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Treatment foster care tough but rewarding

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Posted: Saturday, February 20, 2010 12:00 am

Andy Jones

Observer editor

Looking for work? How about a job that pays $2.70 an hour and requires that you work 24 hours a day, every day?

To paraphrase the old Peace Corps slogan, “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Only instead of offering your skills and work ethic to developing nations, people who accept this job are offering their know-how and energy to developing children.

If that sounds appealing, contact Red Mountain Family Services, Inc., a licensed New Mexico Child Placement Agency, or foster care agency; more specifically, a treatment foster agency.

The Rio Rancho facility’s treatment foster care program consists of a network of highly trained foster families who provide care to children who may have severe, complex, and persistent emotional disabilities, among other issues. It’s not a job for just anyone.

According to Red Mountain Family Services Executive Director Cindy Clark-Thompson, only one in 15 families who begin the process to become treatment foster parents will actually complete the requirements and become licensed.

The process itself, from contact to placement, can take anywhere from six to 12 weeks says Kathy Sawyer, Red Mountain’s treatment foster parent recruiter.

“It’s pretty strategic,” Sawyer said of the process. “We start the screening process immediately. I’ll talk to them on the phone and I spend a lot of time up front because I know what the agency is looking for; I am a treatment foster parent, I know what I’m doing. I know what it’s going to be like and I know the changes you’ll have to make and the commitment.”

In addition to having your home inspected for safety concerns and anything deemed inappropriate, foster parents are also subject to background checks and have to complete 40 hours of training (and an additional 24 per year to stay licensed).

“If they’re still interested after our first conversation, then I meet with them face-to-face here at the office,” Sawyer said. “And by that meeting, I’ve spent at least two to three hours with them. And then if they want to go forward from there, we do what we call the screening process. If I feel comfortable with (the applicants), I present them to the team (who then) decides whether or not they will accept them into training.”

All of this following a massive pile of paperwork that has to be provided or filled out by prospective foster parents. If a family makes it through the training, the agency will go through another process to match the right child with the right family.

“We have a one-hour meeting with the child and the family and then we go from there,” Sawyer said. “We do a 72-hour pass and if we all agree that this is a good match, then the child is placed at the end of the 72-hour pass.”

It’s an exhaustive process that Clark-Thompson says is absolutely necessary.

“It gives the parents a chance to say, ‘This isn’t the right match for my family,’ and that does happen sometimes. All of us parent differently and have different styles and you want to match that with the child and the family’s kids in the home,” Clark-Thompson said.

She said it’s usually a good sign when a family says that their lives are boring.

“You want the structure; people who do everything the same day, same weekend,” she said. “Because our kids love that … they need the structure.”

“We’re really trying to do the process properly so that the people we are hiring are good solid families and they stay (with us) and they are good at what they do,” Sawyer said.

The process for many, however much work and stress, does have its rewards.

Matthew and Marilyn Phillips, who live in Northern Meadows, have been treatment foster parents since 2003, the longest tenure of any family on Red Mountain’s roster. Obviously, they do it because it adds value to their lives.

“Oh yeah,” Matthew Phillips said. “Especially after (the children) have left and they call us, and say how they’re still doing well or how they’ve graduated from high school. One just called us and said she graduated. That’s the best; when they call us back.”

Most of the children the Phillips have had in their home stayed around a year, and one child even stayed three years.

“The average stay is six to nine months,” Clark-Thompson said, noting that stays can be extended when there’s not another good plan for the child.

Ultimately, the goal for every child is for their situations at home to improve so they can return to their biological parents.

“That’s another thing I love about Red Mountain is that we work with biological families and we work very hard,” Sawyer said.

“We want them to come and work with us and feel comfortable,” Clark-Thompson added.

And because many of the biological parents of foster children have their own issues, including addiction and mental illness, getting to a point in everyone’s lives where a child can return home is an uphill battle, but Red Mountain has a relatively high success rate.

“I did some research on our kids and 50 percent of our kids go home,” Clark-Thompson said. “The other half go to independent living or adoption or relatives, or back to a (psychiatric) hospital.”

Sawyer, a foster parent herself, said, “One of my favorite things to do is to ride with the biological parent; get them maybe in a situation where I pick them up from here and take them to a school program or something, and talk with them about how special their child is and hope that something gets them to say, ‘I’ve got to get it together for this kid.’”

And while getting a kid back “home” may be important, stability is also a driving force for the staff at Red Mountain.

“We have some kids who’ve had as many as 24 or 25 placements,” Clark-Thompson said. “So the goal is to not have any more.”

Red Mountain is regulated by the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.

“It is highly regulated,” Clark-Thompson said. “They’re pretty demanding and they should be, I know. We get audited twice a year and they do make sure that we are performing and if we don’t, they let you know.”

Luggage program geared at giving children self respect

One program employed at Red Mountain Family Services is specifically geared at giving uprooted children a stronger feeling of self worth.

It’s called Luggage for Kids, and it was born of necessity after staff at the treatment foster program continually saw children in the office with their belongings in garbage bags.

“All the kids in New Mexico who get put in foster care, in a crisis situation, get a garbage bag and we decided no more garbage bags,” Red Mountain Executive Director Cindy Clark-Thompson said. “So all the kids get luggage and we also send luggage to the CYFD (Children, Youth  and Families Department) offices as well. We just don’t want them to be treated like garbage.”

Kathy Sawyer, the agency’s treatment foster parent recruiter and a foster parent herself said she’s seen the program make an impact in the lives of children who’ve been in her own home.

“I can tell you from my point of view, being a foster parent, when the kids came in with the luggage, they’re so excited,” she said.

The agency purchased $10,000 worth of luggage (270 pieces) in 2009.

“I’m really good at buying luggage and pricing,” Clark-Thompson said. “If I walk in and there’s a sale, we get it, and we’ve priced luggage everywhere and we just know which place has the cheapest stuff.”

Many of the pieces are sent out to CYFD offices across the state.

“What happens is, CYFD … they have 33 offices …  so we call them and ask, ‘Do you need luggage?’ and we order it or send it to them or make some way to get it to them.”

Clark-Thompson said the CYFD offices love the program and the value of having luggage, as opposed to garbage bags, is immeasurable to the children.

“The foster system can be very brutal,” she said. “For me, it is about a tone for them, that you’re going to be treated really well in this system.”

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