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So Many Children

How many kids can - or should - one foster family handle? With the large number of abused and neglected children flooding the system, the answer is a lot more than you'd think.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2000

About the children's names: Because of confidentiality laws, the Times is not publishing the names of the Nippers' seven foster children, who are victims of abuse or neglect. Some of the nicknames used in this article were given to the children by the Nippers -- such as Tubby, a chubby 14-month-old girl. Others simply describe the children in relation to the other kids -- such as Little Sister, Big Sister and Oldest Girl.

BRANDON -- Butter sizzles in an iron skillet. Bacon curls and pops in the oven. Jimmie and Gerry Nipper's cramped kitchen begins to smell like a country restaurant that has just opened its doors for breakfast.

But here at the Nipper house, they don't call it breakfast. They call it "feeding frenzy."

Five girls, all 1 or 2 years old, sit in high chairs and booster seats. They giggle, gurgle and grope for food with tiny fingers. Multi-Grain Cheerios scatter around high chair trays and banana slices squirt out of the girls' hands.

Mrs. Nipper cracks four eggs into the skillet and scrambles them, along with wedges of yellow cheese. Soon she sets a hunk of the scrambled mixture in front of each girl. The kids squeal and attack, ramming the concoction into their mouths, adorning their faces with cheesy beards, turning their trays into hurricanes of egg, cereal, fruit and bacon.

Meanwhile, a two-week old baby boy cries in another room. A baby girl sleeps peacefully.

This is the way the day began one recent Friday for Jimmie Nipper, 73, and his wife, Gerry, 67, retirees who live with seven foster children, all age 2 or under. The Nippers have grandchildren in their 20s and 30s, but they have decided to take on a houseful of toddlers and babies.

Sometimes they go out to the grocery store, wheeling two carts filled with more kids than groceries, and strangers come up to ask how they do it. The Nippers just smile. After just 21/2 years as foster parents, they say they can't imagine not doing it.

The state says foster homes generally should have no more than five children with no more than two being younger than 2. The Nippers have seven, all but one younger than 2. If the Nippers were running a family day care home, they would be over the limit set by state law.

But the Nippers say they don't feel overwhelmed. Mrs. Nipper even sounds wistful as she looks down on one of her seven, a 7-month-old baby whose two sisters and brother live elsewhere.

"Right now I'd take the three siblings, too," she says. "But I have seven. They're not going to give me more."

* * *

The seven children who live with the Nippers are among the stream of abused and neglected children flooding the foster care system in the Tampa Bay area, especially in Hillsborough County.

The situation got so bad that the Department of Children and Families and the Children's Board of Hillsborough County recently declared a crisis and appealed to the public to attract more foster parents.

The appeal prompted more than 200 calls and brought 50 prospective foster families to an orientation. But the foster parent shortage is still so dire that the department admits to breaking its own rules, sending too many children to a single home.

One Hillsborough family houses 12 foster children, all 5 or under. Another has 13, most of them teenagers. The crowding is worse in Hillsborough, but troubling in Pinellas and Pasco counties, too.

"We're definitely breaking the state guidelines," said Tom Jones, spokesman for the Department of Children and Families. "It is a crisis, there's no question about it."

Those overseeing the system say they're overwhelmingly grateful to families that take in so many kids.

"They are doing absolutely noble work," said Don Dixon, district administrator for the Department of Children and Families in Hillsborough and Manatee counties. "Most of us can't even start to imagine the positive contributions that they're making now to our community for the next 30, 40, 50 years."

But people like Dixon also are worried. No matter how noble the families, everyone has limits.

"The downside is both to the kids and the caretakers," Dixon said. "Parents, in order to sustain their love and attention to their children, also need time away from those children sometimes. And there's only so far most of us can go until we start to act in ways that we know are not good for us and not good for the kids. Now, I'm not suggesting that any of these caregivers are doing this, but I'm saying that's the potential downside."

Told about the Nippers, Luanne Panacek, executive director of the Children's Board, said "these people sound like they're gifts from heaven and thank God that they're there."

But she, too, has concerns about especially crowded homes. It's one thing to grow up in a traditional big family where older kids do chores and play with the young ones.

However, "when you have seven children under the age of 2, you don't get any of the positive benefits of having a number of kids in the home and actually there's competing interest for kids at the same developmental level."

These foster families are exceptional, Dixon said. But his concerns about their burdens are real, too.

"The fact is," Dixon said, "that's why we came forward to say we had a crisis."

