1. Breaking News

He used to find children 'not terribly interesting.' At last count, Tampa man had fostered 17.

Fatherhood came late to Chris Fellerhoff, walking here with his 2-year-old son at a playground in Tampa. Married at 37, he became stepdad and now, 10 years later, the father of three adopted children and four foster kids. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Published Jun. 15

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."

• • •

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."

• • •

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 or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.


  1. Florida's unemployment rate was unchanged in October at 3.2 percent, according to numbers released Friday. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The latest numbers were released Friday morning.
  2. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  3. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.
  4. People are lead out of Saugus High School after reports of a shooting on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Santa Clarita, Calif.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says on Twitter that deputies are responding to the high school about 30 miles  northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The sheriff’s office says a male suspect in black clothing was seen at the school. AP
    At least seven people were injured — one critically — in a shooting at Saugus High School when a gunman opened fire on the Santa Clarita campus early Thursday, authorities said.
  5. Hillsborough Community College solicited "non-binding letters of interest or intent” last month from developers interested in purchasing the Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson District Administration Center on Davis Islands. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Developers have eyed the 3.7 acre waterfront parcel for years, but recent interest has prompted the college’s trustees to finally start the conversation.
  6. Pharmacist Wendy Sullivan gives a flu shot to Luz Acevedo at the Town 'N Country Senior Center in 2012. The 2019-20 flu season is expected to be a hard one, with Hillsborough County already leading the state in outbreaks. Associated Press
    The county leads the state in flu outbreaks so far this season, prompting an official call for parents to get their kids vaccinated.
  7. FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, Kodak Black arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, Calif. The rapper has been sentenced to more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges stemming from his arrest just before a scheduled concert performance in May. The 22-year-old admitted in August that he falsified information on federal forms to buy four firearms from a Miami-area gun shop on two separate occasions. JORDAN STRAUSS  |  Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
    The sentence was far less than the maximum 10-year sentence he could have received.
  8. Tech Data's headquarters in Largo. TD AGENCY  |  Courtesy of Tech Data
    The company is being sold to a private equity firm.
  9. An opened capsule containing Kratom. The Clearwater City Council was confronted by dozens of concerned citizens at a recent meeting who urged them not to ban the herbal supplement. Tampa Bay Times
    “I think there was a misunderstanding."
  10. An employee at Air General on Air Cargo Road spotted something suspicious while conducting routine scans of packages, a Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman said.