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“Forever,” Lisa Cantanese whispered to her newly adopted daughters Ashley, 8, and Maryann, 5.

The two siblings sat around a courtroom table with Cantanese, her husband, Shaun Fryling, and two children they already had adopted: Justice, 12, and DeAndre, 7.

Together, they had officially become a “forever family” during a heartwarming adoption ceremony conducted last week by Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin.

“I didn’t know we were having a party,” said Rodwin, kidding the girls before handing each their presents – a stuffed animal and big picture book in which the judge wrote: “Happy Adoption Day.”

“Believe it or not,” Rodwin said. “I’ve been working on this case for a long time, and I’m excited, too.”

November is National Adoption Month. Nationwide, there are more than 500,000 children in foster care, and approximately 114,000 children waiting for an adoptive family.

In Erie County, just under 800 children are in foster care with 250 awaiting adoption into “forever families,” according to Child &Family Services, one of 11 agencies contracted by the county to provide foster care to children.

“There is a huge need in Erie County,” said Gail Sunshine-May, director of foster care and permanency planning at Child & Family Services. “We are second only to the five boroughs of New York City in terms of the number of kids in foster care. Our agency has 51 children in foster care. Right now, our oldest is 19.”

Cantanese, 31, and Fryling, 34, live in Niagara Falls and have been married for seven years. They already had adopted – DeAndre in 2009 and Justice in 2011, but there was room in their hearts to welcome more.

“I found out young that I was unable to have children,” Cantanese said. “We knew early in our relationship that we were meant to help kids. We share a passion for children.”

The couple never considered adopting a baby from another country for good reason, according to Cantanese, who works in human resources for NOCO Energy Corp.

“I could not justify bringing somebody else into our country when there are hundreds and hundreds of kids here who need homes,” she said. “We’ve had eight foster children. We adopted four.”

Fryling, a graduate of Bennett High School, grew up in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood. He recalled his family changing addresses often.

“We moved around a lot,” he said. “My dad died when I was young, and my mom was not too stable. I did a lot of shuffling. It wasn’t easy.”

Fryling said an unstable childhood figured into his decision to become a foster parent. When Ashley and Maryann were placed with the Fryling family in March of 2012, the agency hit home.

“We knew Lisa and Shaun would be perfect,” said Sunshine-May. “They had adopted two other children. We know they had children with special needs before. When these children were placed, we already knew it would go down the adoption road.”

In the past, many foster children were moved from family to family, unable to be adopted permanently because of birth parents who retained legal parenting rights.

That changed in 1997, when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act. A main provision required states to initiate termination of parental rights proceedings after a child has been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months. There are two exceptions: if termination is not in the best interest of the child, or if the child is in the care of a relative.

Gateway-Longview places from 80 to 120 foster children from Erie and Niagara counties, as well as some from out of state, said Carolyne DeFranco, president of the private, nonprofit agency under contract with Erie County.

“The goal is always reunification,” DeFranco said.

For many children, the road to foster care follows an emotionally charged path that begins at home with neglect and abuse.

“We always see numbers spiking when children are back in school in September,” noted Sunshine-May. “Teachers are mandated reporters, and they recognize the signs and file a report with Child Protective Services. A home visit is conducted, and if the child is determined to be at immediate risk, and there is no appropriate relative, they petition the court for custody.”

That’s when the foster care agencies under contract with the Erie County Department of Social Services are notified.

Not every family is cut out for foster care, said Erica Kuntz, resource recruitment and development specialist at Child & Family Services. Kuntz administers the 30-hour foster parent training program called Model Approaches to Partnerships and Parenting. Divided into 10 three-hour sessions, the training focuses on the 12 skills needed to be a successful foster or adoptive family. Currently, there is a critical need for foster families willing to accept larger sibling groups, said Sunshine-May.

“When we get a referral from Erie County with need for a foster home, almost always it is not for one child. It can range from two to seven children,” said Sunshine-May.

Perhaps the most vulnerable group of all in the child welfare system are teens who are aging out of foster care, said DeFranco of Gateway-Longview.

“Everybody loves the little ones, but teens are the most vulnerable,” said DeFranco. “They hurt. They’ve been hurt by their families, and the longer they’re in the system the more hurt they are. They act out their pain toward other people, and that’s very hard to bring into your family.

“They are angry, but their anger is actually expressing the pain,” said DeFranco. “They’re pushing people away as a way to test whether they really care. Teenage children need foster care, too.”

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com