SHERIDAN — It is possibly the most challenging, and more rewarding, of volunteer endeavors…fostering a child. However, there is a level of foster care being offered in Sheridan County that takes the already challenging foster experience a step further, and works to help heal the emotional scars that some children carry.
Unlike traditional foster care, the Therapeutic Foster Care program operated by Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center specializes in giving support and behavior modification for children who are removed from their home due to abuse or neglect or due to behavioral problems that prevent the child from remaining with their birth parents. In cases of abuse or neglect, the child may have developed coping strategies that result in behaviors that are difficult for adults to contend with.
The nonprofit NWMHC partners with the state to operate the TFC program. Program coordinator Don Boone says allowing a child to remain in a home environment is a less expensive option than sending him or her to a residential treatment facility and allows a child to stay in his or her own community, rather than relocating, often resulting in faster and better treatment progress.
“That is the power of just having a stable, structured, consistent and nurturing environment,” Boone said. “Kids are going to do better.”
Boone said when the program began in the mid-1980s, there were 10 local families that served as therapeutic foster homes, but that number has dwindled to just three and the NWMHC is now actively recruiting new homes.
Obviously, fostering a child who may exhibit a range of behaviors can be challenging, but Boone said it also offers benefits for foster parents.
“Some of our foster parents talk about it in terms of a mission or a ministry they provide for these kids,” Boone said. “It is really kind of a lifestyle. Our motto for our program is ‘open your home, open your heart.’ It is such a big decision to open your home and bring in a kid who will present some challenging behaviors, but they also bring some wonderful things as well, in terms of personalities and fun.
“They are providing daily care, support and nurturance to a child who many not be really good at expressing appreciation even,” he continued.
“In order to open your home you also have to open your heart and that is where the compassion and understanding and love comes in. It’s a big commitment. It has tremendous rewards though.”
Tracy and Allen Jones have been foster parents for more than 25 years and have experienced the highs and lows of the foster experience. Tracy Jones, who is a registered nurse and worked in a pediatrician’s office for many years, said she knew the need existed in the community and saw fostering as a way for her to help.
“We heard about the foster program and I thought ‘this is something we can do’,” she said. “This is one place where I can do something about a need so that is how we got started.”
Allen said she has not kept track of how many children they have fostered over the years, but knows it is more than 60. Some children have stayed a few days and some have stayed eight to ten years. She remains in contact with many of their former foster children and some visit regularly from out of state, even though they are grown and have families of their own now.
In addition, the Allen’s adopted one of their foster sons and the family maintains a comfortable relationship with his biological mother. She said that adopting was not their original intention or goal when joining the foster program, but circumstances coalesced to make it possible.
Despite this happy outcome, Allen said that obviously the usual and expected outcome is a child’s return to their biological parents’ home. She said this is often a painful, but necessary, separation and perhaps causes some reluctance on the part of others who might consider being foster parents.
“One thing I have heard over the years from other people is ‘that would be too hard for me to do’”, said Allen. “For many years I took that personally, like they were saying I was heartless. Most of us love very cautiously because we don’t want to get hurt. What I eventually realized was that it is a matter of recognizing that you may get your heart broken, because this child is not yours and they are going home sometime and it hurts every time they go home. But because we have such a capacity to love, we need to love wholeheartedly wherever we can.”
Allen said another concern she has heard from people is how their own children will react to having a foster child in the home. She said this is actually less of an issue than most people think, suggesting that if a child already has a strong and happy relationship with their parents and understands the rules and boundaries, having a new child enter the picture does not undermine that foundation.
Persons interested in becoming a therapeutic foster home must be at least 21 years of age, permit background checks to be done on every adult living in the home and have a home inspection done to ensure a safe living space for a child. Additionally, foster parents receive 25 hours of training before their foster child arrives to give them the tools and support necessary to ensure a successful foster experience. That support continues after the child arrives in the home.
Each foster child is on Medicaid, so any physical and mental medical services for the child are provided. Each child is required to meet with a therapist weekly and the foster family and often the birth family attend therapy sessions as well.
Boone said that besides the full-time foster care option, interested families can sign up to be respite providers. They receive the same level of training and support, but only take foster children on a short-term basis, often just a few days or up to two weeks. He said this is a good starting option for a person or family that doesn’t know if they can commit to full-time fostering.
“We want people that have a heart for children and who enjoy children and who have a good understanding of children,” he said. “We need someone that loves kids and who functions in a structured, consistent manner because that is what most of these kids need. We also want parents who are open to training. We tell parents they bring in a lot of skills and competencies already because you have had kids and you have a way of dealing with your kids, but we also want you to be open to the training because we get pretty prescriptive in how we want them to respond to behaviors. We want parents who can be around some challenging behaviors and not take it personally. They need to be detached from the behavior, but not the kid.”
Foster homes receive a stipend, approximately $1,200 a month, to help defray costs associated with having a child in the home.
For more information about the program, contact Don Boone at NWMHC at 674-4405.