TAMPA — The phone call came two days before Christmas. Would you be willing to foster a preemie baby born to a drug-addicted mother?
Accustomed to taking emergency foster placements, Chris Fellerhoff didn't hesitate. But by the time he and his wife, Danielle, got to the Plant City hospital to visit the girl on Christmas Eve, they were told there were complications and the infant needed to go to the intensive care unit at St. Joseph's Hospital.
The couple drove behind the ambulance most of the way to the Tampa hospital so they could spend time with the child, the first of 56 straight days visiting her in intensive care.
That devoted father was not Fellerhoff a decade ago. For most of his adult life, he bounced between jobs before going back to grad school and becoming a transportation planner. He lived on his own terms, a life that definitely didn't include babies, whom he found "not terribly interesting."
Everything changed when, at age 37, he married Danielle Dahl and immediately became stepdad to her then 13-year-old son. Within two years, he was also father to three children the couple adopted after fostering them.
In parenthood, Fellerhoff, now 48, found a sense of responsibility and a focus on others that he liked. He felt he had rediscovered his younger self, the teenager who doted on his nieces and nephews.
"I think it pulled out a part of me that I had kind of forgotten about," he said.
Even after forming his own family, the parent in Fellerhoff couldn't step away from the huge need he saw in the foster care system. The family's five-bedroom home in Tampa Heights is also home to four foster kids aged between 6 and 4 months. Over the past five years, he and Danielle have taken in about 17 foster children, many of them infants.
But reward and heartache can come in equal measure.
Fellerhoff learned the hard way that deep attachments forged with children over many months can be severed with just a few hours notice because an out-of-state relative has agreed to raise the child. He has also had to battle with foster care agencies when he thought they were not making the best decision for a child under his care. That included filing a complaint with the Inspector General's office for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
"The system is known to retaliate against foster parents that are assertive in protecting their kids but if it's the right thing to do, he'll do it," said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida's Children First, a child advocacy group. "He's tenacious and relentless in pursuing what his children need."
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The young strangers Fellerhoff welcomes into his home are often traumatized and act out or become withdrawn. Others have developmental delays. The older ones often struggle to trust a grown-up.
"Even though they may call you mommy or daddy, they will never quite feel safe and calm with you or with anyone because at some key moment in their life when attachment was really important, it wasn't there for them," he said. "We have to believe that those windows of calm, safe, loving care will be remembered somewhere in each of those kids' minds and hearts, whether they were with us for a day or a year, whether they were two days or 12 years old."
The Christmas Eve experience in intensive care made hospitalized foster kids a particular cause for Fellerhoff. Two of his foster children spent several weeks in intensive care. Nurses at St. Joseph's become accustomed to the 6-foot-3 bearded giant with a passing resemblance to actor John C. Reilly scrubbing up and donning a hospital mask to cradle a child still attached to a heart monitor.
But he saw other children with no one. He worries they are in a kind of limbo, removed from their parents but often not hooked up with a foster family because they are already in a "safe" bed.
He is working on assembling a roster of like-minded foster parents willing to do the same.
"It's heartbreaking that they are really, really alone in there," he said. "They don't have people to hold them. That's a critical development thing."
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Down time is a luxury in a house with two adults, two dogs and seven children.
Fellerhoff's days normally start around 6 a.m. walking the two dogs. When it's not the summer break, he also has to walk two other children to school before loading two more in his car for dropping off at another school and a daycare on his way to work.
Evenings are equally frenetic, a mass of feeding and bathing and tucking-in. For family outings, they have to take two cars because they don't fit in one.
"There's always a ton of laundry; there's always a ton of dishes," he said.
It helps that Danielle is at home during the day. But invariably, when they think they have the routine down pat, some crisis like an illness can throw everything off the rails.
Sometimes there are so many kids it can be hard to keep track of everything. On a trip to the pharmacy for medicine for one child, the pharmacist asked Fellerhoff for the child's date of birth. He was momentarily stumped.
"How many kids do you have that you have to stare at the sky and think hard about when their birthday is?" the pharmacist asked.
There wasn't much in Fellerhoff's childhood to teach him how to be a father.
The youngest of six children, he was only 10 when his own father, a judge by profession, died from cancer. His family worked hard to give him a sense of who his father was but now that his oldest daughter is 12, he's aware that he has to figure out himself how to be a father to older children.
"I hope that for now they can enjoy stability and security and feel safe and loved, and feel that to be a normal condition," he said.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.