Vincenzo (Vinny) and Melanie Paolo have made careers out of running toward trauma, rather than away from it. He’s a Milwaukee Police Officer and she’s a former EMS crew member, turned medics trainer. Their inclination to help others is part of what made them so uniquely qualified for another important role in our community – being foster parents.
When the couple decided to create a family a few years ago, they looked into their options, including private adoption. Vinny, an Army Veteran, was finishing his second tour in Iraq when a friend told Melanie about foster-to-adopt programs instead.
Willing to Foster Siblings
The Paolos decided to become licensed foster parents for children ages infant to 3. It didn’t take long before they got their wish – and then some. In December of 2011, they took placement of a three-year-old named Jamiah and her two-year-old brother Jamari.
Now ages 10 and 9, Jamiah and Jamari were not sure what to make of their new home at first. “It was close to Christmas, so we had our tree decorated. One of the ornaments was a police officer in uniform,” explains Vinny. “I started to notice that ornament was always turned around so that it faced into the tree rather than out.”
Without them realizing it, Jamiah was in the habit of going over to the tree and turning the policeman ornament away from her. She did not trust the police, she said when asked why she was doing that.
Trained in Trauma
This kind of trauma response is fairly common in children who have suffered serious adversity such as abuse, neglect, or violence in their homes. “I had actually been very careful not to wear my uniform in front of the kids, knowing it could be a trigger for them,” Vinny says. He knows many kids never see officers unless something has gone wrong, but even he was astounded that this little girl had such a strong reaction to a small figurine.
Vinny works in District 5 and has 13 years of experience in one of the most crime-ridden areas of Milwaukee. His beat includes zip code 53206 and others that have been affected by generational trauma and the resulting socioeconomic turmoil.
According to Vinny, working in law enforcement gives him a rare look into the lives of children who live in unsafe circumstances, whether they are removed from the home or not. “We see so many children on our calls,” he explains. “Being a foster parent has made me less cynical. I know children don’t choose poverty or any of those other circumstances. It’s the kids who are the true victims.”
Sometimes, children who have been detained wait at the police station until their placement is ready. Officer Paolo has gotten quite the reputation among his peers for being able to talk to kids at their own level.
Meet Kids Where They Are
“He’s always been the one who will get the kids something to eat or ask them what they need,” says Melanie. He has also been known to change diapers, a skill he has honed as father as well as responding officer. “Our interaction with these kids during those crucial moments is so important,” Vinny says.
Just last week, a small child was found in a vacant home with his mom. Vinny was the one on the scene who held the child, got him something to eat, and did his best to make the child feel he was safe.
Today, the Paolos are a family of 7 living near Colgate, Wisconsin. They have a big house and a huge yard, perfect for the kids to play ball and chase the family dog. In addition to Jamiah and Jamari, they have adopted another set of siblings, Makayla and Giovanni (ages 5 and 4), and a very energetic 2-year old named Anthony.
Foster to Adopt
“This is what we were supposed to do,” says Melanie. “Foster to adopt was right for us.” Though they have closed their license, the likelihood of these two first responders continuing to respond to the need is pretty high.
In fact, this isn’t the first time they have closed. After adopting the two pairs of siblings, the Paolos felt their foster parenting journey was done. But then, they met Anthony, their fifth and final child (for now).
“We are going to raise these children but we are already planning to re-open for emergency placements when the house is empty again,” says Vinny.