For therapeutic foster parents, caring for extremely traumatized children isn’t easy.
Alesia Fowler remembers the first days and weeks she and her husband, Steve, took a brother and sister, ages 18 months and 2-1/2, diagnosed as seriously emotionally disturbed into their Billings home.
“It was just so intense,” Fowler said of that time in January 2015. “There was constant crying, constant screaming, constant fighting.”
The stress was heightened because the Fowlers had spent the previous seven years as empty-nesters, their grown son, 26, and daughter, 28, both out of the house. The quiet was replaced by frequent emotional outbursts.
“That’s where the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch was phenomenal, the support they gave us,” she said.
YBGR has run a therapeutic foster care program since early 2000, which is now expanding, said Kim Chouinard, executive director of YBGR’s Community Based Services. Her office is housed inside the old Garfield Elementary building.
Who are the kids?
Children up to age 18 are eligible for therapeutic foster care, and most of them come through the state of Montana’s Child & Family Services. What qualifies them for the specialized foster care is if they are diagnosed as seriously emotionally disturbed.
“They say the human brain is not fully developed until age 26,” Chouinard said. “We’re talking about toddlers who have experienced an incredible amount of trauma that affects their ability to relate socially, emotionally and behaviorally” and may never fully heal.
They may grapple with such mental health issues as depression, anxiety and reactive attachment disorder, and behaviors such as manipulation, aggression, hyperactivity and an inability to control themselves.
“We see a lot of reactive attachment when there’s been a lot of (early) neglect or abandonment,” Chouinard said.
The best way to describe what reactive attachment looks like, she said, is children pushing people way, but at the same time desperately hoping those people will “'stay the course with me, don’t give up on me. Every adult gives up on me.'”
On the surface their behavior may seem manipulative, Chouinard said.
“It’s their way of surviving,” she said. “They’re trying to adapt the environment so it feels safer.”
YBGR provides initial and ongoing training, as well as 24/7 phone support and weekly visits by a treatment manager to equip foster parents with the tools they need to succeed, said Tracey Lujan, family resource specialist. Couples also get a weekend off every month, with respite care provided by other certified therapeutic foster parents.
“We tell (the couples) at the beginning it’s a life-changing experience for them,” Lujan said. “When these children come into their homes they do require so much attention that the parents have to be prepared.”
It’s a long process to become a therapeutic foster parent, she said. It requires a home study, background check, 18 hours of pre-service orientation plus an additional 15 hours before they are licensed.
Then they must complete 30 hours of additional training per year to keep their license, as opposed to the 15 hours of training annually for a regular foster parent. The therapeutic foster parents must have the ability to meet the child where he or she is at, Lujan said.
“Some of our folks have had to be willing to change their parenting styles and to focus more on what’s behind the behavior of the children,” she said.
Fowler agrees. She works hard to find the meaning behind the behavior.
“It’s not that they’re trying to be bad or mean, especially early on,” she said. They’re decompressing from a home situation they didn’t know how to deal with.
“They were with us for six weeks before we saw them play and smile and laugh,” Fowler said.
One of the techniques these foster parents learn, Lujan said, is helping teach the children different ways of thinking. Instead of coping with situations by getting angry, they learn healthier responses.
“The parents help them identify what their triggers might be so we can give them some coping skills to work through those issues,” she said.
Becoming a family
This isn’t the first time Fowler and her husband, a church-planting pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church, have been involved in foster care. The couple, both 56, were foster parents in Michigan for 15 years, with part of that time in specialized foster care.
When they moved to Montana, their daughter and son were in high school, and the couple decided to step back from foster parenting.
A friend who works for YBGR suggested they reconsider their decision once their children were grown and out of the house. The couple agreed, Fowler said, thinking to take in one toddler.
But they couldn’t bear to break up a brother and a sister. And while they thought it would be a short-term placement, they're in the process of adopting the pair.
“We decided a little over a year ago we weren’t just going to be another placement for them,” Fowler said.
The couple spoke with the children’s biological grandparents, who supported the decision. The Fowlers also talked with their own children, who fully support the adoption.
“We said, 'We want to know all your thoughts. Are we losing our minds?'” Fowler said, smiling. “They were both just ecstatic.”
The girl and boy are now ages 3 and 4. They easily approach Fowler to ask her questions, share their thoughts or just have a little “mom” time.
There are still difficult moments. The boy recently hit his preschool teacher. Fowler used the technique she’s learned through training called a “time-in,” where he sat close to her and after he had calmed down, they began to talk.
She asked if something was bothering him.
“At first he said no,” Fowler said. “Then he was able to process what was making him act and react in a negative way because he was pretty sassy and lippy with us. He said he was afraid of losing us.”
She looked him in the eye.
“I reminded him ‘I will love you forever,’ just to reassure him,” Fowler said.
'Such a need'
Not every couple who signs up to be therapeutic foster parents will adopt, Lujan said. The goal of the program is, when possible, to reunify the youngsters with their biological families.
“But after a certain amount of time if that doesn’t happen, we start looking at helping these children have some sort of normal life and find a family to live with.”
Presently, YBGR has three licensed families in Billings and 22 in Livingston, Townsend, Three Forks and Big Timber. It is now branching out to Dillon to recruit more families, but it could always use more in Billings and Yellowstone County.
“There’s just such a need,” Lujan said. “It’s very disheartening when we get a referral and we don’t have a family to place the children with.”
Chouinard praises couples like the Fowlers for opening their homes and their hearts to some of the most emotionally fragile children. They come with many challenges, she said, but over time things can turn around; they can start to emotionally reattach.
“It takes those heroes to get through the storm with them,” she said. “The other side of that storm is pretty magical.”