PETERSBURG — With four young biological children to raise, St. Peter parishioners Jesse and Monique Sullivan lead busy lives, yet for the past 18 months they have welcomed foster children into their love-filled household.
Monique is the Director of Religious Education at St. Peter and homeschools their children while Jesse runs his own company, called Alter. They are parents to daughters 7-year-old Charley, 5-year-old Lincoln, and 4-year-old Scout and a son, Bo, who is 2. When they were younger, the couple did foreign aid work together, where Monique said they both “realized that charity was only a temporary solution whereas creating a job could lift people out of poverty for the long-term.”
But it was Monique’s volunteer work with the Elizabeth Ann Seton program in Springfield that led to the couple fostering, an idea Monique said God “placed in her heart.” “It was amazing how God allowed me to really get to know the women and their hardships and understand how people could lose their kids to DCFS,” Monique said. “It allowed me to have true compassion and empathy for biological parents when we were foster parents.”
There is an established process to becoming a foster parent, Monique explains. “You have to have a criminal background check, home inspection, health check and take classes that prepare you for being a foster parent. They are very eye-opening and allowed Jesse and I to have candid conversations about our fears or what safety nets to have to ensure safety to our foster children and biological children.”
A licensing worker told Monique that the biggest need in foster care probably includes young teen moms. “These are teenagers who are in the foster care system themselves and are now pregnant or a young mother,” she said. “After working with teenagers in high school and at Lincoln Land, I realized this is exactly what God wanted for our family.”
As it turns out, at first not many young mothers needed homes in central Illinois. In November 2019, the Sullivans received a call that a high school senior needed their help. “Although she wasn’t a teen mom, we were starting to feel that we had this extra space and love in our home and hearts and that we should just start taking teenagers who needed placements.
“Ashly was our first placement and boy, is she special,” Monique said. “She is loyal, smart, funny, and beautiful. I know it sounds cliché, but I can’t imagine my life without her. I can’t imagine motherhood without her. She has taught me so much. She is in college now, but she is here on holiday breaks and she will live with us this summer. Any vacation we take she is invited to.”
In July 2020, the family welcomed more foster members. “Imani came to live with us, and she is the most generous person,” Monique said. “She had a 4-month-old (Armani) and found out she was pregnant a few days after moving in. She was 18 and just needed a little help and advocating for. She has now moved out and is due in April with a little girl. It was so neat to be able to be a part of her son’s life and watching him grow, too.”
The goal of fostering should not be pursued primarily as a path to adoption, Monique points out. “Although it can be, the main goal is reunification if possible,” she said. “We were always open and willing to have adoption on the table, but we wanted to work with biological families as much as possible.
“Because we foster teenagers, their transition out of our home has been more organic,” Monique said.
“Ashley went to college and Imani moved out to her own apartment. I imagine this would be hard if our placements had been younger and had to leave. Our kids cried when each of them left, but they still see them regularly.”
Monique said their children have responded well to fostering. “Our kids’ characters are being shaped in a positive way because of our decision to be a foster family,” she said. “It allows us to look at the world and give thanks to God for our blessings and find ways that we can give back.”
Foster parents have a right to decide who they will foster and who probably would not be a good fit for their family. “For our family, we have decided that cannot have kids in our home who are actively struggling with alcohol or drugs,” said Monique.
“After you get a call, you can schedule a meeting and meet the child,” she explained. “This allows them to get to know you and you get to know them. We never want any of the kids placed with us to think they need to take care of our younger children.
“When we meet with potential placements, we tell them three important things: 1. We want you to be the best version of yourself, so we are going to set high expectations for you and try to help you meet them. 2. We have unconditional love for you. Nothing you do or don’t do will change that. We want you to be a part of our family and that doesn’t just mean for the time in our home, that means forever. 3. We are strong Catholics and go to church every week. If is part of our family’s foundation and we ask that you come as well. You can ask questions or argue about theology with us, we would love that. But God is the center of our life and we like to thank him for the blessings he has given us — you are one of those blessings.”
Monique believes that people should rely not only on God, but on their church to help with fostering. “If you decide to foster, let your church be part of the process. If you let them know your needs … they will want to help you,” she said. “We have an amazing community. Each church can find the best way to reach out to parishioners and fill those needs.”
More than anything, prayer is always a part of their fostering process. “My husband and I always prayed about the children we might take into our home,” Monique said. “We prayed separately and then came together to talk about our fears or logistical things we might need to think through. Then we prayed together and made a final decision.
“It can be intimidating to invite someone you don’t know into your home. The first night I was always nervous, but I would pray, and God would bring me peace. God is good and he is strong when we are weak,” Monique concluded. “Our kids watched us rely on God for strength in the unknown moments.”