Helping Foster Kids in School: Therapeutic Foster Care’s Educational Advocate

The Problem: Statistics for foster children graduating high school are shockingly low. About 50% of foster kids never receive their high school diploma. Only 3% graduate from a 4-year college.

A&C’s response: To employ an Educational Advocate on the Therapeutic Foster Care team, addressing all educational concerns of our foster kids.

Sharon Dunlevy spends her days staying on top of students’ grades, attendance, educational concerns, and any behavioral issues they may be facing in school. She goes to meetings with teachers and principals, she helps implement and advocate for Individualized Education Plans & 504s, she teaches foster parents how to support the education of kids in their home. She tutors and facilitates tutoring.

Goals: “One of our biggest goals is to have our students be successful in school and graduate. We’re looking to see what types of support we can offer them after they graduate. At the age of 24, statistics say that 50% of former foster care students will be unemployed. So, that’s our big focus: career and college prep, really making sure that if they age out, if they leave, whatever the circumstances are, that they can be successful after school,” said Sharon. She is also a resource for foster parents with concerns on how to support their children’s education.

On what kids need most: “The need for the tutors is huge. Having a tutoring grant right now and having that outside help has been tremendous and makes a huge difference for the kids.”

Sharon’s Strategy: “I really try and get to know kids personally. … I want them to succeed, but I want them to come to that themselves. I really try to work with them on why we want them to get good grades. I ask what they want to do after school. I try to always make it a partnership between us.”

All About Youth Development

The tiny seed that grew into Youth Development was first planted in a foster care meeting. Then a therapist for Therapeutic Foster Care, Amanda Reuter had noticed an emerging pattern of foster youth asking about sex, yet lacking safe, informative spaces to discuss it. The question she asked that set her new career path in motion was, “what more can we do to help?”

“And that’s kind of where it blossomed,” said Amanda. After working on that idea and learning about the options available, A&C received a small grant to facilitate a program called ‘Pregnancy Prevention.’ In addition to her therapeutic work, Amanda began leading group meetings and engaging with adolescent-aged youth on the topic of sexual health. Through many conversations with these kids, more and different needs kept popping up & Amanda knew she wanted to address them. “Through youth expressing that there was more that they wanted, it grew,” she said. A combination of organic development and hard work was the recipe for the Youth Development team as it stands today: a group of six passionate professionals educating & advocating for youth.

On any given Friday, you can find this team circled up in their youth hangout space, brainstorming and filtering through meeting topics as a group. The newly renovated fourth floor of 603 E Washington St. houses the Youth Development and Specialty Service offices. It also includes a relaxing, living-room-type area with couches, coffee table, games, puzzles, markers, & yoga mats. Paper Mache ampersands line the windowsill and a jar of condoms marked, “Please take one” sits atop a bookshelf. Team building is important here. Each member works on their own program, but to foster a sense of togetherness, they discuss common topics and help one another solve problems. They’ll then cap it off with a group mindfulness exercise like yoga or meditation.

Youth Development works within a framework of grants, with each member responsible for only one. They’re funded through mostly federal money for different types of projects. Currently, the team has three grants: IN-PACT, Project I, and the Serve Project. These programs all have unique specifications, but employees can typically be found leading group meetings. Groups of adolescents rotate through week-to-week programs & team members also travel to schools and residential facilities to lead one-day groups. Their topics include sexual health, goal-setting, community service, etc. Any adolescent is welcome to join, and the team is enthusiastic about making sure every kid is heard, and placed in the right program at the right time. A lot of their work is focused around learning, sharing their stories, and creating projects together.

“Our overall mission is the same across all grants,” said Angel Crone, Lead Youth Development Specialist. “And that’s how we’re able to work together,” followed up Amanda. Any time this team steps in a new direction, it’s always with their mission & vision at the forefront. They make sure that their role, no matter the project, serves to help youth develop personal, social, academic, and citizenship competencies through strength-based methods. In a way, the youth always dictate where to go next. Grants and projects provide funding and structure, but at the end of the day, the team exists to help any young person become the best version of themselves. “We’re not just focused on one aspect of the youth’s lives, we’re trying to have a holistic approach,” said Angel. This mindset sometimes means stepping away from the grant structure: such as with their upcoming Art Night in June. A foster youth voiced a desire to express themselves through their art. Watching that desire echo through many other artistic teens led to a fresh, collaborative project for Youth Development & another avenue for youth to discover themselves and their self-worth.

