When Foster Care Fails

The Central Coast Children’s Foundation, Inc.
Occasional Paper # 6
When Foster Care Fails: Creating a Sanctuary for the Neglected and Abused

By Adam Joseph

“Andrea” started life with two strikes against her; and things deteriorated rapidly from there. Born with an I.Q. in the seventies as well as a noticeable birth defect, she had to be separated, when just 22 months old, from birth parents no longer able to care for her. Things got progressively worse as she was shuttled from foster family to foster family, experiencing neglect, and both physical and sexual abuse, along the way.
Within the foster care system, the kinds of resources needed to address her emotional and psychological needs were few and far between. Almost inevitably, these gaps in the system designed to take care of her resulted in severe behavioral problems at school, and extreme feelings of frustration, shame, and self-doubt. Lacking any sense of well-being or self-worth, she became by age 12 completely introverted. Both her biological parents and the foster care system had already failed her, leaving her alone in a confusing, chaotic world.

Who could provide the safe, consistent, therapeutic and nurturing environment Andrea so desperately needed to get out of her tailspin, and start moving along a path toward a functioning and responsible adult life? Who might help her avoid the too frequent outcomes for children facing similar conditions: homelessness, prison, mental hospitals, or worse? Her best hope was to connect with people who care in a world that seemed devoid of caring.

A Second Chance: Fortunately for Andrea, such people do exist (though hardly in sufficient supply). For her, their names were Ed, Roger and Jessica. Ed Rauber, a Group Home Administrator and Roger Stilgenbauer, a Marriage and Family Therapist, whose work on the Central Coast over the past two decades had taught them that the needs of the most traumatized children in the foster care system were going unmet. Together, they established in 1999 Eagle’s Wing Children’s Sanctuary to provide a safe and therapeutic haven designed to meet the physical and emotional needs of some of the most traumatized, developmentally delayed children in the foster care system- children like Andrea.

Eagle’s Wing operates two homes (one, in Monterey, for girls, and one, in Salinas, for boys) for children ages 8 to 18, where trained professional staff, licensed therapists and social workers labor together “with school personnel, court appointed special advocates, and concerned community members” to address the needs of each individual child. This comprehensive approach aims to encourage positive change, increase self-esteem and self-responsibility, and enhance social skills. Eagle’s Wing provides its charges with the opportunity to move past the trauma and pain they have suffered with the hope and expectation that they will become contributing members of their community. Eagle’s Wing is a place where trained staff, social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists can work together to address the needs of every child on an individual basis.

There isn’t a typical “composite” of the child that comes to Eagle’s Wing. However, there is the common factor of neglect and trauma which every child who comes to Eagle’s Wing has felt on a continuous basis in their lives.  Roger, who has recently taken over as the Director of Eagle’s Wing adds that, “Eagle’s Wing gives each child a place to call home, a sense of belonging and being cared for, restoring to each child a semblance of childhood.”
The program began with a home in Monterey that houses six girls. Then, in 2004, Eagle’s Wing expanded by constructing and opening a boy’s home in Salinas that also houses six. Some of the key components of Eagle’s Wing’s success, according to Ed, include: (1) nurturing staff members who care “unconditionally” for the children, (2) a board strongly dedicated to helping children in need, (3) therapeutic programs to help develop self-image and life skills, and (4) the ability to utilize community resources like the Department of Social Services.

Most of Eagle’s Wing’s funds comes from state, county, and federal funding allocated specifically to the supervision/care of the children, business overhead costs, food, and clothing. But the system leaves some obvious, and unfortunate, funding gaps. Not nearly enough money is allocated for recreational and social activities, so Eagle’s Wing looks for outside sources including private donations, fundraisers, and auctions to help supplement the inadequate amounts currently provided. (Eagle’s Wing’s annual dance and auction raised the money to purchase the boy’s home in Salinas.) Eagle’s Wing’s wish list of things that funding doesn’t provide includes replacement furniture, memberships at the local Sports Center, exercise equipment (e.g., backyard badminton), kitchen supplies, replacement clothing, and many other consumables.

From the beginning of Eagle’s Wing, the Board has been interested in expanding the services that Eagle’s Wing provides by creating a transitional aftercare program for girls when they turn 18.  “The children have learned the program at Eagle’s Wing and often find the transition to an adult facility difficult.  Many of the children have asked us to open an adult facility, and I believe that this is because of their experience with us, the sense of safety that we provide, and the knowledge that they are valued,” says Roger.

Staff: It’s not easy to find caring staff with the energy, sensitivity, and intelligence to nurture and supervise the kinds of transformations that Eagle’s Wing seeks to achieve in its residents. But Jessica Jones, the head counselor of the girl’s home, is a prime example of that special someone who embodies the qualities and sensibility necessary to help the kinds of neglected and disaffected children served by Eagle’s Wing. Jessica’s combination of consistent caring, clear expectations, and infectious optimism go a long way towards countering the prior experiences of the girls in the home, and setting them on a new path.

Jessica emphasizes that one of the most important elements to provide for the children is “consistency.” Eagle’s Wing uses community based behavioral modification with a 1-5 level system (at level 5, the most freedom is given) and an incentive program which rewards one child per month with $25, the “Resident of the Month” title, and a plaque with their picture on it displayed in the front foyer. The award is for residents who show the most remarkable improvement over the month as judged by staff, and more importantly, by other residents. “Many of [the children] come from very deprived circumstances and need to be loved. The more nurtured they are, the more they thrive,” Jessica says. “We help them understand that even if they’re not perfect we still care. It’s our goal to get them to feel good about who they are.”