* * *

Jimmie Nipper, known around here as Grandpa, starts picking up children in the kitchen and hauling them back to the den of the house where he has lived for 41 years. Most of those years were spent with his first wife, who died in 1995, after 46 years of marriage.

The den is a boxcar-shaped room cluttered with books, family memorabilia, kiddie walkers and children's car seats. A G-scale model railroad track circles the room on a platform six feet high and runs past a sign that says "Nipperville Station." His own father worked on the Atlantic Coast line.

"I'm a closet train buff," he explains later. "But now I'm a baby buff, I guess you could say."

It's TV time, so Nipper switches on the cartoon Arthur and begins anchoring kids.

He straps Tubby and Big Sister into car seats. The girls, who are 14 months and 22 months old, look uncomfortable for a moment, but soon start watching the cartoon.

He sets Little Sister, who is 1, and Bucky Beaver, 22 months, into kiddie walkers and bouncing seats that won't move across the carpeted floor, so the girls stay more or less in one place.

Oldest Girl, a helpful child who loves to clean Grandpa's driveway by picking up sticks, sits in a small plastic child seat. At 25 months, she's the only one older than 2. Nipper lets her sit down without buckling the belt.

The 7-month-old baby lies placidly next to the other five, resting in her carrier. Mrs. Nipper has the other infant, 2 weeks old, in another room.

All this strapping and buckling is a concession to reality. Unstrapped kids have a tendency to escape to the living room and pop peppermint candies into their mouths, cellophane and all. Or get into something worse. "I can't let them free in the house with seven," Mrs. Nipper explained later.

As Arthur unfolds, Nipper begins working his captive audience. He reaches to Tubby in the car seat. "I'm going to tickle your little feet. You're so cute!" She kicks and giggles.

Oldest Girl, who had toddled out to the kitchen, wanders back and dials a plastic telephone on Bucky Beaver's walker. She leaves a few more times before Grandpa decides to buckle her seat belt. After a while, she starts turning and fussing.

Then Nipper turns his attention to Big Sister, flipping the pages of a Winnie the Pooh book. "You're Grandpa's girl," he tells her softly. "You're Grandpa's, Grandpa's girl."

A scream comes from behind. He turns to Bucky Beaver, who is crying urgently, as if she has just now discovered she wants some loving, too. "Oh, what's wrong with Grandpa's girl?" He pulls her out of the walker to hug her. She gives him a slobbery hug back.

"Oh, my goodness. I'm going to have to wash my glasses."

Next Little Sister gets a seat on his lap, and Bucky Beaver cries out again.

But it passes. And Grandpa Nipper doesn't betray a hint of frustration, not at the little fingers yanking locks of white hair, not at the shrieking, not when he needs to clean someone's nose. When a long strand of drool falls onto him, he says, "You wash my face, you do!"

On through Sesame Street, Noddy and Zoboomafoo, he makes his way to each child, tickling, cooing, talking pleasant nonsense, prompting squeals and laughs. When Bucky Beaver fusses dolefully again, he looks over in sympathy. "Well, it won't hurt me to spoil you a little but, will it? Will it?" Around here, the squeaky wheel gets a second trip to Grandpa's lap.

All this tickling and nuzzling masks the reasons these kids are here. But these reasons manifest themselves in subtle ways, such as when the Nippers set a vial of phenobarbital on the breakfast table, next to the freshly poured coffee for the grown-ups and a carrot cake for later. Phenobarbital is a powerful drug used to ease the withdrawal symptoms of babies born to heroin-addicted mothers, or to soothe especially irritable cocaine-exposed babies.

Years ago, when Nipper was a young guy working for 86 cents an hour at Continental Can in Tampa, married to a woman who could stretch one chicken into three meals, he wouldn't have thought to put together the words "child" and "abuse."

But he knows a thing or two about these kids. Before he was born, his father died. He was the youngest of nine, and his mother couldn't care for all the kids. So he went with some sisters to live with a relative, "which we dearly hated." Not that he disliked his relatives, but he missed his mom.

He also missed the father who died before his son's life began. "I've always hunted my father," he said. As a boy, he attached to "any old man that would have anything to do with me."

"I guess that's the reason I'm such a soft heart," he said, looking around at his houseful of youngsters.

Meanwhile, Oldest Girl's fussing has gotten louder and shriller. She is turned around, stomach down on the chair, still buckled in.

Mrs. Nipper enters the den and leans down to her. "Oh look, she's twisted. That's what's wrong."

* * *

Somewhere in the Tampa Bay area, a woman gave birth to a girl in 1998. When state workers found evidence of abuse or neglect, they took the baby away.