The Youth Development team takes their role as listeners seriously. “We’ve really been challenging this concept of adultism. And just what youth led youth driven really means,” said Amanda. The concept of adultism means dismissing young people’s opinions based on their age, the classic ‘because I’m older, I know more than you.’ “We’re trying not to lead with that mindset,” said Angel. This perspective contributes to a partnership between the youth and team instead of a hierarchy. They don’t fight a losing battle with cell phones, they let kids play music that might glorify questionable morality. “We’ll play the song,” said Amanda, “but then we might use that to start a conversation about those topics and discuss what they think about them.” Group rules are reframed as ‘agreements.’ By participating, every person agrees to confidentiality, openness, and respect. This way it’s a choice, a core concept of the partnership angle.

But challenging adultism presents a new set of challenges with actual adults in the mix. “Any group we lead also has a parent component,” said Amanda. Biological parents, foster parents, and any other trusted adults in an adolescent’s life are welcomed. “It’s not the work with the kids that’s hard, it’s the work with the adults that surround them,” said Angel, laughing. But it’s true, because this team has the important role of fostering communication between those parents & teens, an eternal struggle, especially about tricky topics like sex. For foster kids with so many different adults assigned to support them, it can be challenging to navigate every adult’s opinion while simultaneously developing your own. “I think we’re trying to use our unique position of privilege and power, working in a mental health organization, to amplify the youth voice … we work with youth to identify ways that they can be their own advocate,” said Amanda.

Since the team is so young, its larger impact is still somewhat unknown. But the anecdotal support is strong. This past month brought a call from a youth who overcame suicidal tendencies through the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) and started working on new goals, a former foster child returning to help mentor teens in the “Power Through Choices” group, and a pile of handwritten Thank You cards from a group at a Bartholomew county residential facility. “Just hearing the youth say, ‘no one talks to us about this, thank you for talking about it,’” said Angel. “That’s my favorite thing to hear.”

A&C School Based Team Philosophy

The philosophy of School Based is simple: problem kids are not bad kids, they’re kids who simply need more support. This is the very sentiment Skills Development Specialist Chad Ridge tries to embody daily as he winds through the halls of Grassy Creek Elementary throwing out high fives to children passing in lines and advice to ‘make better choices’ to those working at ‘time out desks’ in the hallway.

As a Skills Development Specialist, Chad has a unique but oft necessary position in the school. He helps kids on his caseload work through issues such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a tendency to flee, a tendency to hit. Therapists on the team do the hard, emotional work with the kids one-on-one to help them address what they feel and why they feel it. Skills Development Specialists (SDS) work with the kids on their actions and how to make better behavioral choices, both in one-on-one sessions and in the classroom. “You kind of have to play a little dance with your caseload,” said Chad, referencing the relatively unstructured day-to-day operations of a Skills Development Specialist. There are a certain number of meetings they must have with their clients per week depending on their level of need, but the landscape always seems to be changing. The caseload rotates slowly, but teachers have different preferences, schedules for extra activities blend and shift, a client may have an outburst in the morning, or an emergency might pop up in the afternoon. Chad manages by staying flexible and spending his day weaving in and out of classrooms, talking with teachers and dropping in on clients to assess the needs of the day. “You have to feel out who needs what at what time and adjust accordingly.”

Kids usually end up on the School Based caseload through a teacher recommendation. Teachers approach parents about working with Adult and Child to help their child tackle behavioral issues. Often the option is discussed when working out Individualized Education Plans. When a child is added to the caseload, a team will take around 30 days to really get to know them. They asses the child’s struggles and develop an individually tailored plan with goals to work on. This happens through classroom observation, discussions with parents and teachers, and familiarizing the child with the School Based team. After 30 days, the SDS will confer about their findings with a psychologist who will provide their own feedback, and then the intensive work begins.

 

SDSs will often work through storybook-type models that encourage children to examine their own behavior. Titles like “Jake the Frog Settles Down” and “Hunter and His Amazing Remote Control” are designed to illustrate what it looks like to use self behavior modification skills through the example of cheerful cartoon characters. An SDS will also spend time with their clients in the classroom, physically sitting beside them and helping to navigate different types of stimulation, distraction, emotions, etc. One other important piece of the School Based puzzle is parent interaction. When parents sign up their child, they also sign up themselves. Chad says that he usually meets with parents twice a month both to discuss their child’s progress and to involve them in the curriculum. “My work with parents and their children looks a lot like play,” said Chad. He says he often plays games to model and facilitate new types of parent-child interaction individualized to the child’s struggles. “If parents are on board and they’re actively involved in the child’s therapy or skills, then it goes a lot smoother and you move a lot faster toward a graduation or resolution.”

