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Fostering Home Hope: Special Report on foster care in CT
Updated: 6 days ago
This article first appeared as the cover story in the May edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Sarah Klepack — Special to Today Magazine
• trauma • noun — a deeply distressing or disturbing experience
The dictionary definition of trauma does not do the term justice. Victims of scary experiences can be haunted by their trauma. A traumatizing experience may last only a few minutes, but the effects can last a lifetime.
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Imagine being unwillingly removed from the one place you always knew as home. You are unsure if you will see your loved ones again. Your bedroom, the room you used as your sanctuary, is no longer yours. Your future that seemed so clear not too long ago is now unknown.
Being separated from home and family is a shared trauma that all foster children have to live through every day. In Connecticut alone, there are about 3000 children in the foster care system and hundreds in need of supportive homes, according to Sharon Pendleton-Ponzani, director of foster care services at Wheeler Health, also known as Wheeler Clinic.
“Of those hundreds, the majority of youth in need are 13 years old or older,” says Pendleton-Ponzani. “There is a great need for homes for older youth.”
May is National Foster Care Month. Foster parents, families, volunteers, professionals and policymakers are recognized for their contributions to youth in foster care. Many will celebrate the progress that has been made, but it is also important to continue planning for a better future.
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Wheeler provides foster care services in Bristol, Hartford, New Britain, Plainville and Waterbury via its Family Health & Wellness Centers at each location.
Foster parents are trained by a team of professionals during the placement process. The children’s health needs, including therapeutic services, are all covered. Wheeler’s goal is to get youth back to their families as soon as it is safe, or to find a permanent resource if returning is not possible.
Every child copes with trauma differently. Future foster parents need to acquire skills to assist their youth in the best way possible. Youth are often put into these situations because of unfortunate life circumstances, and they may feel nervous and uncomfortable, and it is up to the adults to ease the tension.
“Most frequently, children enter foster care due to a parent’s inability to care for their child, classified as neglect,” says Thomas “TJ” Michalski, associate vice president of permanency services at The Village for Families and Children. “Sometimes children enter foster care due to abuse.”
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Based in Hartford, The Village serves children, adults and families throughout Greater Hartford. Building on a legacy that dates back more than 200 years, the agency’s mission is to cultivate a community of healthy families who protect and nurture children.
In Connecticut, children enter the foster care system through the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the public or state agency that investigates reports of abused or neglected youth. To make a report, someone with concerns can call the DCF Careline at 1-800-842-2288.
Many children enter the system due to confidential reports from family, friends, neighbors or others who have suspicions about abuse or neglect. On occasion, youth will voluntarily enter the system, although it isn’t nearly as common for children to contact authorities.
In some traumatic situations, children must be placed with foster parents immediately, and in each circumstance DCF determines the level of severity.
“Sometimes children are left in their homes and services are put in place to address issues,” says Michalski. “Sometimes children live with a relative or friend while issues are being addressed, and sometimes children are removed immediately for their safety and placed in non-relative caregiver homers when no appropriate relative can be located.”
DCF investigations occur over a 45-day period, and decisions are made regarding the care needed.
“It’s rare for kids to come into care voluntarily, but when they do it’s usually due to a parent who comes to realize they need more support to help their child than they can get from traditional services,” Michalski explains. “They become families with service needs and voluntarily seek DCF help to address their child’s significant behavioral issues — often this is to access group care settings.”
Private organizations — also known as Therapeutic Foster Care agencies — work hand in hand with the state-run DCF. The goal of all foster care is of course therapeutic, but in the professional realm of social services, Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) refers to a system whereby DCF awards contracts to private agencies such as Wheeler and The Village.
"Research suggests that children do best in the homes of their relatives over non-relative foster care" — TJ Michalski • The Village
“DCF will always try to keep a child in the care and custody of birth families first, and if that’s not possible DCF seeks out extended family members to care for the child,” Michalski says. “Children come into non-relative foster care when those options fail or are nonexistent.”
When DCF determines that it isn’t viable for youth to live safely in their current environment, foster care becomes a key alternative.
“Whenever possible, it’s best to have youth be able to go into a kinship or relative placement,” says Pendleton-Ponzani, in agreement with Michalski — they were interviewed separately. “If that is not possible, then a non-relative placement is sought for the youth. It is always best if youth can be placed in their community of origin as this is least disruptive to their everyday life.”
