Wanted: therapeutic foster parents
Last year North Carolina lawmakers made $38 million in cuts over two years to group homes for children with mental illness and behavior disorders. Many group homes are closing and now the state is looking to place more than 1,000 of these children with foster families by next June. To take in the children, therapeutic foster parents must participate in specialized clinical training. In Charlotte, Alexander Youth Network says it's in a good position to place the kids because its therapeutic program already has a stepped up level of clinical training. WFAE's Simone Orendain has this report on the agency's recruitment efforts. Alexander Youth Network's training coordinator Melissa Shelley paints a realistic picture of what foster parents are in for: "Some common behaviors that you can see in our children... running away behavior, issues with depression, ..." Prospective parents listen closely during the info session at the agency in east Charlotte. "... short attention span, especially poor social skills, aggression, sleeping problems, issues with food..." That goes for all foster children. For therapeutic foster children, there's also a diagnosis of mental illness or personality or behavior disorders. Shelley reminds the potential parents these children need medication. And she says parents must put in more training hours for a therapeutic foster care license - at least 40, as opposed to 30. At the meeting, foster parent Joanne Polsgrove is signed-on to give therapeutic care. It's a good fit. She works from home and can really spend time with the child. She says, "Therapeutic children do have more issues. But they need more love, they need more support because they've been tossed around a lot of times, they have. And they feel like right away that you don't really want them, that they're causing too many problems... so the positive end is- we really want you in our home, we really want you around." Alexander Youth spokeswoman Nettie Lynch says therapeutic foster care is more than providing temporary shelter and love. Therapeutic foster parents are part of a team of mental health professionals, counselors and caregivers. "They are the eyes and ears of what the treatment team has decided together. They come together say, 'Here's what's presenting, here's the problem that the foster child is experiencing. Here's what we're trying that's not working and here's what is,'" says Lynch. The goal with therapeutic foster care is to reunite the kids with their biological families. Often, while the kids are being treated, their biological families are getting help on how to deal with them. And the therapeutic foster parents keep lots of paperwork on the children - almost like medical charts. It serves as a roadmap of what works for the child and what doesn't. Whatever works is then passed on to the child's biological family when the child moves back home. The need for this kind of therapeutic foster care in North Carolina is higher this year than usual. Under budget constraints, the state cut close to $16 million this year and an additional $22 million next year from group home services for children diagnosed with mental illness. These children are diagnosed as level three or four, meaning they need more than regular foster care but less than a psychiatric hospital stay. The cuts mean more children are being fanned out to agencies that will have to match them with therapeutic foster families. There's been a scramble to get parents licensed. The foster care advocacy group Children and Family Services Association is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to make the transition. Association President Karen McCleod says the shift isn't just about the budget. The state was looking to fix abuses at group homes. She says, "The idea is that they wanted the 3s and 4s to be massively reduced because they were being over-used. And you had some inappropriate providers who were essentially warehousing children in these homes for an extended period of time that was inappropriate." According to state data, more than 2,000 children received level three and level four services in group homes last June. The state wants that reduced to less than 1,000 by next June. Placement agencies say the stipend amount parents receive to care for and house the children varies. At Alexander Youth it can range from $450 a month to $2,000. McCleod says therapeutic foster parents receive a little more than regular foster parents. "With children at the therapeutic level, it's very difficult to have a job outside the home because many times because of the amount of needs. They're going to therapy twice a week, as well as having some kind of group sessions," says McCleod. At the info session, talk of commitment, hard work, plus dealing with behaviors like lying and stealing didn't scare away 28-year old Monique Martin. She's a single mother and she says she wants a "happy home" full of children. Martin's mother was on drugs until she went to high school and she wasn't close to her father. Her grandmother raised her. Martin says, "She was my motivation, my backbone, my best friend. I gained a lot of knowledge from her that I couldn't get from my mom. And I want to be able to show another child how to be successful in life." Martin is one of about 250 people who've attended information sessions at Alexander Youth since the call went out from the state. If she sticks it out through the 40 hour training period, she'll be among the dozens the agency can place to fill a gap that runs in the hundreds.