Nine and a half months later, the same mother gave birth to another girl. She was taken away.

Twelve months later, the same mother gave birth to a boy. He was taken away.

Because of confidentiality laws, the Department of Children and Families will not divulge why.

Now, all three children have come to live with the Nippers. But not permanently. Mom will get her act together and win her children back -- or the state will declare it a lost cause, and terminate parental rights. In that case, these kids would be placed for adoption.

On this Friday, the baby, nicknamed Bubba, is 19 days old. He has been with the Nippers a week.

"You know, it's exciting to get new babies," Mrs. Nipper says happily. "It's real exciting."

Also exhausting. She handles the nighttime feedings.

"At this age, they're up every two hours. Once in a while they will let you sleep four hours, but not very often."

It's not as though she can take long naps in the daytime to recover. Mrs. Nipper is on her feet most of the day, frying steaks and sauteeing squash, driving the pickup truck to haul the monthly load of disposable diapers from the store, running the washing machine.

At Nipperville Station, she's the one who makes the trains run on time.

"I do all the caring, and someone has to do all the loving," she said, referring to her husband for the latter.

Gerry Nipper has run restaurants in Florida and Nevada and managed a log hotel in Montana. She can operate a chain saw, a shotgun or a sewing machine, depending on what the situation calls for. Once she sat on top of a cabin in Montana, clutching a gun and waiting for a bothersome bear to return.

So now, she is not about to get flustered over a tiny matter like taking seven kids and a husband to the grocery store.

Just before 11 a.m., the Nippers load all the kids into their 1987 Dodge van, which leaves no seat for Mrs. Nipper. So she scrunches down on the floor, gathering her blue dress around her, her brown hair piled in a bun.

After arriving, she finds two shopping carts. One is a special model with two plastic bucket seats plus the usual metal fold-out seat in the grocery basket. These three seats take care of two children because one of the bucket seats has a broken strap. Two more children go into the grocery basket itself. One is Tubby, and Nipper uses a belt brought from home to strap her to the side, so she won't topple out.

The 7-month-old baby goes into the other cart, held in place with another belt. Oldest Girl sits in the basket too, and the 2-week-old rests in a baby seat.

"Okay, I think I've got seven," she says. "Let's see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven."

The baby train moves inside. The Nippers wave to the cashiers, who know the scene well, and stock up with a gallon and a half of milk, three 48-ounce cans of Juicy Juice, a pound of cheese, two pounds of bologna and half a pound of ham. Plus bagels, cooking oil, syrup, fudge brownie mix and a sweet potato pie.

It isn't that much for nine people, but they come back here almost every day.

* * *

The Nippers are in a sense willing victims of this system. They have the right to say no to any child, or every child, but they almost always say yes. Every day they throw themselves into the same routine: meals in the kitchen, TV in the den and playtime outside. The only exception is Sunday, when they load up provisions and drive to Temple Terrace for a 10- to 12-hour marathon of services, dinner and fellowship at their church, the Gospel Assembly of Tampa Bay.

Mrs. Nipper says she would adopt some of these children in a heartbeat, but believes the Department of Children and Families would not allow it because of their ages. State rules don't set a strict age limit, but workers do consider the would-be parents' physical condition and life expectancy. By the time Bubba turns 18, Nipper will be 91 and his wife 85.

The Nippers and other foster parents are paid a base rate of $354 per month for each child under 5; certain factors can increase that amount. "It's nothing to plan on getting rich about," at least not if you are truly using the money to benefit the children, Mrs. Nipper said.

Back from the grocery excursion, the kids eat lunch and come outside to play in the Nippers' driveway, fenced off from traffic. Oldest Girl picks up sticks and carries them to the trash can. Bucky Beaver stands up and Big Sister steals her seat. Late afternoon is dinnertime, so the girls eat fish sticks, black-eyed peas and green beans, grabbing the food off a plastic picnic table.

Next it's time for Teletubbies and baths.

Although reading is extremely beneficial for children's cognitive development at this age, there was no time for reading on this day. There usually isn't. "I've tried and tried to read books, but they don't sit still," Mrs. Nipper said.

At 6:30 p.m., after Teletubbies, Mrs. Nipper says the words that cause children everywhere to start kicking up a fuss: "Bedtime, come on, let's go to bed!"

Oldest Girl, Big Sister and Bucky Beaver scamper happily to their cribs, obeying the man and woman who may be the only parents they remember now.

The crying doesn't begin until the kids are down in their cribs, with the lights turned out.

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