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Deena Williams: Focus on foster care
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

Some people seem to carry a spark within them, which radiates around them bringing light into the darkest of places.

 

Deena Williams is one of those people. The daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, she spent four years of her earliest childhood living in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. She’s spent the last three decades of her life working in the field of foster care – a field that tends to be either maligned or pitied by many.

 

But at the age of 62, Williams has that spark – one she’s carried her entire life. The difference, for Williams, between a pessimist and an optimist is one’s deliberate choice of focus. As the supervisor of substitute care unit for the foster care program in Dane County, Williams’ focus has been on improving the lives of the children who find themselves in foster care, and on supporting those adults make the incredible commitment of bringing these children into their homes. “I love what I do,” says Williams, whose positive energy seems to rub off on the people around her.

 

Williams learned early on that life wasn’t about financial gain or prestige but about the simple rewards of tending to others’ needs. “My father lost 144 people in his own family (in the Holocaust), and my parents lost two of their children,” she says. “My mother was the most giving and generous of people. My parents were Socialists and had been politically active in Europe. Money was not important to them. What WAS important was helping others.”

 

One the family had arrived in Albany, New York – aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Jewish Social Services – “my father had a job as a house painter and we were self-sufficient. As a result, it was stressed in my family to always give back to the community.” Williams grew up “with a special place in my heart for people with difficult experiences in life.”

 

She entered adulthood during the turbulent late 1960s, when many of her peers were engaged in activism. “The civil rights and anti-war movements had a significant impact on my thinking and career choices,” she says.

 

She earned a Ph.D. in history, but before long, she decided to focus on the here-and-now. With her degrees from the State University of New York at Albany and from SUNY Buffalo, she joined the Erie County Department of Social Services. “I was young and had little experience. The poverty was overwhelming,” she says. “I thought this would be a short term break from graduate school but found the work to be fulfilling.”

 

Williams and her husband, Peter, moved to Madison in 1971 and thought that, too, would be temporary. But Williams began working for the Dane County foster care department in February 1972 “and I am still here,” she says. Peter would become involved in Madison’s public school system, serving on the school board for seven years. And the couple would also have three children, all of whom would follow in their parents’ footsteps of community involvement (Rachel is a lawyer in Chicago; Elliot lives in Bolivia and earning a master’s degree in International Development; and Josh is earning a journalism degree).

 

Williams’ work with Dane County was rewarding, but it also had its challenges. Returning to work soon after the birth of her first child, Williams raised some eyebrows. But the relationship between her work and her family wasn’t compartmentalized, but rather holistic. “Over the years my children and my husband always supported my involvement with my work,” she says. “As a foster care recruiter and trainer I would be gone evenings and they accepted that. The kids were frequently in ads … and participated in any events we had for foster children and parents. I think they benefited and were enriched by these experiences.”

 

While the very need for foster care results from dysfunction and tragedy within families, Williams has always maintained a focus on what she believes is the “basic goodness in people.” Instead of feeling anger toward parents who cannot – or will not – care for their children, Williams sees foster care placement as providing an opportunity for both parents and children to heal.

 

“People think these parents are bad people,” she says. “In reality, these parents care, but they have limited abilities, limited resources. We are fortunate here in Dane County that we do have the resources to help them.”

 

Williams is full of praise for the foster parents: “They’re wonderful people,” she says. I learned a lot about parenting from them.”

 

With 37 years in the field of social services, Williams is a good person to answer the question: Are things getting worse today for children and families? While there’s no objective way to measure, Williams suspects not. “When I started, we thought sexual abuse only happened in Appalachia,” she says. “We thought teen girls (in Dane County) were just runaways … we never asked the question. At least we are aware of (sex abuse) now.

 

“Today, we are more conscious of the good, the bad, and the ugly,” she continues. “We know about mental illness, teen drinking, and the developmentally disabled – people who used to be put away (in institutions) but now are mainstreamed. So it may appear that things are tougher today. (Years ago) Dane County it was largely rural and white – but there were still problems. Today we have awareness and services.”

 

Over the years, Williams has developed many foster care programs at the county level; received several awards; and worked diligently to increase the number of available foster homes for children. Dane County was the first county in Wisconsin to license lesbian and gay foster parents, “and I feel good about that,” Williams says. She’s also worked hard to ensure that the population of foster parents more closely mirrors the demographics of foster children. While 50 to 60 percent of foster children are minorities, about one-quarter of foster parents are – but that represents a huge increase over the last decade. “We have a lot of different kinds of children, and so we need a lot of different kinds of families,” she says.

 

Today, single parents and couples, young parents and the elderly, and people of all races and religions serve as foster parents in Dane County  – a reality that can be largely attributed to Williams’ work to widen the field for the benefit of children who need care.

 

Williams cannot even begin to estimate the number of foster parents she’s supervised, nor the number of children whose lives she’s touched. But she’s known of a few children who represent the third generation of foster care within a family. “It doesn’t happen very often, though,” she says, pointing out that so many foster care stories end successfully.

 

Does that mean the cycle of abuse and neglect is being broken? “I hope so,” she says.

 

  

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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