A Place to Call Home

by Kristina Rolfes, Potential Magazine, Summer 2012

Now Celebrating 25 Years, Kennedy Krieger’s Therapeutic Foster Care Program Trains Foster Parents to Care for Children with Special Needs.

Ask Carl Price about his childhood, and you can’t help but feel moved by the struggles he faced as a young boy 25 years ago. With a father in jail and a mother struggling with addiction, Carl wasn’t sure when his next meal would come, let alone his next medical checkup. So when Carl developed a tumor on the left side of his neck, it was left untreated for over a year. By the time Carl’s mother took him to the hospital at age 13, he had developed advanced nasopharyngeal carcinoma — a type of throat cancer.

Carl’s cancer diagnosis was more than his mother could handle. Unable to cope, she would drop him off at the hospital and disappear, leaving him to contemplate his worsening condition, alone and scared.

A few hours after Carl received chemotherapy one afternoon, workers moved him from the hospital to a group home without any communication or preparation about what was happening. Somehow, consideration for his cancer diagnosis had fallen through the cracks, and the group home staff had no idea how to care for a child with cancer. Carl tried to explain to the group home mother that he could not eat because he was sick from the effects of chemotherapy, but she insisted, and he promptly vomited all over the floor. “It was horrifying,” says Carl, now 38. “It was trauma on top of trauma.”

For Carl, life no longer seemed worth living. He felt unwanted by his mother, who was unable to care for him, and alone in a group home unprepared to meet his needs. “To return to a house and not feel wanted and not know how long you’ll be there, you start to ask yourself, why be here?” recalls Carl of his time in the group home. He thought dying of cancer would be God’s way out of this mess.

Soon, Carl was back in the hospital, only this time, he was discharged into the newly established Therapeutic Foster Care program at Kennedy Krieger, which focused on serving foster children with medically fragile conditions and those who had experienced trauma — extraordinarily stressful events such as abuse or neglect that cause a child to feel helpless and vulnerable.

Fostering A Healing Home

Therapeutic Foster Care at Kennedy Krieger was different. Social workers at the Institute explained Carl’s special needs to his new foster parents, William and Millie Shaw, and trained them on the complex medical and emotional challenges that Carl faced. Social workers made sure that Carl had a lot of communication with his foster parents before moving in, including phone calls, meetings, and visits to their home. The Therapeutic Foster Care team worked closely with the family to answer any questions and provide support.

Having this support is key to ensuring that families are able to provide a loving, therapeutic environment for children, according to Stephanie King, a social worker and manager for recruitment and training of foster parents at Kennedy Krieger. “Whether a parent has a question in the middle of the night about a child’s medical condition, needs help finding respite care so they can have a much needed break, or even just wants a little emotional support, our team is just a phone call away.”

Carl’s new foster parents reassured him that they would always be there. They made sure he ate three square meals a day, got to school on time, and did his homework. Despite the stable environment, Carl was at first uncertain about his new situation; he had been in foster homes before. It wasn’t until his first visit to the hospital with his new foster parents that he began to relax.

He had developed a fever and his white blood cell count was down, but because his foster parents had been through the requisite medical training, Carl didn’t have to explain how dangerous the situation was. When they arrived at the hospital, the Shaws had his medical information ready for the emergency room staff. It was the first time Carl didn’t have to explain his medical condition himself.

The stability of his new home proved healing, and Carl soon went into remission. His foster parents made sure he ate nutritiously, and gradually his strength built back up.

Because the Shaws understood how to care not only for Carl’s medical condition, but also for the trauma he had experienced, Carl began to thrive.

The healing effects of Kennedy Krieger’s Therapeutic Foster Care program are something King has seen again and again. “For a lot of kids, Therapeutic Foster Care provides a sense of stability in their lives that was previously missing,” explains King.

Like Carl, many children in Therapeutic Foster Care have been removed from their biological families because of abuse or neglect. Some have been given up willingly by birth parents who couldn’t care for them. Others have come from group homes or treatment centers. However they end up in foster care, nearly all have experienced trauma.

Kennedy Krieger attempts to treat the trauma by ensuring that foster parents are well prepared for the challenges of caring for children with special needs — genetic disorders, emotionally handicapping conditions, complex medical needs, and developmental disabilities — that require ongoing medical and mental health care.

Before parents can become certified as Therapeutic Foster Care parents, they must attend a three day pre-service training program to prepare them with knowledge and skills to care for a child with special needs. Once they become foster parents, they complete 24 hours each year of ongoing training to provide them with the tools and support they need.

The difference Therapeutic Foster Care makes can be profound. “Children improve in school, do better in jobs and relationships, and have more positive experiences. They do much better than we might have anticipated, given their complex medical conditions and history of trauma,” says King. “We see them excelling.”

Investing in the Child, Paying it Forward

Throughout his childhood and into adulthood, Carl maintained contact with the social workers at Kennedy Krieger, who showed a genuine interest in him. He remembers one social worker who made an effort to talk to him about “guy things.” Another attended his high school graduation and visited him at college.

This type of personal involvement and support rebuilds self esteem and value in foster children who may have previously felt unloved and unwanted, says Carl. For Carl, a loving, healing home made all the difference. Without Therapeutic Foster Care, Carl knows unequivocally where he would be: “Dead. Hands down.”

The program gave him a second chance at life, and he’s eager to help other foster kids like him. Carl has learned there are certain things foster children will only share with others who have had a similar experience. That’s why, these days, despite having children of his own, he drives from Richmond to Baltimore two to three times a month to mentor kids in the Therapeutic Foster Care program.

“It’s very rewarding,” says Carl, who after graduating college and serving in the Navy, is now an IT professional and co-owner of an investment holding company. “Being able to increase their quality of life even a fraction of a percentage makes it more than worth it.”

Carl is committed to helping foster children and has even testified before the Senate on the treatment of trauma in children. Although Carl doesn’t consider himself a hero, some of the children at Therapeutic Foster Care might disagree. Seeing someone who has been in their shoes who has not only survived, but succeeded in life, is a source of hope for them.

And seeing a child with hope is something worth celebrating.