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"Ricardos Village"

A FaceTime call on a Friday afternoon ended a tense two days.  On one end of the phone was a social worker with a sign that read, "Happy Early Birthday - You Were Adopted Today." On the other end was an adoptive parent and a youth, both who broke down into tears. "Ricardo" was adopted 5 minutes before the Juvenile Court ended its proceedings, in a closed session on the other side of the state, 1 day before his 18th birthday during the COVID-19 pandemic. His adoption certificate was hand delivered by his DCF social worker, Cindi Putney, wearing Personal Protective Equipment.

This is a story of a long journey during which a "village" of supports came together to assist a young man in finding his permanent home. It is also about "permanency" in a different way, describing the lifelong relationship established between a DCF worker and an adoptive parent who forever will be joined by loss, devotion, career dreams, a broken tie rod and a cardinal that appeared in a tree.

Read on about "Ricardo's Village."

As a young child, life did not go quite as planned for Ricardo. The early losses and an uncertain future he endured manifested in multiple ways. To support him, the Department partnered with the Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) program administered by Family and Children's Aid (FCA) in Danbury. Designed for youth requiring a higher level of supports, the TFC program is one of many the Department of Children and Families contracts with as part of public/private partnerships in the community.

Enter Mindy Solomon, FCA Program Supervisor, who become one of the constants in Ricardo's life. Working with Ricardo since he was 11 years of age allowed her to see his strengths and the connections he required. When Mindy first met Ricardo, he was a scared little boy who would urinate in his foster parent's shoes with the hopes this would lead to his return home.

Could Mindy have imagined his adoption day years later? What would Mindy's message be about the work with our youth? "Worth it. All days are worth it," she said.

As his time in care went on, it was clear Ricardo was in need of permanency. The right family. Enter another member of Ricardo's village- Shantel Dubois.

Growing up in a difficult neighborhood in New York, Shantel decided to become a foster parent after seeing her own mother take in her friends who at times were homeless and hungry. Her mother became their mother. Foster care is "my calling," she stated and has been a "blessing for me."

Shantel is known for teaching much-needed life skills to the youth who enter her family. As a foster parent for 7 years, she has cared for over 10 children. To each, she brings the balance of nurturing and consistency. "Her heart is absolutely in this for children," according to Mindy. She is "genuine and authentic."

With supports from FCA and Shantel's experience, the match and placement were made.

A key member of Ricardo's village is Cindi Putney. Described by her colleagues as a "true social worker," this 26-year veteran of the Department of Children and Families views her life's work as more than just a job. She is humble and embodies inherent values - not ones able to be taught or learned - into each action with a child and family.

Cindi has worked with Ricardo and Shantel for 18 months. According to Shantel, "she was meant to come into our lives." Mindy describes Cindi as "amazing" and, in regards to Ricardo, "pushed for his best interests in everything."

It was Cindi who advocated, did not give up and, despite Ricardo being an older youth in care, clearly stated it is "so not true" that adolescents cannot be adopted. She recognized the permanency he required to be successful. "When she advocates for a kid, she advocates," according to Shantel.

Repeated permanency conversations occurred with Ricardo and his team during which "everything was put on the table," according to Mindy.  She encourages anyone who takes part in those conversations to ask all questions since some barriers to permanency may not be obvious and we should not assume what others are thinking - especially when it comes to adolescents.

After years of support, closure on past issues and the clarification of his relationships moving forward, it was Ricardo who stated, "I want to be adopted." Pause for a moment - an adolescent who wants to be adopted? Unique given he was now 17 years of age.

The adoption paperwork started in the Summer of 2019.

During that time, the relationship between Cindi and Shantel became more than just a DCF worker and an adoptive parent. They supported each other as Shantel lost her mother and Cindi lost her husband. "We cried and hugged," said Cindi. Shantel described how when Cindi was out of work after her husband's death, she "still called me and asked what I needed." Two women, so strong.

It was Cindi who pushed Shantel to go back to school and earn her bachelor's degree in Human Services to pursue her dream of setting up a program for pregnant teenagers. When speaking of the example Cindi has set, Shantel clearly stated Cindi. "would be the worker that I would want to be. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Unexpected barriers took place which caused the adoption process to be delayed. According to Shantel, "things just kept happening." Uncertainly loomed into Spring 2020. Could the adoption be achieved during the pandemic? Ricardo would turn 18 years of age in May. Would it be finalized?

Cindi continued to think, "this was his mom" and "something they wanted." She was determined more than ever to get this done.

Ricardo's village now extended to multiple staff within the Waterbury DCF office, DCF Central Office Adoption and Subsidy Unit, the private provider community, the Attorney General's Office and the Judicial Department (See Ricardo's "Village," - everyone who assisted with his adoption). According to Cindi, "they were amazing." His team was able to secure a date for the adoption to be finalized - a Friday afternoon closed hearing in a court on the other side of the state.

Cindi was "full of emotions" and even "panic stricken" leading up to his adoption day. Shantel stated her "stomach was in knots" and called Cindi Friday morning waiting for the news whether or not the Judge signed the paperwork.

Then came the text message on Cindi's phone with the picture of the signed Adoption Certificate! Then the FaceTime call to Ricardo and Shantel - reducing both to tears.

Ricardo was adopted!

The celebration the following day was complete with a sign in the front yard which read "Happy Birthday and Adoption Day" adding to the mini parade down his street with cars honking and other signs.

An 18-year old young man adopted one day before his birthday.

There was also more to that day…………….

Cindi was almost late given the tie rod broke on her wheel close to Shantel's house, disabling her vehicle. No barrier could stop her from celebrating or, as we saw, from having Ricardo adopted.

In a quiet moment, Shantel was asked what she would like to say to Cindi. Through tears her message was, "I love you Cindi. We love you. Thank you."

As the day ended, a cardinal, known as a representative of a loved one who has passed, appeared in a tree close to where Cindi was standing. "That was my husband and Shantel's mom," Cindi reflects back.

Ricardo's Village …………….