Elena and Paul: 22 kids and counting
Jan. 30, 2024 | By Tita Parham
ORLANDO — It can be challenging raising one child. Imagine caring for 22. Elena Sciuto and Paul Mannix can and have.
The couple began fostering in 2015, and since then, nearly two dozen children have been placed in their home.
The two weren’t new to child raising when they began their foster care journey. Sciuto had been a foster parent before she met Mannix. She also has one boy and two girls of her own. Mannix brought two boys to their marriage. And after they started fostering together, they adopted two boys, bringing their brood to seven, ages 5 to 30.
Their household now includes their three youngest, ages 5, 7 and 16, and two foster kids, ages 2 and 4.
For Sciuto, a movie about foster care lit the spark. It included a number at the end for viewers to call if they were interested in fostering, so she did.
“I was working, happy, doing what everybody does, but then I’m thinking about what I should be doing with my life that’s meaningful,” Sciuto said. “I wanted to be part of the solution … to help kids and make sure they have a good future.”
For Mannix, the decision wasn’t as dramatic. He had always looked for ways to give back, but mostly with opportunities related to his professional life — he’s an engineer designing intelligent transportation systems. Those didn’t excite him.
Like Sciuto, he wanted to help children, so when they met, fostering seemed like a good fit.
During the past decade, it hasn’t always been easy, but the pair have learned a thing or two about caring for kids experiencing the child welfare system. One of the most important? Lose the expectations.
“When you first get a child, don’t expect anything,” Sciuto said. “Just listen to what the child is telling you.”
That’s what they did when an 18-month-old girl who could barely crawl and choked on anything other than baby food was placed with them.
Instead of expecting her to walk and eat solid foods like other kids her age, they paid attention to what she could do. After three days with them, they started giving her “real” food. They also researched how to improve her mobility and decided wearing padded “wings” would help her feel safe if she fell backwards, which she often did.
Their patience and persistence paid off. At 4 years old, she’s still a little behind developmentally, but with behavioral therapy every week at day care, she’s continuing to make strides.
“Sometimes these kids come with trauma, and we have to live through those things,” Sciuto said. “They’ve been through more than we can even imagine.”
Sciuto’s strategy? Ask what she would do if she were the child’s biological parent.
“This is the first thing I think the moment they come here,” she said. “They’re in our house, and we’re the parent right now, so we’re going to treat them like they’re ours and make sure they have everything they need.”
Mannix says it’s a lot of trial and error.
And that’s the approach they used with one child who wouldn’t go near a bathtub. For her, bathtime wasn’t a fun, before-bedtime ritual. It was terrifying.
They eventually learned the cause: Sophia (not her real name) had been intentionally burned in the bathtub, requiring a long hospital stay.
Finding a solution required some creative problem-solving. They bought a doll that came with a bathtub and encouraged Sophia to give it a bath. They invited her older sister to stay with them, and seeing her bathing lessened Sophia’s anxiety.
After several months, she was calm enough to take a bath.
Then there was the 2-year-old girl who had to leave her placement because the family said they couldn’t deal with her. Sciuto and Mannix became her new foster parents and began to realize her behavioral issues were an expression of frustration — she was having a hard time communicating.
After some research, they began teaching her sign language, and because it worked so well, they have since taught it to every young child in their care.
“That really changed her behavior because she was able to tell me what she wanted,” Sciuto said. “She is a wonderful little girl.”
Sciuto likens it to being a detective and finding clues that will help them “figure out what’s going to trigger” a reaction.
She and Mannix also take classes and training offered by Embrace Families and the Florida Department of Children and Families. They consult with doctors, develop plans with therapists and get advice from other foster parents.
“It’s like a job that you do together. This is something you do almost like a big family,” Sciuto said. “When they say it takes a village to raise a child, it is true.”
Putting children first
One of their most important jobs, they say, is being an advocate for their kids — with health care providers, schools, and biological parents and family members. They even offer feedback on potential adoptive parents.
While caring for a newborn who was going to be reunified with his father — who hadn’t known he had a child — Sciuto and Mannix provided support and practical parenting advice for the first-time dad. The families bonded so well they still connect on playdates and at Christmas, just like family.
When there was a potential family for their now-adopted son Marco, Sciuto and Mannix met the would-be parents, but had reservations after the father made negative comments about Marco’s weight.
“It was the way he said it, like he wasn’t excited or maybe he was disappointed,” Sciuto said. “I just had a horrible feeling.”
Sciuto and Mannix decided then that they wanted Marco to stay with them.
Both say letting children go is hard.
“You get attached to these kids,” Mannix said. “When we foster, it doesn’t seem like we have these kids for a short amount of time. We have these kids for years. … When it’s time to transition, it’s very difficult.”
It’s also a mix of emotions for their younger kids, who don’t understand why the children they’ve come to love as siblings are no longer with them. Explaining why they’re gone “makes you feel a little bit weird,” Mannix said.
He says he also struggles with feelings of guilt.
“She’s called me dad for two years,” he says of the little girl who just left their home. “My hope is she’s calling the new gentleman dad and everything’s fine there, but that first time when they drive away and I’m not there and she says, ‘Where’s my dad?,’ it makes me feel guilty that she has to go through that.”
Sciuto agrees. “When she left, I was excited for the people, but the reality hit me that she was leaving forever, so I was very sad.”
She knows that feeling is normal, but she says it’s still very upsetting.
“We’ve been very lucky because we have a lot of kids,” she said. “We always feel like there are so many parents who would love to have a kid, but they can’t have a child, and we almost feel like it’s selfish for us to keep all the kids who come to us. Of course, we want to keep all of them, but I don’t think it’s the correct thing to do. I feel we should give a chance to people.”
Expectations versus reality
Sciuto cites the many stereotypes she’s heard about foster kids: they don’t listen, they’re out of control, they’re so traumatized they’re beyond help.
For her, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and she says the experience has exceeded her expectations.
“They’ve been through so much. They just need somebody to help them be the best they can be,” she says. “They’re children. They’re not this monster that people see.”
Mannix says he wasn’t sure what to expect when he began fostering.
“My only experience was raising my boys, and I had struggled with that just like everyone else because they were kids,” he said. “All kids have needs. (Foster kids) may have more specific needs, but as long as you can figure it out and help them with that, then they should be fine.”
The key, Mannix says, is focusing on the reason for becoming a foster parent — doing everything possible for the child, whatever that may be.
Elena’s advice for people considering the foster care journey? “Don’t be discouraged by what other people say,” she said. “It’s not as terrible as they make it out to be. It’s very rewarding and is actually a beautiful thing you are doing opening your home to kids in need.”
“It’s like a job that you do together. This is something you do almost like a big family. When they say it takes a village to raise a child, it is true.” — Elena Sciuto
Individuals who are interested in becoming foster parents may contact Lisa Walters, Embrace Families’ foster parent recruitment and training manager, at email@example.com or visit Foster (embracefamilies.org) for more information.
* Parham is Embrace Families’ director of marketing and communications.