives are OK – because sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – I would say I think that it’s a fantastic situation to keep those relationships.

Brendan has a relationship with his maternal side. … The girls have a relationship with the paternal side, and our 5-year-old has a relationship with his three half-brothers and their dad. I think those kids are much more grounded; they have a better sense of their roots. And my other two kids do not have a relationship. And you can see that difference.

For a very long time, Shane wanted a relationship with his mother. And then all of a sudden he’s not really all that interested. I told him if you want the relationship I can find her. It’s not hard. All of her kids are in care, so I’m sure I could find out. …

Shane was almost 3 when he came here, and he could soothe, feed and comfort and change a diaper because he was the parent in the house at almost three.

Do your children ask about their biological families?

My son’s 31, and he really doesn’t want to go back to Korea. He doesn’t want to know anything about his biological parents. And I ask him sometimes, “What does it feel like,’ and he goes ‘I don’t know. you’re my mom and dad and that’s all that matters to me.’

My son Christian has a relationship with his family in Romania and goes and visits.

My daughter Julia, I don’t know that she would ever be able to find them. But there may be a day that Julia may be ready to see where she is from, and I will take her so she can see where she lived. Things may have changed tremendously in all those years, but it’s still something for her to have a vision of where she came from…

I try very very, very hard to work with the biological parents and give them the opportunity to get to know who I am and let them see their child with me and if they’re appropriate. I’ve had numerous biological family members in my home. And I think it’s just so much nicer.

I got a little boy and he was pretty medically complex. He had a heart condition and his parents didn’t believe in the medication that he needed so that he wouldn’t stroke out. And unfortunately he had a stroke and he ended up in foster care.

And so when I had him he didn’t speak. He didn’t talk to us. He was angry. He was 4. He didn’t speak. And finally DCF asked us if we would be willing to do visits with the family. And I said ‘yes, I don’t see any harm it it.’

I always take their word for their determination whether a family is OK. I don’t feel that any biological parent, I hope to say, is bad – a lot of them are just in a really bad place and they don’t have a lot of resources or help. So I went to this visit and we get out of the car and he sees his mother, father and grandfather and he is talking up a storm.

I am like, ‘He speaks’ … We got back in the car, and he is quiet as a mouse. Two or three weeks went by, and at the fourth visit, I was standing behind him and he was looking at his mother and he said to her, ‘So, ma. Is it okay if I call that lady ma? Everybody in that house calls her mom.’ I thought this poor girl was going to have a heart attack. I mouthed, ‘Just say yes, it’s a word.’ She hesitated and said, ‘Okay. You can call her ma if you want.’

We got back in the car and that boy never stopped talking. He needed that approval from his parents that it was okay to speak to us. … When he left, he really was part of our family. But it was just a great, great reunification. It really was and it was well-deserved. Like we worked together as a team with him and the doctors and DCF and it worked out.

One of my kids, nobody believed in her dad. And so he came to me with tears in his eyes and a fishing hat on, long hair, tattoos – a big guy. He said, ‘I need your help. I have this whole envelope full of stuff I have to do and I don’t even know where to begin. But I want my baby back.’ And I said, ‘Okay I’ll help you.’

We went to the case review and the social worker was there and he said, ‘You know, we’re going to move this case from reunification to termination because he didn’t do what he needed to do.’ He slid the envelope over and the worker opened it up with his mouth wide open … And he got his baby back and he’s probably one of the best dads I’ve ever met.

Years later, we still talk. She’s a straight-A student. She’s going to college. She got a great scholarship. She’s just a great kid. And he did a great job with her. And there was a lot of people who didn’t believe in him. But I  feel like you have to give them a chance. They are just in a bad place.

When you get that call asking if can you take another child in, can you describe your thought process?

The matchers have a really tough job and I try to tell them where I am at. Like right now, I can take a child 4 or under because I don’t want to go above Aiden’s age … He’s got his spot and his spot is where he is comfortable.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I take babies because it’s easy. It is not an easy thing in respect of getting up in the middle of the night, all the doctor’s appointments, specialists… But you know in our family unit, it’s easy, because I have got a lot of hands and I have a lot of help.

Kish’s grandson helps by giving a pacifier to a baby in the foster care system.

I take care of my grandson, and my daughter is a teacher and so she comes every day to pick him up, and of course the minute she walks in it’s like ‘Where’s the baby?’ You know, her husband is also madly in love with the baby. … We have a big family. I have five siblings. And everybody’s got grandchildren and children, so it’s craziness. And if the baby starts screaming, I don’t even have to say, ‘Hey, go get the baby.’ Someone has already picked her up and brings her to me and goes, ‘What does she need? Do you want me to change her, rock her, feed her?’

What are your experiences with staff at DCF like?

I have a lot of respect for probably 85 percent of the workers at DCF. There’s a few here and there that just can’t do their job for whatever the case may be. I like to say you know, we’re not dealing with dog food bags here. We’re dealing with human beings and these are little kids whose lives are in chaos.

Do you and your husband also have jobs elsewhere?

My husband does. He’s a carpenter. But this is me, all my kids are taking my time. It’s their doctors appointments, dentist appointments, field day, anything that they are doing. My kids go to counseling – I go with them. Morgan and Mackenzie joined Girl Scouts. I had to go with them because her airway is still not good and her heart is… We have overnight nursing and home health aides. We have people in and out all the time. So when we moved in here, the neighbors must have thought we were crazy people. The oxygen people are coming. The pharmacy people are coming. The home nurse aides are coming.

