WILTON MANORS — They endured months of training, piles of paperwork, background checks and lengthy court trials. They navigated a complex system of judges, case workers and lawyers.
When Cheryl and Stephen Ramich recount their 18-month journey to adopt their daughter, Bryn, they talk about the sleepless nights, the endless phone calls, the waiting.
Then, their 4-year-old starts laughing during her favorite part of The Wizard of Oz – and they smile.
Looking at her daughter, Cheryl Ramich says, “She’s just …’’ Then she pauses, groping for words. “She’s just great. We just enjoy every little thing she does. She’s perfect for us.’’
The Ramichs, of Boynton Beach, are among hundreds of South Florida couples who serve as licensed foster care parents through Kids in Distress, a Wilton Manors-based agency dedicated to caring for South Florida’s abused and neglected children.
The center provides a variety of services, including a therapeutic preschool, family counseling, prevention services and a residential center for children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.
One recent afternoon, the Ramichs sat in one of the playrooms at Kids in Distress, surrounded by toys and stuffed animals. Bryn, wearing pigtails and a pink Hello Kitty shirt, bounded around the room, occasionally stopping her play to leap into her mother’s arms. The Ramichs tried having their own children through fertility treatments.
“We didn’t get very far with that,’’ said Stephen Ramich, 48, who owns a property management company.
“We really wanted to have kids, but they didn’t necessarily have to be our own.’’
The couple decided to become foster parents, enrolling in a licensing process that takes about six months.
Bryn ended up in the Ramichs home in January 2005 as an infant. Her mother, a prostitute and mother of six, lost custody while battling a crack addiction.
At first, the Ramichs thought the 7-month-old’s stay in their home was short-term, but then they fell in love with the baby and decided to adopt her.
Over the next year and a half, the couple went to court hearing after court hearing as the agency completed the process of terminating the mother’s parental rights.
Cheryl Ramich is a guardian ad litem, which is a volunteer appointed by the court to protect the rights and advocate the best interests of a child involved in a court proceeding. She said it was a harrowing experience having the courts decide the fate of a child they had embraced as their own.
“I felt so scared,’’ the 46-year-old said. “It’s mind-numbing to have to keep waiting like that.”
But the Ramichs say the stress doesn’t compare to the joys of raising Bryn, a sweet-natured child who loves gymnastics and singing in the church choir.
The couple is repeating the process: They are in the middle of adopting a 20-month-old boy. The South Florida Times is not publishing that child’s name because that adoption has not been finalized.
Stephen Ramich said the process is easier the second time around.
“There are certain things you can control and some things you can’t control,’’ he said. “You just have to let it go and calm down and let things happen.’’
Cheryl Ramich countered: “But at the same time, you have to be pushing because you are the one who knows what the child needs.’’
The fight for custody of the boy sometimes keeps her awake at night, she said.
“I lay awake thinking, ‘He could be gone,’ “ she said, referring to the child they are trying to adopt. “That’s what makes me insane. Where would he be if he was not with us? What would his life be like? We can’t think about it too much. We look at him, and he’s ours.’’
Kids in Distress Executive Vice President Ellyn Okrent said more families like the Ramichs are needed to provide loving homes for children caught in the system. The agency recruits, trains, and supports foster families in Broward and Palm Beach counties. “Foster parents are very special people,” Okrent said. “They are the foundation of the child welfare system.”
The children in need of foster care are starving for stability, she added.
“Bonding and trust are some of the basic things that a human learns as a child,” Okrent said. “Most children believe that it’s their fault. They think, ‘How can I not be loved by my mom?’ or ‘How can my parents let this happen to me?’ A lot of people think that because these kids are little that it’s not a big deal, but it’s a very big deal.”
For more information about Kids in Distress or how to become a foster parent, call 954-390-7654, ext 1287 or visit www.kidsindistress.org.
Pictured above: Cheryl and Stephen Ramich, left, embrace their daughter, Bryn Ramich, who is also pictured at right. (Photos by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff)