Orlando Couple Named Best Foster Parents in the United States
August 8, 2017 – While your first child placement as a foster parent is not known to be easy, Roger Phillips and Joan Benicken could never have imagined all that was in store.
After receiving their license in February 2011, the pair received a chilling phone call. There were two brothers, they were told, who had been rescued from a human trafficking ring. They had been living in an underground world, locked within a hotel room and never experiencing the joys of daylight. These brothers had never been to school, nor developed mastery of the English language. To communicate, they had formed their own language of gibberish.
Listening to the background of what these two boys had gone through was heart wrenching. While Joan had worked with children enrolled in a special education curriculum for years, this was a unique kind of challenge. No one can be fully prepared for an extreme case like this. And so, for over one and a half years, Roger and Joan welcomed the children into their home, where they would flourish and begin the journey towards healing.
“It was tough,” Joan recalls of the experience. “Every two weeks I would walk into their room to find all their clothes had been packed into a laundry bag. Every time I would unpack the items, I would find them bundled up again a short while later. We realized that the boys were so used to running every two weeks when their parents were close to getting caught, that they were simply still following their routine.”
The boys’ story has a happy ending. Their time with Roger and Joan came to an end after finding a loving adoptive family able and ready to meet their needs.
Roger and Joan’s next placement was a sibling pair with significant educational needs. The couple fought hard to advance the duo’s academic progress. They advocated for strong IEPs and additional tutoring. “We want to give them a lot of love, a solid foundation, and an education,” Roger says of his role as a foster parent.
As the process of termination of parental rights began for these sibling’s biological parents, the road became rocky, but Roger and Joan were committed. Several adoptive homes expressed interest in the pair, but the couple wanted to wait for the right family, not the first family. While their advocacy may not have always been popular, they stood their ground. Four years later, they met with a family they believed could provide all the siblings needed and more. Roger and Joan still meet with them often for dinner, and still attend many of the kids’ extracurricular activities.
Roger and Joan are now on their 40th child placement, with no plans to stop anytime soon.
“We have a ten room house that was once full of our children and grandchildren. As they gained their footing, they each moved out until it was just Roger and I. I had the choice of sitting in a rocking chair, or starting the next phase of my life. We would always see children on television who needed homes. So why not, I thought, welcome them into mine,” Joan explains thoughtfully.
Roger and Joan call themselves “foster friends”. They never want the children in their home to feel like their loyalties are being tested, or that they’ve betrayed their family. They understand that sometimes children have difficulty processing why they were removed from their homes. This frustration can be taken out on the couple, but Roger and Joan take it with grace and stride.
“You can be a hotel for them, or make them part of the family. You have to show them what family life and loving people are like, because most of have never had it,” Roger describes of their ideology. “You just have to treat them like they are kids, and not an annoyance.”
Recognizing this remarkable couple’s dedication to the children in their care and their support of others involved in the foster care system, the local Orange/Seminole Foster Child Association nominated Roger and Joan for the “Hannah Eimers Award — Best Foster Parent in the U.S.”, presented by Transfiguring Adoption. Thousands across the nation voted for the contest’s semi-finalists, then finalists. Ultimately, Roger and Joan’s story stood out amongst all others… and this evening they were honored as the first-ever “Best Foster Parent in the U.S.” award winners by their many friends and admirers in Central Florida’s foster parenting community.
“The rewards far outweigh the downfalls,” says Roger of their experience as foster parents. “When your foster child comes around after five weeks and gives you a hug, it makes it all worth it. I’m doing what I should be doing. All it takes is a lot of love.”
“Yes,” Joan chimes in. “Patience is key…and so is a lot of Kleenex.”