Future foster parents are trained using a model called Functional Family Therapy Foster Care or FFT-FC. Before they get to this step, they must take the MAPP training course (Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting). Once this is completed, they will be licensed. From there, they can be approved by a private foster agency.
NEW MODEL, SAME AIM
The FFT-FC program was implemented in Connecticut in the summer of 2022, specifically for Therapeutic Foster Care. In this program, a therapist meets with the foster family and youth using a family therapy model developed by FFT Partners.
This intervention usually lasts 6-9 months. The goal is to stabilize youth in the current foster care placement and then work with the youth’s original family — whether biological parents, relatives or adoptive parents — for an additional several months. To reiterate, the ultimate goal is to return youth to their original family whenever possible.
Before the Functional Family Therapy model was introduced, there were only guidelines, says Michalski — best practice had developed over decades and previous contracts included requirements for private agencies, but no evidence-based model for foster care existed.
Foster parents work closely with the foster care team during this whole process. The team ensures that the prospective parents are a good fit and can make their youth feel comfortable.
“Research suggests that children do best in the homes of their relatives over non-relative foster care,” Michalski says. “This new model focuses on the foster parents’ better understanding of the child in context and suggests new approaches to care for them, while also focusing on finding kin for the children.”
While the FFT-FC system is still a work-in-progress, some foster care professionals envision it working wonders for youth down the road. The new system is expected to help non-relative families, especially, build strong bonds with foster children. Further, the system is beneficial because it is evidence-based and is structured so that everyone follows the same guidelines.
In many cases, children have the opportunity to see professional counselors. This depends on the youth, their situation and their preferences. For some, counselors may not be the right answer.
“Counseling is an individualized approach to address each child’s specific needs,” Michalski says. “This can range from zero counseling to once weekly to twice, three times or every weekday.”
HIGHWAY TO HEALING
With the Functional Family Therapy model and other tools provided for parents and youth, foster parents have the role of helping their child with the healing process. Every road is different, but no matter what a child’s future looks like, it is important to form a strong bond. The training and certification services were created to prepare foster parents for these challenges.
Because of FFT-FC, the span of time youth spend in foster care has shortened, making for a more promising future. One hope is to prevent older children in foster care. Many foster parents don’t want a teenager for a foster child — they envision themselves with a baby or toddler — so DCF wants to avoid “children lingering in the system, and move them to permanency faster,” says Pendleton-Ponzani.
Once youth in the state’s foster care system have reached 18, they can opt out of DCF care, or they can voluntarily choose to remain in the system with foster parents or a private agency. Older youth are typically placed in private Therapeutic Foster Care programs because they need a different approach, especially when they have already been through unsuccessful placements with foster parents.
Fully overcoming the trauma that foster care youth face may not be possible. However, learning to cope with traumatic experiences, through therapy and supportive foster parents, can lead youth in the right direction.
"There needs to be a way to raise awareness about the lack of foster parents — the number of foster care homes has decreased nationwide" — Sharon Pendleton-Ponzani • Wheeler Health
The tricky part for foster parents is identifying how their foster children are coping and then creating methods to ease their minds. While some effects of trauma are universal, every child faces trauma differently — so a set formula for dealing with all situations cannot be a realistic expectation.
Completing the Functional Family Therapy training is important, because the FFT program is designed to help foster parents learn how to build a strong relationship with their foster children.
Some argue that foster care is a scary place for children. However, when the alternative is continued abuse, neglect or trauma in a child’s birth home, foster care is clearly a better solution, according to the Society for Research in Child Development.
Once children are in the DCF system, to help them cope with these heartbreaking changes, every effort is made to keep siblings together and to maintain children in their original school district. However, it’s difficult to stick to these guidelines because of the lack of foster parents.
“There needs to be a way to raise awareness about the lack of foster parents,” says Pendleton-Ponzani. “The number of foster care homes has decreased nationwide over the last several years. It’s unclear exactly why this occurred. There is some speculation that the pandemic may have contributed to this decrease.”
In addition, resources such as daycare and after-school programs have to be more accessible for foster families, says Michalski.
“Affordable childcare is in high demand,” he notes. “Access and affordability present a significant problem.”
While entering the foster care system can be scary, the FFT-FC system helps ease youth through the transition — but despite improvements in the system, the lack of foster parents is an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed.
The foster parent shortage makes it more difficult for older children in crisis to have a safe home, for all foster children to stay in the communities where they grew up, and for these youth to escape dangerous birth home situations. +
Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert contributed to this report