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A Milwaukee Couple Changes Lives — One Child at a Time

2011-08-22_rudolph_family_psNo one wants to see a child torn away from family. So when a state takes custody of an abused or neglected child, welfare officials should always give the highest priority to reunifying that kid with his or her parents.

But that’s not always possible.

As foster parents, Kia Woda-Rudolph and her husband, Joe, have experienced the deep satisfaction of providing a short-term haven for two children who needed to feel loved and safe while their parents’ turbulent lives settled.

That fact alone earns Kia and Joe respect and admiration for meeting a vital need in the foster care community. This couple from Milwaukee, though, went further. They knew there were too many kids who couldn’t go back home, who desperately needed a secure, stable home and a loving, permanent family.

So Kia and Joe opened that door, too.

First came Tony, about 11 years ago, when he was just over a year old. His birth mother was 16 — really a kid herself — and her family simply couldn’t take care of Tony. He’s had his ups and downs growing up, says Kia, but Tony’s very smart and enjoys the things many boys his age do: football, video games, and watching scary movies.

Lily Ann joined the family when she was just two days old. She tested positive for cocaine when she was born, but you wouldn’t know it today. The eight-year-old, who loves Irish folk dancing, pom-poms, and doing arts and crafts, is thriving. Lily Ann still maintains a strong connection with her Ojibwe birth family and their shared Native American heritage.

Mariana, three and a half, legally became the newest Rudolph just months ago, though she’s lived with the family since she was 11 months old. Her birth mother suffers from extreme mental health issues; her biological father is incarcerated but sends “Mari” letters regularly. Ultimately, they decided Mari would be better off with her new family.

Kia and Joe feel that as long as it’s appropriate, maintaining a connection with the birth parents is important, because, Kia says, “Without all the pieces they won’t have peace.” She somehow finds free time to take that mindset outside their home, serving as an officer for Voices United, an organization that supports foster, adoptive, and kinship care families.

The Rudolphs have long understood that children in foster care ultimately need to be with families — preferably their own, but an adoptive family when reunification isn’t possible. And Kia and Joe know that while kids wait for their permanent home, they need to be protected and safe, with all their physical and mental health needs addressed in a safe, stable home.

These are simple civil rights that deserve the protection of the courts — and they lay at the heart of our reform campaign in Milwaukee. Transforming a foster care system takes a long time, and Milwaukee has made admirable progress on numerous fronts. But we hope to see continued focus on limiting the number of placements children experience, in part by safely reunifying children with their parents more quickly.

Securing these unalienable rights for kids is the centerpiece of our mission at Children’s Rights. We’re about to launch an unprecedented nationwide push to focus public attention on the problems in foster care and build a movement that focuses on dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

Soon we’ll be asking you to join us, to stand up and say with conviction that every child in foster care deserves people like Kia and Joe.