Since 1979, Braley & Thompson has provided the children of the Commonwealth of Virginia safe and supportive foster homes while helping to restore their natural home environment. The company started off as a foster care agency providing residential services. They were bought out by ResCare a little under a decade ago, which enabled them to expand their aid to offer more services, like helping the families with outpatient therapy, mental health services and therapeutic mentoring on-site.
Shannon Chappell, the child planning supervisor for the Chesapeake, Virginia branch, is the liaison who receives the foster care alerts as they come in. She helps to make the best fits for children who need rapid placement.
“To make the best fit you really have to know your foster parents, know what they can handle, know what their strengths are, what the flexibility in their schedules are, because everything plays a part when you’re trying to place a therapeutic foster child in a home,” she says. “We don’t tend to stick kids anywhere.”
The company does its best to make sure that every situation is a great fit by doing a pre-placement visit, but since they get a large influx of emergency care needs, they don’t always possess that luxury. So they work with the Department of Social Services to find the best suitable environment.
“We take as much information about a family as we can, try to keep the kids in the same cities because that is what the DSS wants, but we give them all of our available options so that they can make a decision on what they feel is the right fit as well.” says Chappell.
How Foster Families are Determined
When a family makes the decision to serve the community by becoming a foster family, there is a process that they must undergo. Many families find the opportunity through an advertisement, Christie Westlund, regional director for the Eastern Region of Chesapeake and Richmond, says, “Many people call in, they’ve seen our ads in Valpak, we’ve been to vendor events, we’ve got people though word-of-mouth and they call in saying they want to be a foster parent.”
Once they’ve engaged Braley & Thompson, they’re brought in for an orientation, they apply, and then it’s reviewed to see if they would be a good fit for the organization and if they would be a good fit for a foster parent.
“They come through our training, a home study has to be completed, background checks have to be completed on everyone in the family, TB testing and physicals have to be done. It depends on what the foster family is willing to do. We can get families certified in as little as two months,” says Chappell. “We get a lot of calls from people who say they have been thinking about it for months or years but it’s a lifetime commitment.”
In a home visit, eligibility is determined by the past of the family. For instance, if a foster parent has experienced a lot of sexual trauma, Braley & Thompson is unlikely to place a child who has experienced sexual trauma in that home, unless the foster parent has dealt with and overcome the trauma, to which it may be a therapeutic relationship for the child.
Other factors are the size of the home, number of bedrooms and where they live.
“We want to make sure that we’re not moving them next door to where they live, but we want to put them in a safer environment,” says Chappell.
Location is also a huge piece. What the state looks for is to have kids placed in their same localities since the goal is to have the child placed back into their home when the appropriate time arrives. So if a child lives in Virginia Beach, it’s the goal of DSS and Braley & Thompson to ensure that the child remains in Virginia Beach.
Virginia’s regulations also state that a parent must be mentally and physically able to foster. So they can’t be terminally ill or have any ailments that prohibit a parent from fostering. This isn’t usually a problem for their applicants. The biggest challenge is a shortage of foster families. In the Hampton Roads area, there are only 13 foster families serving with the organization.
“The matching piece is so hard,” says Westlund. “Social Services could call and let’s say we have 20 families available, if the children need to be placed in certain school zones, we may not have that.”
How Treatment Foster Care Works
Treatment foster care differs from typical foster care as it provides a safe and stable environment for young people in foster care to manage the social, emotional and educational challenges resulting from the complex trauma of abuse, neglect and dysfunctional home lives. Treatment foster care creates the structured setting necessary for growth and development and helps to overcome developmental delays. Foster families collaborate with a team of professionals to develop unique approaches to the individualized needs of each child and to build healthy family relationships, according the Braley & Thompson website
Here is how the training works.
“If you have a foster kid and you need more training we help with that. Let’s say they have a kid who has autism, we go out to their house and do it one-on-one. But the training [for treatment care] as a whole is an eight-session process,” says Westlund.
“We’re starting a trauma training with all of our old foster parents and our new ones. It helps them to help kids when they have difficult times when their big feelings are coming out everywhere, you know, when they’re exploding on and hitting people, this training will help them.”
