At age 3, Melissa Wontroba of Uniontown was placed in foster care, changing the trajectory of her life and leading her to become an advocate for children in similar situations.
“Some people are not capable to take care of their children,” she said, adding that the majority of cases are drug-related followed by abuse and neglect of children. “Almost every circumstance (of child placement in foster care) is extremely necessary.”
Adopted by her foster family at age 6, Wontroba’s story is one of success: growing up in a stable home, following in her adoptive mom’s footsteps to become a nurse.
“I was brought up in a loving and happy home,” she said. “I was never labeled as the foster kid or treated any differently than my parents’ biological children.”
Wontroba said some people labor under the false notion that child welfare workers want to take people’s children away.
“It’s not an easy decision a judge has to make to place children in foster care — they have to look at every option,” Wontroba said.
Unfortunately, said Fayette County Children and Youth Services Deputy Administrator John Fritts, there are times that removing a child from the home is the only option.
Even when that happens, child welfare workers endeavor to place children in homes with other family members.
Fritts said out of that 314 children removed from homes by court order in 2017, 73 were placed in traditional foster homes, 88 children were placed in paid kinship foster home, which means they moved in with a relative. Another 128 children were placed into unpaid kinship care, and 25 children were placed in congregate care, which means the child is placed in a group or residential homes.
During that year, the average child had 1.43 placements in 2017 with some children moving up to four times.
“Out of the 314 children in care, there were actually 450 placements,” Fritts said. “Each time a child is moved, additional trauma occurs.”
While foster placements cause trauma and fear for children, Wontroba said that foster parents, and those who adopt foster children, also carry concerns and worries.
She recounted a meeting with two potential foster parents, during which one parent shared a fear over someday telling a soon-to-be-adopted child that they’re adopted.
“They’re afraid that once the child finds out they’re adopted that they’ll automatically go running to find their birth parents,” Wontroba said.
While she acknowledged that she had been curious to learn about her biological parents, Wontroba never felt the urge to seek them out.
When she turned 18, she was able to see her file and learn about the circumstances that placed her in foster care. She looked at the file knowing that terminating parental rights and allowing a child to be adopted by foster parents is a step not taken lightly by the courts.
“I could have lived without knowing,” she said. “Learning about my birth parents made me not want to track them down.”
In fact, it made her more appreciative of her adoptive parents.
“Blood is definitely not thicker than water. I would not be the person I am today without them,” she said.
Six years ago, at age 17, Wontroba became the youngest person ever to be appointed to the Fayette County CYS Advisory Board, which makes recommendations on distributing funds for children in foster care.
It’s a role she took seriously.
“I was extremely blessed to have the opportunity,” she said.
Wontroba drew on her experience in the foster system, and said she found that she had to make her normally quiet voice heard to the board.
“If you haven’t lived through it, you really don’t know what it’s like,” she said.
She said she was devastated when the board voted to stop funding an annual trip to Idlewild Park for foster children and parents.
“That trip made us feel we weren’t alone in the world,” she said, adding that it was the only time some kids in foster care could go on such an outing.
Another situation involved the foster mother of a girl in care asking the board to fund the child’s dance lessons. The board decided against doing so. While it may not have felt like a necessity, Wontroba said it was likely one for the family and the child.
“The subsidies foster parents receive normally only covers food and necessities for the children and not much for anything else,” Wontroba said.
While she was heartbroken over the foster parent not receiving dance money, she celebrated the Idlewild trip being brought back for a couple of years with discounted tickets, and the board funding an annual picnic at a local park.
Her time on the board also made her realize that money issues can cause restrictions and tough decisions, but she still doesn’t want to shy away from adding her voice to support a cause close to her heart.
“I love the board and everything it stands for,” Wontroba said. “CYS is an organization that has changed my life for the better, and I will always be involved in different ways.”