KidsPeace, a private charity housing and helping children and families with emotional and psychological issues since 1882 and in about a dozen states, has a local office near Kingston Plaza. From there, it coordinates foster care for families all over the region, but more than half the kids it places in homes for therapeutic foster care are Ulster’s own.
Foster care is designed to provide nurturing and safe custodial care for children in need of temporary placement outside of their family, often due to neglect, domestic violence or addiction issues. In traditional foster care, the foster parent serves as caregiver and nurturer, with any treatment taking place outside of the foster home. Therapeutic foster care is different — the children involved suffer emotional or psychological issues such as bipolar, defiance, depression, school refusal, borderline personality disorder, sexual abuse (as perpetrator or victim) and suicidal ideation. An alternative to residential treatment facilities, the therapeutic foster home has more restrictive settings than a traditional foster home, but there is also nurturing and an individualized family environment. It can make all the difference.
Samantha Higgins-Tiano is the program manager at the Kingston office, and said that this year her agency has 42 foster families — the most ever had. Higgins-Tiano said there are an average 40 different kids in placement at any one time these days, and though they used to be in for only six months, these days it seems like you don’t see a kid in foster care for less than a year. After about one to one and a half years in foster care, the state begins to look toward permanency, i.e., adoption. “That can mean working with the biological parents to see what their needs are, but if that doesn’t work out then we have to figure out a permanent placement situation for the children,” explained Higgins-Tiano.
KidsPeace has five family consultants doing case management, visiting and conferring with each child’s family once a week, and communicating with medical professionals and schools as well when needed. Jennifer Morris of Saugerties is the senior family consultant. “We review what’s going on, if there are any problems in the foster home or school, if they are struggling with behavior, we would come up with a plan,” said Morris, citing issues like tantrums, throwing objects, destruction to property, refusing to get up for school, hygiene concerns. “We have some who have oppositional defiant disorder. Some kids struggle with self-harm and we talk about positive coping skills. If they are having a hard day, feeling sad, we discuss what are good coping skills they have to substitute with. Something as simple as what will help relax them, like listening to music, going for a walk, redirecting behavior from destroying property to punching a pillow,” said Morris. “We even have kids who like to shower to relax, and their mom is good at redirecting them to go shower and heading them off.”
Some kids age out at 21 years old. Others return to their homes, others move into residential treatment and others find permanent placement.
Richard Silverman, LCSW-R was with Ulster County Mental Health for 13 years in its Child and Family unit, and prior to that with Dutchess County Mental Hygiene for six years. He now works full-time at KidsPeace, as their in-house therapist and counselor working with children and their families.
One of the top issues, says Silverman, is l,ow frustration tolerance. “If limits are set for them and are told ‘no’, they have a more difficult time accepting that,” he said. “The ability to tolerate frustration is actually a developmental issue. The opportunities to develop that have been compromised. … One of the ideas of therapy is to help them develop this by talking about it, practicing it.”
Silverman said he started a group to talk about different coping skills, and discuss their frustrations with strategies and ideas. “Face what they need to face in their lives,” said Silverman. “They live their lives like any one else. Go to school, deal with frustration.”
Silverman said guilt certainly comes up for some of the biological parents, however they might be more willing than others to face the reasons why their kids have been removed.
“If the permanent goal is to return the kids to home, we work with them to try achieve that,” said Silverman. Sometimes the goal is to discharge the child to their own independent living, in which case the kids learn life skills by age 14, he said.
A foster mom’s story
Betty Fontanez of the Town of Ulster, a former hospital ambulance coordinator, is through KidsPeace fostering five children, ages 1, 2, 3 and a half, 7 and 10 years old, comprised of two sibling groups. Fontanez is married with four of her own biological children and three grandchildren, after her youngest left for the Marines, she took a year off, and then eventually took in seven foster children — two who have been returned to their families. “I made a promise that I would do it in God’s name, since I was in the system as well,” explained Fontanez of her own stint in foster care. ‘I wanted to be vibrant, I am vibrant with kids around. My husband was at first skeptical, and then started seeing something during the training.