The ultimate goal of School Based is graduation from the program. Once a child is consistently meeting their goals with less and less support from the team, that’s when it’s time to transition them out of the program. Chad has worked in School Based for over a decade and has seen so many kids work through their behavioral problems and function well in school. “School Based works,” he said simply. “We’re there for the kids when they need us.” Supplying that line of defense helps children who might otherwise escalate their behavior so much that it leads to expulsion, a consequence where nobody’s happy and nobody’s learning. But with School Based interaction, Chad has seen that happen much less frequently, a factor that drives his passion for working with kids. “I wouldn’t work anywhere else,” he said, “I love it to pieces.”

A&C Foster Care Team

In the wide scope of Adult and Child, at times it can seem that the Therapeutic Foster Care team exists its own bubble. The team has a separate brand and a separate website and answers to an outside entity (DCS). But in reality, foster care is deeply intertwined with several other service lines, from home-based services working with biological families to primary care looking after children’s medical needs. Housed on the seventh floor of 603 E Washington St, the TFC team is fortunate to have such easy access to various other A&C service lines. In Indianapolis, there are around eight foster care agencies, but Adult & Child is the most comprehensive. “Most agencies have to refer out for services, but A&C can literally take care of all that under the same roof,” said Alicia Harding, a TFC team leader. This type of open communication is often a resource for getting quick answers to questions or being able to streamline care for children with trauma and/or other health problems.

The integrated care aspect and novelty of child therapy can be a draw for prospective foster parents looking for a support system when embracing such a challenging role. TFC is always working to keep its foster parents afloat in uncertain waters. “As an agency we really are striving to support and work with foster parents in an ongoing process, to work hand in hand for the benefit of the child,” said Amanda Vipperman, licensing specialist and team leader. Amanda also keeps track of much of the data on how many foster parents are coming into the agency. Currently, there is an average of 10 new inquiries a month from prospective foster parents and an average of two certifications per month. Alicia Harding commented on the disparity of these numbers: “It is a long process and it feels very invasive at times… You do feel vulnerable throughout the process and I don’t think a lot of people like to feel vulnerable.” In this process, foster parents must go through background checks and be prepared to discuss in great detail: their finances, their home life, their relationship, etc. It also takes a lot of effort and time to become a licensed foster parent. The entire paperwork and interviewing process alone takes roughly 20 hours. But at its heart, all these hurdles are in place to make absolutely sure that the home is a stable and safe environment for children. Through the process, the TFC team tries very hard to make sure prospective foster parents feel comfortable and supported in an attempt to keep them moving toward their goal. “There is a huge, huge need for foster parents right now for kids in our community,” said team leader Jodi Kelley, referencing the fact that there are currently more foster kids than there are homes to put them in. There has been a push from the agency to spread this message and to encourage people in the community to reach out for more information if they have ever considered fostering.

Being a foster parent can be a wonderful and life-enriching experience for many, but there are darker realities that prospective parents should prepare for when looking into the process. Many people come to fostering with the desire to give back and help a child, “but what they don’t realize is that it takes a lot of working with what feels like a broken system,” said Alicia. “And it’s never going to be a perfect system when you take a child and traumatize them further by removing them from the only home they know.” She noted that to make the best of it and stay positive, foster parents must also practice self-care and to not take themselves too seriously. She notes that foster care looks different for everyone and it’s so important to be adaptable. “It’s hitting a moving target always, but it can definitely be done.”

A&C Foster Parents Honored with FFTA Scholarship

Longtime Adult & Child Health foster parents Ivan and Elaine Burton were honored this week to attend The Foster Family-based Treatment Association's 30th Annual Conference on Treatment Foster Care on a special scholarship. The conference—held in New Orleans and attended by more than 600 family-based service professionals and foster parents—featured over 90 workshops highlighting best practices being applied in the field today.