My husband, he comes home and he still has a full-time job at home. Let me tell you, I can’t do this without my husband. He’s an amazing person. We share the chores. I cook. He does the dishes. I do baths. He does homework. I mean there’s always something going on. He does mostly all the outside work. …

He was very, very afraid of our daughter Morgan for the longest time. And I don’t blame him. I mean there are a lot of people who are afraid of working with her, and still are. The nurse at the schools panic over her. She’s got scary medical problems. And so it took my husband a really, really long time.

I mean she would have hospital stays that were like 14 days, that’s how sick she was. And one of those stays, we would talk to each other every night on the phone. And so one night I called him and asked how he was doing and he said, ‘Oh my God I am just overwhelmed.’ By that point I had been at the hospital seven days, so I asked if it is the laundry, the kids. He was working, getting everybody up and getting everybody situated… And he says to me, “No. That’s not it, Irene. I have to brush Mackenzie’s hair tomorrow and put it up.’

Kish’s busy calendar hangs in her kitchen during an interview in May.

And I said, ‘Really that’s why you were overwhelmed?’ And he says, ‘Yes. absolutely. She is going to go to school looking like a rag picker tomorrow and everyone is going to make fun of her.’ So I said, ‘Oh my God. If that’s the only thing that is bothering you out of all this time I have been gone, I mean really.’ I laugh about it now because it’s just so funny for that to be his overwhelming point.

Any opinions on whether the department and the state are spending enough, or too much, on the children in the foster care system?

My daughter’s airway is pretty much like an infant’s. So when she gets an infection, she can’t breathe. They’re going to do reconstructive airway surgery. But they’re waiting because of the budget cuts and because of insurance.

There was a time when they called me and said they’re not going to cover her heart medications. And I’m like, ‘She’ll die. What do you mean they are not going to cover her heart meds? Figure it out.’

You know, the nicest thing about our situation is the kids get medical from DCF until they’re 21. That’s our perk, and that’s a wonderful thing.

What is it like coordinating all their appointments and their health care?

At our doctor’s office in Torrington, we have a medical homes provider. They deal with the insurance companies. When a family like mine that’s like crazy busy and has all this stuff going on and they’re fighting the insurance company or they’re trying to get coverage for something from the insurance company and you’re constantly being put on hold and you’re constantly being moved to somebody else and they’re constantly telling you, ‘No you can’t do this.’ It’s just crazy.

Our medical home provider does all that fighting. If it comes to a hearing, then I would go and she comes with me. I have never had it get to a hearing because Litchfield County Pediatrics has a fantastic group of doctors and a medical homes provider.

When the pharmacy called and said the insurance company is denying my daughter’s heart medication, I said, ‘I’ll get right back to you.’ So, I called up Jan and told her we have a problem. In maybe four or five hours it was taken care of – which is fantastic.

This medical home group does things like respite for families with kids. They give stipends every year. It could be for a ramp, bathroom accessories for a handicap child… I think you just need to call them to participate.

(She picks up the phone, calls her medical home provider, confirms anyone can participate and gets the number other people in Connecticut may call to participate: 1-877-835-5788)

Do you have other support?

The three women that I went to training with, we started a group. … Now we have 15 families that are medically complex that get together once a month. And we also go away for three days to Lake George. It’s just a great feeling to have other people who are in the same situation as us because family doesn’t even get it. It’s very, very hard for family to understand why you are taking care of somebody else’s child.

Do you think there will come a day when you are ready to settle down, not care for children in foster care any more?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say. When it’s relicensing time, my worlker calls me and she goes, ‘I’m sending you re-licensing stuff. You can sit on it for a while.’

I have said to her numerous times that we’re done. I’m not doing it anymore. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just think, you know, it’s time for us to be done. Then, I go upstairs and I talk to my husband:, “Okay, so licensing is coming up and we’re done, right?’

And he  looks at me, like, I don’t know. And then here we go and I start to think. A couple of days pass and we decide how could we stop because we’re not doing it for us? We’re doing it for these kids who really need us. So, how can we say no? And so we just keep filling out the paperwork … It comes from your heart. If it’s not in your heart and it’s not something that you truly love, you can forget it. You’re done very, very, very quickly because it’s not easy. You are an open book to lawyers, to social workers, to investigations, to doctors – I hear constantly, ‘Tell me everything.’ Pretty much your life is an open book.

There are some some people out there who think foster parents do it for the money. Can we talk a little bit about that?

(Laughs) Sure. Oh God, we hear that all the time. I actually had a case aide come to this house when we first moved in and she said, ‘Wow, foster care has done you well.’ And I said, ‘No. I got an inheritance from my mother because we moved in together. My mother put the down payment on this house. But my husband works full time. We needed to have a home that had a huge family upstairs and an in-law suite downstairs.

So, I can tell you that if you figure out how much it is a day or an hour for a regular foster child, it’s like 5.5 cents an hour. And then for a medically-complex child it’s like 33 cents an hour. So 33 cents an hour, when you spend 14 days in the hospital with a foster child and your family is missing you – including Christmas Day when you are stuck in the hospital. … My sister came to the hospital at 5:30 in the morning so I could rush home and be here when the kids woke up and Santa Claus was here. I took my shower. I made breakfast for them and I headed back to the hospital.

Is there any advice that you would give to people who are considering following in your path?

I think it has to come from your heart. It isn’t about the money. Many, many people think that that’s the way to go. It’s not about the money, because whatever we do, yes, we spend that money, but it’s things for our children – vacations or, you know, there’s just so many expenses. Your kids grow so fast. You know you’re buying shoes, and you’re buying clothes. I mean just for us to go out for dinner it is easily $150. At Burger King it’s $80. It’s not a cheap thing to take care of kids.

We’re blessed that DCF will help out. But if that’s your main purpose — getting into this for the money — there’s way too much going on for that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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