Almost two years after first taking her three younger brothers – now ages 6, 13 and 16 – into her home, and formally enrolling as a foster care parent, Kayleigh Rappenecker of Rochester is on the verge of adopting them. While a December court date has not yet been finalized, the adoption could be complete before Christmas.
It’s a personal milestone that has given Rappenecker an uncommon level of experience when working with future clients in the next vein of her emerging career as a social worker.
That’s because Rappenecker is still completing courses for her bachelor’s degree in social work through Keuka College’s Accelerated Studies for Adults Program (ASAP). At 25, Rappenecker is younger than the “typical” adult student enrolled in a Keuka ASAP course of study. She first began courses in January 2010, while pregnant with her first child.
ASAP Assistant Professor of Social Work Julie Burns said that while it is common for family members such as grandparents, aunts or uncles to take in younger children as foster children, or even adopt them, it is rare for an older sibling to take on the role of surrogate parent. In Rappenecker’s case, she wanted to intervene and keep her brothers together.
“Our mom is drug-addicted, and struggles with alcohol abuse and I wanted to take them into my custody,” she said. “It’s unique that the three of them didn’t get separated into different homes. Odds of that aren’t very realistic.
“I couldn’t afford to take them in, so I went through the foster care system, so that I could get assistance to help care for them,” Rappenecker said, explaining she and her fiancé, Rick Kujawski, enrolled in a 40-hour training course, endured drug testing, background checks and home studies in order to qualify as foster parents.
Her brothers came into her home in May 2009 and all three are in school. She and her fiancé were certified as foster parents in April 2010. Parental rights for the boys’ mother were terminated this past summer, Rappenecker said, and since two of the three fathers signed over rights and the other’s was terminated because he could not be located, the boys are now free for adoption.
“I’m not forced to adopt, but they can’t stay in foster care forever,” said Rappenecker, who explained that once the boys are on the adoption “list” anyone can adopt them. The modest stipend provided through Monroe County’s foster care program helps cover things like mileage to doctor’s appointments, school pictures, and a little spending money for each boy to keep, she said.
“We’re really looking forward to the adoption,” she continued. “Number one, it gives them permanency, since they won’t be in foster care anymore. I hate classifying them as foster kids because they’re really not. The system is great, but it’s also very violating, with workers coming to the house every month, lots of paperwork, and we have to do six hours of education every six months,” she said, referring to her fiancé.
All the foster care regulations are “quite annoying since they are my siblings, so [adoption] will relieve a lot of my load. Between graduating and that, I think things are going to get a lot better,” she said.
Rappenecker works full-time as a Medicaid liaison at Rochester General Hospital (RGH), assisting those who have no insurance to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance, which she calls “a piece of social work.”
“It’s pretty much an outreach program to help people obtain insurance and reimbursement for the hospital,” she explained.
When RGH held an October essay contest for employees to suggest strategies to become the community’s health provider of choice, Rappenecker used many social work ideas learned in her ASAP classes in her submission. She was among a handful of winners and flew to Chicago to represent the hospital at a special presentation. According to Burns, Rappenecker was greatly relieved the award wasn’t handed out on a night that would conflict with social work classes.
The hospital award followed an ASAP Outstanding Adult Student award Rappenecker earned back in April for her success juggling academic and personal responsibilities, which focused heavily on her family’s story. She included two references and recommendations from other Keuka students.
“We were recognized at a really nice dinner at a hotel, received an award and pin, and were put in a newsletter. My classmates were very happy for me,” Rappenecker said, adding that she has met the challenges of the Keuka ASAP classes by relying on “the support system of two or three of my peers. We text and call each other all the time and pretty much get each other through the program. I’d advise anyone coming in [to the program] to do that and find some good friends to get each other through.
“I’m looking forward to graduating, but I know I’m going on to my master’s, so I know I’m not done, but I definitely want to celebrate,” she added.
While her three younger brothers will get to watch their big sister graduate, another member of the family will be present too: Rappenecker’s son, Richard, who was born in June 2010.
Her son has three “big brothers” who dote on him, Rappenecker said.
“When you have older siblings, you catch on faster, learn more things. He transitions well,” she said.”He loves the boys.”
Burns is convinced that Rappenecker’s personal family experience, which has enabled her to relate with others going through their own difficult experiences, will benefit her social work career. But beyond the special role she has taken on in her own family, Rappenecker has also developed strong skills in her curriculum, in her work in the field, and now as an intern going through a social work practicum near the end of her studies, Burns said.
“She’s got so many avenues to pull this together,” Burns said. “You can’t just know theories, you have to have an emotional connection to your own experience and to empathize with other people as to what they’re really going through. I can’t say enough about how hard she has worked in this program.”