Linda Nasrallah works with a foster child recently while at Peak Treatment Foster Care. Linda has been a foster parent in Roswell for 20 years, shaping the lives of dozens of troubled youths. (Jeff Tucker Photo)
Being a foster treatment care mother is a labor of love for Linda Nasrallah.
She has been a foster parent in Roswell for 20 years, taking into her home about 45 children over the years for foster care treatment.
It all started in 1995 when she was driving a school bus, Nasrallah explained.
“I drove a bus out at Sunset (Elementary School) and there were a lot of troubled children there, especially this one family, and I wanted to help them out more than what I could do as a bus driver,” she said.
“It just so happened that I saw the advertisement from the Peak (Treatment Foster Care) needing foster parents, so I applied. And it just so happened that when I got done training, I met this mother, and it was the little boy I had wanted to help in the first place. He was my first foster child.”
Linda and her husband, Gaby, are parents of four grown children, ages 30 to 38. They also have nine grandchildren. Linda said being a foster parent is like a grandmother in perpetuity. She said the younger foster children call her “Meme,” as her own grandchildren do.
“I’m their ‘meme,’ because my grandchildren call me ‘meme,’” she said. “So I’m more like a grandparent. The children come to our house for three days. The children, if they really don’t want to stay, they really don’t have to. We’re not allowed to keep them a long time because of the insurance, because we’re supposed to help them and they move on to something else.
“I’ve had them maybe nine months. I’ve had one as long as 18 months.”
Linda said she usually cares for two children, but has had as many as four treatment foster children at one time. She and her husband provide foster care treatment for children that are emotionally unstable or “need some extra help.” Sometimes, the children can be challenging, she said.
“Treatment foster care is for the emotionally, physically abused and neglected children,” Linda said. “They’re mad sometimes. They get very mad sometimes because they don’t want to be with you. They want to be home. I just let them go for a while because they’re going to be too mad to listen to you anyway.
“I have also learned from the children patience, to just stand back and let them vent their feelings and to not take it personal.”
Being a foster parent sometimes means being the willing target of children lashing out, Linda explained.
“The last one I had was really nice,” she said. “His problem was at school. I think once they get in your home and they get comfortable, they change. They become part of our family. They realize you’re not the one that’s responsible for them being there and that I’m not out to get them or something, that I’m there to help them. I’ve always worked with kids and I like kids. And I just want to help them.
“It takes a long time. You need counseling. That’s the type of children that we get. They’ve been physically and emotionally abused. The kids have to want to change as well, especially the teenagers. We can do everything the books tell us to, but basically, it’s up to them if they want to change. We’re just there to help them. We give them the resources.”
Foster parent training is thorough, Linda said, and is provided by Roswell’s Peak Treatment Foster Care, which provides counseling and mental health treatment for children.
“We learn about medications,” Linda said. “We learn how to handle different situations, how to handle different diagnoses. We have 40 hours of training before we could even begin. We have to have a FBI background check. We have a police check every six months and we have training every month.”
Linda said she’s on call 24 hours a day, in the event a foster family is immediately needed.
“The last one wanted to go someplace else,” she said. “He left my house at maybe 7 o’clock. I got a call at about midnight saying he wouldn’t stay at that place. And then he came back at 3’ o’clock that morning. He’s the one that is going to be leaving pretty soon.”
Likewise, Linda said staff at the Peak are there for her 24 hours a day if she needs help with a child.
“I know the Peak is a great agency to work for,” she said. “They work with you and they help you through situations. I know when I’ve had times when my children have erupted, I can call here, and somebody is there instantly. Somebody is always there. You can email them, you can call them. It’s a very good support agency. You have to have a back-up and they will back you up.”
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department retains legal custody of the foster children, but the emotional ties grow with the foster parents. Linda said it’s often difficult saying goodbye to a foster child. She recently said goodbye to a child adopted by a family in Los Alamos.
“You do get attached to them,” she said. “They either go home or they get adopted. When you say goodbye, it’s kind of sad, but then the ones that I’ve had that just got adopted, we still keep in contact. And I know their adoptive parents, and they’re super. They went to a really, really neat family. They know that they can stay in contact with me.”
Linda and Gaby have had children adopted by families as far away as Oklahoma.
“You get a lot of satisfaction in feeling that maybe you’ve helped change a child’s life, hopefully for the better, and seeing them succeed later,” Linda said.
“One of the first ones that I had, he went through the Marines and he’s now working for an oil company and he’s living in Florida. He was the brother to the first one I had. He served two terms in the Marines Corps. He went to live with his sister and she helped a lot with him.”
Linda said a 15-year-old girl she foster parented now lives in Oklahoma with a good adoptive family. Linda beamed with pride talking about her.
“Maybe you’ve just planted a seed, and maybe you won’t even see it, but you’ve planted the seed,” Linda said. “I have one little girl, I still see her and she’ll still tell me, ‘Well, I remember when you said … whatever.’ She’s 15 years old now. She skipped a year and she’s graduating a year early. She wants to become a vet. We had her about two years ago.”
Most of the children Linda and Gaby foster parent are from Roswell. Others have been from Artesia, Carlsbad and Hobbs. Linda said the foster children usually get along well with each other, knowing they are in the same boat.
“Sometimes they argue, but it’s just like brothers and sisters,” she said. “They get along well with my grandchildren. My grandchildren play with them. The younger ones call my kids aunts and uncles.”
Linda said the children need love, stability, a routine and guidance. She said good food is also a strong behavioral incentive, especially for the teenagers.
“Stability is really a big thing,” Linda said, adding the foster children attend the same schools they had. “We have to take them where they’ve been going to because it’s hard for them coming into a new home anyway. Having to change schools and change friends, it’s hard.
“It’s just like your own child. There’s doctor appointments, therapy appointments, school activities — my youngest daughter, she helps me out. She’s taking the same training, so if I need respite or I need someone to pick up kids, she does it for me. And my husband, too. When you have two people, you can share responsibilities and when one partner is tired, the other partner can take over.”
Biological parents of foster children can pose their own challenges.
“Parents often want their children back,” Linda said. “They say ‘You can’t handle my child.’ That just happened the other day with this one I have. They’re so angry because they don’t have their child that they try and find everything wrong with you.”
Asked about her personal goals, Linda, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at Grace Community Church said: “I want to keep doing it as long as I’m able to.”
Asked if she’s ever adopted any of her foster children, Linda, 65, said she doesn’t feel it’s the right time for her.
“No, I feel I’m too old,” she said. “I had cancer. I think once you’ve had that, you know it could come back, and you don’t want them to lose two parents.”
Being a foster parent has its own rewards, Linda said. She encouraged others thinking about it to consider making a difference as foster parents.
“I think they should do it because there’s a lot of satisfaction knowing that you’ve helped someone, a child, maybe changed their life or turned it around,” she said.
“It’s not as scary as maybe some people think. We’ve been stolen from, we’ve had it all done — windows broken and things like that. They’re just angry. They’re not angry at you. Some of these kids have gone through a whole lot.”