Vol. 20, No. 2 • May 2016

Making a Difference by Being Family

by Rick Zechman

David and Rodney first met Blake when they provided respite for him in April 2015, just before they were licensed as foster parents in North Carolina. A few months later, Blake came to live with them. Today Blake is a 16 year old junior in high school, where his grades have been stellar. After school he has a job at a local grocery store. He's very tech savvy and loves linking others to social media. He also enjoys baking but, as David admits with obvious fondness, Blake's still not perfect when it comes to cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. All in all, Blake is doing really well right now.

No one takes this for granted. Blake has been in and out of foster care since he was 8 years old. He's had multiple placements. Like many who've had these experiences, Blake has had some behavioral health challenges. Attempts had been made to help him with these challenges, but they weren't always consistent or successful.

Therapy Has Helped
David and Rodney believe the consistent therapy Blake has received since being placed in their home is a key to his improved well-being. Blake's participation in therapy calls for some effort on their part: they take him to a clinician for therapy every week as well as to a psychiatrist for medicine management every other month.

It's well worth it. The therapist has worked with them to develop a point system to assist with Blake's behaviors, which they've found very helpful. For example, in this system Blake gets a point if he says "please" when asking for something. If he refuses a reasonable request, he does not gain a point. Earned points can be used for things such as time with electronic devices or car rides to school (which Blake prefers to taking the bus).

The therapist has also helped David and Rodney understand they might need to ask Blake several times to do something or maybe even model behaviors they want to see, because kids facing Blake's challenges need extra help building "muscle memory for their brain." David and Rodney say it's clear these extra efforts are paying off for Blake.

Other Strategies
David says he and Rodney are also learning to "pick their battles" and allowing Blake to experience natural consequences (within reason). For example, though Blake is doing extremely well in school, if he chooses not to study for a test and gets a B in the class, the teacher may not allow him to opt out of the final exam. If Blake were to make choices that caused him to lose his job, the natural consequence would be that he would have no money to spend. The hope is that disappointments like these will help Blake learn there are consequences for his choices.

When they're frustrated, Rodney and David try to walk away, although before they do they reassure Blake they aren't ignoring him but will instead be able to talk about whatever the issue is a little better at a later time. They've also learned that Blake responds better if they make a point of complimenting him when he does something well, rather than always focusing on the negative.

Though he's doing well, Blake still gets frustrated at times. A strategy that works well for him when this happens is to write out his feelings, since he sometimes finds it hard to verbalize. Blake will even write notes to David and Rodney if he's having a good day.

Being Family
David and Rodney believe they have worked through some initial big bumps of getting to know each other as a family, maintained some consistency and, in recent months, seen how their parenting efforts have led to success for the whole family.

Since Blake will be 17 soon, they are simultaneously encouraging him to be independent while reminding him it is okay to be a kid, too. They continue working with him to set limits so that he treats them as parents and not like "buddies." David and Rodney feel the consistent affection, structure, and involvement they strive to provide--which Blake may never have had before--allows them to work through frustrations and challenges together.

Blake may be free for adoption soon, so David, Rodney, and Blake are planning to have a thorough discussion about what adoption means. In the meantime, David and Rodney have made it clear to Blake that he has a permanent home with them if he wants it. They treat Blake like their child and introduce him to others as their son. They say they look forward to seeing him graduate from high school and achieving his goal of going to college.

When asked if they have advice for other foster parents, David and Rodney say it's important to never assume kids in foster care know how to do things you might consider common sense or commonplace. Not all kids coming into your home know when to brush their teeth, wash their hands before they eat, or what should or should not be flushed down the toilet.

"Also," David adds, "don't be afraid to use respite if you need it." He and Rodney had an experience where their social worker arranged respite for them even though they weren't sure they were interested. It was only after it was in place that they realized how much they needed respite. Rodney says in addition to needed rest, "one unexpected benefit of respite was that it showed us how connected we were to Blake."

Rick Zechman is an educational specialist with the UNC-CH School of Social Work.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~