By Amy Landsman
Ten years ago, Erica Carter was working at the Children’s Home, a group home for youngsters with emotional and behavioral issues in Baltimore County, when one of the young residents became very attached to her. “She kept asking to live with me,” Carter, of Baltimore, recalls.
Carter took in the girl as a foster child. Eventually, the girl reunited with her biological family, and Carter figured she was done with foster parenting.
Boy, was she wrong. Soon after, the Board of Child Care, the local nonprofit agency with which her group home was connected, asked if she would foster a 7-year-old boy temporarily.
Feeling that the needs of the boy, who had autism and was nonverbal, were beyond its scope, the Board of Child Care transferred his case to the Therapeutic Foster Care Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI), in Baltimore. Carter, however, took day-to-day care of him.
Carter ended up adopting the boy. On top of that, she fostered the boy's brother and then adopted him as well. A year and a half later, she adopted the third brother. And just last year, another 11-year-old foster child joined her household. Carter is looking into adopting him, too.
Not bad for a single mom who already had a biological son of her own.
“One kid, two kids, five kids. I’m not going to lie: the more kids, the more work, but it’s a blessing,” says Carter. “They keep me going, they keep me moving.”
Support from Kennedy Krieger
KKI's Therapeutic Foster Care Program serves more than 100 children and young adults with special needs every year, matching them with families that can provide stable homes until they can be reunited with their families, adopted, or transitioned to independent living.
Prior to placement, KKI conducts a home study, and a social worker consults with the family. Prospective foster parents can then choose the child they feel most connected to.
“The state requires that all foster parents have 24 hours of training,” says Paula Waller, a social worker with the Therapeutic Foster Care Program. “We do everything from training a parent about medically fragile conditions, [to going over] the DDA [Developmental Disabilities Administration] regulations, to what it’s like working with a child with intellectual disabilities, to working with a child with emotional behaviors.”
The staff also helps prospective parents understand why certain kids may act the way they do. “For example, you might have a child who had a history of neglect, and that particular child might hoard food,” notes Waller. “We also have a youth panel. We have our youth come in and talk about what it’s like for them being in foster care.”
In case of emergency, KKI provides a 24-hour on-call phone number for host parents.
“We have parents who are stay-at-home, parents who are single moms, who are older; some are younger,” says Waller. “We have two-parent families, we have professionals. Usually, [they choose to participate because they] have a strong need to give back to children, to give back to the community. Oftentimes it’s because someone you know, who you care a lot about, is caring for a child, and the particular parents are touched by that child and say, ‘Well, maybe I can do this, too.’”
Filling a Void
Since 2005, David and Alfreda Charles, who live in Essex, have fostered eight children through the Therapeutic Foster Care Program. The oldest child was 8, the youngest just 6 days old. The children have had a range of issues, from autism to serious medical conditions.
David Charles, who is pastor at the New Testament Christian Church, in Essex, says he, his wife, their son, 23, and their daughter, 13, include their foster children in all their activities. “Not only are they part of our family, but they are part of our church family as well,” he says.
He believes that the kids’ special needs are a secondary issue to the void in their lives. “More than anything else, we’re just kind of filling what I call a ‘parental deficit,'” says Charles. “It’s just that they simply have not had the things that all children need, like a sense of belonging.”
Charles acknowledges that too often, the only time people hear about foster care is when there’s a horror story on the news. His family’s experience has been very different.
“What has really surprised me has been the support,” he says. “Kennedy Krieger has absolutely changed my view of foster care, and social workers, and casework.” BC
The Therapeutic Foster Care Program has an ongoing need for host families. If you are interested in becoming a foster, adoptive, or respite provider for a child with special needs, call the Kennedy Krieger Institute at 443-923-3811. For more information, go online to www.therapeuticfamilycare.org.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. March 2012