By CASEY CHAFFIN
Keizertimes Intern

When was the last time you felt safe?

Really, truly safe. The kind of safe where you can trust those around you. The kind of safe where you weren’t worrying about where you’re going or if your family is okay. The kind of safe where you were completely, totally, utterly relaxed.

Do you have an answer? Have you ever had to consider the question?

“Am I safe?” is a question thousands of kids in foster care around the country have to answer for themselves every day.

Erma Brundidge is very familiar with this question. After working in the Department of Human Services for almost 20 years—a journey which began with being in foster care herself as a child—she’s both seen and experienced how the lack of safety can impact one’s life.

“Our [foster] kiddos are not able to relax because they’re always on guard. … I share with them, it is rare that I am ever fully relaxed. It’s from being in the system and on my own and not safe for so long. It’s in here. I’m always watching my back, are you going to trick me? It’s locked in,” said Brundidge.

This pervasive sense of unease, of imminent danger regardless of whether there is any, is a result of traumatic experiences children in foster care endure, both before entering the system and after they come into DHS custody. Foster kids are constantly asking themselves and their guardians—am I safe?

Unfortunately, the answer is often: no.

As a significant number of children come into the system because they’ve been abused or neglected, that’s the answer they received from their biological parents. But even after they come into care, the negative behaviors kids develop to cope with a constant answer of “no” cause foster kids to be moved around. A lot.

Only 57 percent of kids move placements one or two times over the course of their time in care. At the other end of the spectrum, 22 percent move more than five times, according to Marion County foster care data aggregated by the University of Kansas.

Brundidge spoke about the seven levels of safety—one feeling safe in public and seven feeling completely at ease all the time. The fourth level of safety is “Am I safe even if I provoke?” This is often a difficult question for foster parents to address, because provocation as a gauge of safety is one of the negative coping skills traumatized kids develop to test their environment.

“And that’s what they get an answer of no to all the time,” Brundidge said.

Traditional DHS foster homes often aren’t equipped to handle kids with acute trauma experiences, who have developed negative coping skills to handle their sense of trauma. When a kid is found to have a severe enough emotional or behavioral problem, they’re often referred to agencies that contract with DHS to provide therapeutic homes for foster kids. Therapeutic foster care is known as “treatment level” for kids who have been designated by DHS as in need of Behavior Rehabilitation Services (BRS)—essentially, kids who need more than just a stable home environment to heal from their experiences. Therapeutic foster homes receive special training and accommodation to deal with the needs of traumatized kids who haven’t learned to cope with their trauma.

Trauma is difficult to quantify in a person’s life. However, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) aims to measure the level of trauma a person endured before their eighteenth birthday in a series of 10 yes-or-no questions: whether they were physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, whether they were neglected, whether their parents used drugs, suffered from a mental illness or were generally absent. Every “yes” answer adds a point to the ACES score. According to an ACES survey of youth in children’s programs in Oregon, over 90 percent of the youth served in therapeutic foster care have an ACES score of 4 or higher.

When children endure trauma without respite—which is what the average ACES score suggests happens for many kids who end up in treatment care—their brains develop in a way that inhibits self-control. These neurological problems result in severe behavioral problems.

“These kids are in treatment really because of the significant issues they’re having. Our job is to stabilize them, get them evaluated, and see if we can get them settled down to be able to go down to a lower level of care, or go home if they have a home,” said Debby Lute, executive director of Connections365, a therapeutic foster care agency based in Salem. Connections365 typically works with kids ages 12 to 18, and currently works with eight certified families fostering 12 kids in the Salem area.

Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) agencies use the guidelines of the DHS foster parent training, but include additional elements on caring for traumatized kids, how trauma impacts brain development, and how kids use negative behaviors to communicate when trauma has impacted the way they think and see the world. Aside from special training for foster parents, TFC agencies employ mental health counselors and mentors on staff to provide the most support for kids, as well as around-the-clock on-call support for foster parents.

“If you think about treatment foster care, [the foster kids] are part of a wraparound team,” said Lute. This team includes the foster youth, the foster parents, the caseworker—also typically an employee of the TFC agency and not DHS, so they have a smaller caseload—the mental health counselor, and any other individuals party to the child’s case, including biological relatives, or necessary for the youth’s recovery, including outside drug or alcohol counselors.

Due to an increased number of youth in foster care who need this specialized treatment, and the intensification of youth behaviors in recent years, the need for therapeutic foster homes has expanded. However, in terms of homes, “the system is compressing right now,” Lute said. This is particularly tough on childcare agencies, considering TFC homes can’t take as many children per home as general foster care—in TFC, single parents can have up to four kids in the home, including their biological children, and couples can have up to five kids total in the home, a reduction from the norms for traditional foster families.

Brandi Ware is the therapeutic foster care supervisor at Maple Star Oregon. Maple Star is a childcare agency based in Portland, which serves youth ages 6 through 21 living on the I-5 corridor between Portland and Eugene, including Marion County. Ware said that they serve about twenty youth in their TFC service range, and they are currently at capacity—but she still receives 50 new referrals for BRS youth every month.

“A lot of them I have to say no to because we don’t have the beds,” said Ware.

A lack of treatment care opportunities for struggling foster youth can have consequences down the road. The importance of treatment intervention, Jessica Carpenter, Connections365’s Community Outreach and Development Director, said, is that TFC agencies are “the last chance for these kids before they are adults and everything they do is a permanent criminal behavior and effects their ability to get a job, have a place, get a car, become a parent.” Providing these services to all the youth who need them is essential, but there aren’t enough therapeutic foster homes to serve every youth who could benefit from treatment care.

The cyclical nature of dysfunctional parenting techniques, incarceration and substance abuse concern those who work in this field—disrupting this cycle is the goal of treatment care, so as this generation of foster youth age out, they can become better parents, healthier individuals, and more productive members of society. Unfortunately, when there’s not enough resources to provide treatment for every youth, they’re likely to fall back into the negative cycle from which they came.

That’s why therapeutic foster homes need more parents who are willing to take on the responsibility. Therapeutic foster agencies like Maple Star and Connections365 need parents who can complete the certification requirements, pass background checks, and have the time to devote one-on-one attention to a high-needs foster youth—ideal therapeutic foster homes include a stay-at-home or work-from-home parent or retired parents. But the system also needs “foster parents that are curious and willing to learn. Willing to try things that are unconventional in parenting,” said Ware, because traumatized kids don’t respond to traditional parenting techniques. (For one example of unconventional, trauma-informed parenting, see Where is the strength?)

Most importantly, they need parents who can give kids a better outlook on life and open up the opportunities that have been closed off to them by their circumstances.

“[Youth] have to have hope. And hope is not built on their failures and their mistakes and their behaviors, it’s built on their capacity and their resilience,” said Lute.

Connections365 hosts open-house informational sessions for parents interested in either long-term fostering or providing short-term respite care.

Upcoming informational sessions:

Tuesday, July 24, 4:30-6 p.m., 4890 32nd Ave S.E. in Salem.

Tuesday, August 28, 4:30-6 p.m. 4890 32nd Ave S.E. in Salem.

To find out more about getting involved with Connections365 and other therapeutic foster care agencies, visit FosterPlus.org