When foster becomes family
The Gross family gathers at the adoption ceremony on May 26 for Xavier Gross, 10. Front row, from left, are Kristin Stamm, Pamela and Xavier Gross. Back from left are Nate Gross, Jose Ortiz, Isaiah Atwell, Nicholas Chambers, Honorable J. Brian Johnson, Kevin and Yahiro (J.J) Marerro. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
"I fell in love."
These three words simply explain why Pamela Gross and her husband, Kevin, became legal guardians of two foster children and adoptive parents of another.
After raising two children and building a home large enough for them and for Kevin's mother, the Grosses had two extra bedrooms, so they decided to enter the complicated world of foster care.
They took one step further on May 26 when they adopted Xavier, age 10.
No love at first sight
Pamela and Kevin, married for 29 years, have been foster parents for the past five and a half years and have taken a total of 18 children at various times into their home. One stayed for just a week, while another remained in their care for five years.
"Most foster parents want very young children, especially girls," Pamela said. "We have taken older boys, most over the age of 12. Kevin would tell you he's not that comfortable with infants or very young children."
Pamela describes a foster child who first comes into their home as "scared to death" and often "very defiant." No matter how bad their lives were before, most of these children still want to live with their biological families.
"It's difficult at first," Pamela said. "Kevin and I set boundaries and rules that these kids have never had before.
"You never know what to expect," Kevin said. "We've had a heroin addict who stole money and a gold watch from us and tried to constantly sneak out of the house to get his fix."
Kevin spoke of another 13-year-old boy who was too dangerous to keep in their home.
"The first thing he says to us is, 'what do I have to do to get you to call 911 so I can get out of here?' " Kevin said.
"He grabbed a knife and started to stab the wall behind him. He threatened my wife when she told him to put the knife down. We had to call the agency and have him removed."
The biological parents are incapable of caring for these children due to a number of reasons that include poverty, substance abuse, imprisonment and irresponsibility. There are nearly 15,000 foster children in Pennsylvania.
At age 18, foster children "age out" of the system and can go out on their own. Their independence from the system often has negative consequences. One in four suffer joblessness, substance abuse, anxiety disorders or criminal behavior.
Three times a charm
Kevin and Pamela have had many sleepless nights worrying about some of their foster children running away, but there are the good stories, too. They currently have guardianship of Jose, 21, and Nick, 19, and have adopted Xavier, 10. Add two foster children, Jose's brother, JJ, and Isaiah, andthere's no more room left in the inn.
Nick came to the Gross home five years ago. Unlike many others, he adjusted quickly to the house rules and the family way of life.
"Pamela and Kevin gave me the chance to do what I like to do - play football, basketball and track. I played them all at Lehighton high school and now I'm playing college football at Geneva College, where I'm majoring in criminal justice."
Nick aspires to be a state trooper. He was described by Pamela as "very quiet" when he first came to live with them, but he soon became comfortable and social.
Jose used the word "weird" to describe when he first arrived at the Gross house in Lehighton. It was his third foster home and he was only 15 at the time.
"I was used to being with Hispanic families in the Allentown area," he explained.
"Now I'm with a white family in the middle of nowhere. I only met Kevin at first because Pamela was away for a few days."
Jose got a "good vibe" from his first few days as he learned that Kevin and Pamela really cared about him. He currently works two jobs and has finished a year at Lehigh Carbon Community College. He intends to transfer to major in international business because, as he put it, "I love to travel."
Xavier came to Pamela and Kevin two and a half years ago.
"He was a hyperactive and defiant street kid," Pamela said.
"It took some therapy and medication, but Xavier finally settled down. Now he can control his anger."
Patience and imperfection
With two biological children, Kristen and Nathaniel, raised and now independent, two older boys under guardianship, one young adoptee, and two foster kids currently under the Gross roof, one has to wonder what it requires for anyone to take on such an extraordinary challenge and responsibility.
"Patience," answered Kevin, who admits he has had some regrets over the five foster years. "I'd also be lying if our experiences with a few of these children didn't put a strain on our marriage."
Pamela could write a book about her experiences with foster care.
"When they come in, you have to give them space, even though they're not allowed to be out of your sight. You have to give them structure in their lives, something they have never had. And you cannot push affection upon them. You work with them until there finally comes the time to make a trust agreement. You rely on their trust when they get to be more independent and can leave the house at night for social events."
At the time when a frightened or angry young foster care boy walks into their home, Pamela's greeting is short, but to the point.
"We are here to be your parents. We are not perfect and neither are you, so accept the fact that we all will make some mistakes while we try to get along."
Apparently, Pamela and Kevin Gross have been perfect enough to earn the trust and respect from three foster children they can now call their own.
The proof lies in Jose's words spoken from his heart.
"I want to have my own family someday, and I will care for my children and teach them to never give up on themselves."