Nominated by our staff for their outstanding commitment to fostering and dedication to the children and families they serve, the Burtons have maintained a high standard of excellence for the entirety of their 12 years with our organization. Consistently up to date on all required training and documentation, Ivan and Elaine have often gone above and beyond in identifying and acting on opportunities to better meet the therapeutic needs of the children in their care. They have been active community advocates for our agency and for foster care in general—building strong relationships with biological parents and fellow foster parents alike, and inspiring many more to become licensed themselves.

Most importantly, they have shown an unwavering dedication to putting the needs of the children above all else by taking the time to learn as much as possible about every individual in their care, providing them each with ongoing guidance and support designed to assist in achieving both short and long term success.

Congratulations to Ivan and Elaine on a well-deserved honor!

 

A&C Foster Parents Receive Kiwanis Foundation’s ‘Faith, Hope, & Love’ Award

Foster Parents Receive Award

Congratulations to Adult & Child foster parents Kenneth and Toni Dotson, who were honored May 13 at the Kiwanis Club of Indianapolis' annual Foster Parent Recognition Luncheon!  Nominated by our staff for their exemplary history as foster parents, the Dotsons were one of five in the Greater Indianapolis area to receive a 'Faith, Hope, & Love' Award as Foster Parents of the Year.

With more than five years of outstanding service, Kenneth and Toni have proven time and again that the best interests of every child in their care is their number one priority. They have fostered children of varying ages, genders, and levels of need, and have made each of them feel at home while helping them flourish in their care. They take the difficult job of fostering very seriously—staying up to date on all required training and paperwork—but have also shown an ability to roll with the punches and to connect with a variety of  service providers and A&C staff. Lastly, they both have a great sense of humor!

IYI Library Has Free Resources, Direct to You

The Virginia Beall Ball Library at the Indiana Youth Institute is home to a wide variety of books, DVDs and digital materials—all available to borrow for FREE.

Adult and Child staff has partnered with the Indiana Youth Institute library, and in the near future, you will receive information about a library account that has been created specifically for you. You will be able to log in and browse the catalog to request materials that will be mailed directly to your doorstep at no cost to you, with a postage-paid return envelope included! Your library account will also give you free access to great digital content—both eBooks and audiobooks are available to download anytime, anywhere.

Materials from the Subject Guides, such as Resources for Foster & Adoptive Parents, can be requested by clicking on a title, logging in and placing a request. If you are looking for free access to resources that will help you complete training for licensing requirements, the library has created a link to nearly 60 titles in the library catalog that are listed on the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) approved Alternative In-Service Training List. You can always contact IYI’s librarians at library@iyi.org or 1-800-343-7060 if you need any help finding resources and for answers to your questions.

Register for college fair by August 7

The Center for Leadership Development is hosting a College Prep Fair on Saturday, August 22. The event is open to students in 8th-12th grades. Typically a cost of $15 per student, Adult and Child Center will cover the cost of foster youth currently receiving services through us.

Register your student on or before August 7 by emailing SPeterson@AdultandChild.org.

College Prep Fair at Center for Leadership Development is August 22

College Prep Fair at Center for Leadership Development is August 22

Hoosier Care Connect to replace Care Select for foster kids

We have been notified that a new Medicaid program will be rolled out to replace Care Select. The new program is called “Hoosier Care Connect,” and is being rolled out for eligible foster children by DCS’s Medicaid Enrollment Unit.

Foster parents will receive a letter outlining these changes (also available here). Some key details are provided below. As always, contact us with any questions you may have.

Highlights of the change

  • Hoosier Care Connect is a new Medicaid program for DCS youth that will replace Care Select
  • As of July 1, 2015, the Care Select program will be going away
  • DCS’s Medicaid Enrollment Unit is responsible for enrolling eligible children on Hoosier Care Connect
  • Initially, only children and youth currently on Care Select that are eligible will be enrolled in Hoosier Care Connect.  DCS is still identifying the best approach for identifying children in out-of-home care that are appropriate for opting in to Hoosier Care Connect.  The immediate focus is on children currently enrolled in Care Select, focusing on those children with multiple needs or special conditions such as asthma or heart problems.

The role of foster parents

  • If the child is enrolled in Hoosier Care Connect, the foster parents will be responsible for assisting in completion of an initial health assessment upon entry into the Hoosier Care Connect program.  This is a questionnaire that may require coordination with the child’s FCM to complete.
  • The Managed Care Entity may also contact foster parents regarding selecting a primary medical provider.