Jessica tells a story that also exemplifies the need for firmness and consistency. “[M] came to us when she was 13. She was extremely angry and had no knowledge of how to be socially, or of personal hygiene,” Jessica says of a past resident. “She had been in over ten placements and had experienced both physical and sexual abuse. We never knew what to expect with her; she was different on a day to day basis.” [M} soon learned that, at Eagle’s Wing, privileges were closely tied to her ability to take responsibility for her own behavior. Consistent expectations undergird a clear structure designed to give residents the sense that they do have the power to earn more privileges and the opportunity to take control of their lives, which have heretofore been consistently controlled by outside forces. The program draws very firm lines and sets significant consequences for inappropriate behavior, but always in the service of trying to get residents to learn they can make their own destiny, rather than being controlled by it. These days, Jessica looks forward to talking with the girl, whose behavior has dramatically improved.

Difficult though it may seem, Jessica’s job is one which she finds infinitely fulfilling, if often mentally and physically exhausting. Jessica also shares the frustration about the things they don’t have money for. “A lot slips through the cracks,” Jessica says. But, as she points out,  “It is one of the few jobs where you can see the fruits of your work very quickly. It is very rewarding.” “Working at Eagle’s Wing could also help anyone who is pursuing any career in human development.” Roger adds. “ It can provide a valuable stepping stone to a career.”

Foundation Support: As a local foundation with relatively limited resources, the Central Coast Children’s Foundation (CCCF) seeks opportunities to focus its funding where the need is great, the impact is clear, and the solutions may provide valuable examples to others dealing with similar problems or issues. With so many needs “slipping through the cracks” despite governmental support for the “basics,” Eagle’s Wing has provided one such opportunity. In the absence of increased governmental aid, Eagle’s Wing must seek both community partnerships and private support, simply in order to survive.

Before investing in a community organization, the CCCF board asks, “How could we make the most impact?” with the resources at hand. Harvey Pressman, President of the CCCF, says they have serious concerns about kids whose needs aren’t met through the foster care system, which is sometimes inadequately prepared and too often even neglectful in areas where special knowledge is needed to deal with the special needs of some children. “It’s not easy to help kids that are born with so many strikes already against them. Eagle’s Wing is making an extraordinary effort to help these children; and Roger and Jessica deserve all the help they can get,” Harvey says. “These are children who slip through the cracks of the foster care system; and this is an organization whose needs sometimes slip though the cracks of the funding systems.”

CCCF has so far focused its support on enhancing Eagle’s Wing staff training. Last year, CCCF paid for staff members to attend a training seminar in San Francisco. Panels included: administrative training, licensing codes, and required yearly certification training. Some of the seminar topics included: methods used to update a program, problem staff, and organizational skills. Such training seminars are crucial and, indeed, mandatory for the staff of organizations like Eagle’s Wing, in order to meet certain credentialing requirements necessary to operate a group home, yet current funding doesn’t provide adequately for them. The staff in attendance is able to earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs), and, as Jessica points out, such educational excursions provide opportunities for needed respite as well as new perspectives for staff members who are usually “hemmed in” by the day-to-day challenges of their jobs. CCCF has also purchased DVDs and videos for the training of Eagle’s Wing staff members, In addition, CCCF has provided educational videos and games for kids dealing with personal hygiene, socialization, communication skills, friendship, money management, and banking. More recently, CCCF has assigned one of its staff members as a “loaned executive” to Eagle’s Wing.

Therapeutic art interventions: CCCF has also provided a special kind of “technical assistance” to Eagle’s Wing. It began with the “Heart, Paper Scissors” arts and crafts activity kits purchased by CCCF for the girls for Christmas (www.heartpaperscissors.com). The kits are specifically designed for “Self-Expression, Healing, and Growth,” and are well-organized, slim briefcases stuffed with everything from traceable stencils to a rainbow selection of colored pencils to a “teaching guide to a “playbook” which provides several processes and “games” to prepare participants for the activity, which is to create an original three-dimensional paper figure.

The kits were a smash hit with all the girls, in large measure because of CCCF volunteer Gerri Hansen, a local artist who began to spend one Saturday per month with the girls. The kits started the momentum for what Gerri has turned into creative sessions of group art work. Gerri prepares what she calls “group craft activities” that range from clay jewelry to painted shirts to wacky animals carved out of wood. “Many businesses in the area save their “garbage” for me. Anything extra that is going to be thrown away, I take and put to use,” Gerri says. “It’s been amazing. One girl, who had yet to open up, flourished with her art project,” Gerri adds. “I always start by saying ‘there’s no right or wrong, just create.’” Gerri is able to turn anything into an art project; that’s exactly what she does; and the girls love her for it.

Gerri’s involvement with Eagle’s Wing has been a unique and positive experience for the girls. Her therapeutic art activities have provided an alternative way for the girls to learn how to interact, set boundaries, recognize their own feelings and know what to do with them, and bring their personalities out into the open. Through the art sessions the girls learn how to work well as a group and how to communicate emotions and repressed subject matters they were unable to bring up in the past. One girl painted a picture of herself and her brother. “It had always been tough for [her] to connect herself with her brother, positively,” Jessica says. When asked what she does for a living, Gerri simply says, “I am a volunteer.” For the past several decades, she has dedicated time to help the elderly, the terminally ill, and other charitable organizations.

[Adam Joseph is a freelance editor and writer based in Marina, California.  He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the OTTER REALM, in Seaside, California.]

Central Coast Children’s Foundation, Inc.

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