Another difference in the therapeutic model is that every person at the agency knows what’s going on with every child in the program. This helps parents when they need access to someone in difficult times because anyone can help them.
“We have an on-call phone that gives families 24-hour access,” says Chappell. “They can talk to any one of us and we can help them or give them more training.”
How Children Enter Into Foster Care
Children come in to the agency after being removed from their primary care givers by Child Protective Services, through home-to-home transfers and from other care agencies. The challenging aspect is the trauma that it adds to their young lives.
“They’ve all had trauma in one way or another; the beginning trauma being an abuse and neglect case. That can be emotional, physical, mental, sexual or whatever CPS has deemed needing removal. So they have that trauma. If they are moved through another agency, that adds more trauma,” says Westlund.
Adds Chappell, “Sometimes we get kids whose parents just drop them off at DSS and their parents have relinquished custody. Or we get kids whose family life seemed to be okay, but they ended up in juvenile detention for stealing or fighting. So before they go home they have to enter into the step down process of therapeutic foster care because we find that they’re just not ready for the independence of going home.”
Family Integration & Lifestyle
A typical challenge with foster care is home integration. The new child has to learn to live with a new family, function within its rules and possibly take on foster siblings.
“For each kid it’s different,” says Westlund. “So we look at the matching and try to get as much information as we can from the social worker so that we can look and see if they would be good with a couple of other kids in the home, or no, they need more attention. They may need a mom and a dad in the home. Some kids can’t handle pets.”
“Some people ask for a strong male role model in the home or someone with a military background. We’ve also been asked to place kids in the home of same sex parents if a child is gay, or with parents who will understand and accept them. So we really do look at everything when placing a kid,” says Chappell. “And we have to really educate the parents. Some are just so excited and want a kid, but we have to ask them if they’re really OK with how a transgendered child will dress, if a child doesn’t want to go to church or the foods they like to eat.”
During the training of their foster parents, Westlund and Chappell talk to the families about their expectations and how to make a kid feel safe and comfortable in their new home environments.
“Sometimes you have to get a nightlight, or an ADT system to help them feel safe. We might not know what has happened to the kids so we teach them to comfort those fears,” says Westlund. “Then we have them talk about what aspects of their culture make them feel comfortable, like incorporating the holiday traditions they had at home into the foster home. This helps the kids to feel like it’s their home and when they do, they thrive.”
Aging Out and Ongoing Relationships
It’s an inherent trait of Americans to love the comeback story. We see it in inspirational films like “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It’s no different in day-to-day lives of the people in our communities. With therapeutic foster care, the children who graduate out of the foster care environment—which happens at age 21—aren’t left to fend for themselves. They are given the tools to overcome the hands they were dealt and in some cases, their foster families still assist them.
“Since our kids don’t age out of the program until 21, a lot of our foster parents will teach the kids how to use public transportation to go to college or go to work,” says Chappell. “Kids can sign themselves out at 18, but if they’re trying to go to college and get a job, DSS will pay for them to go to school until they’re 21 and they can stay with the same families if they choose.”
In some localities, like in their Roanoke, Virginia program, the agency will help kids find apartments and then assign a case worker to check in on them and help them if they choose. This option isn’t available yet in Hampton Roads.
Chappell says the agency has had many success stories due to the resiliency of the kids they’ve had. Some have gone on to have careers, start successful families and lead good lives.
“These kids really try. We coach our families to focus on the little successes and those create the big ones that makes them want more success,” says Westlund. “We teach the kids to set goals. We ask the foster parents to help them set up bank accounts and teach them the value of money and how to save.”
The greatest success and strength of the program are the bonds built between the children who age out and their foster families. In many cases, it extends into adulthood, which helps to keep the young adults grounded.
“We still hear from some of the kids from time-to-time and that someof the foster families still maintain relationships with the kids because they’ve created that bond—an attachment with someone they can celebrate holidays with, or get help from,” Chappel says.
“They marry, have kids of their own and they find you on Facebook,” laughs Westlund.