Therapeutic foster care program struggles to get off its feet in YK Delta

A new foster care program aimed at helping keep Western children in their communities is in-development. It incorporates therapeutic methods to help fix behavioral issues in the home that might be affecting both the child and parent. But the program is facing problems with one major hiccup — no one has signed up yet.

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Now, multiple agency officials are working to raise awareness about the program.

The Office of Children’s Services Building in Bethel. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KYUK)
The Office of Children’s Services Building in Bethel. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KYUK)

Fennisha Gardner, the protective services manger for the Office of Children’s Services’ Western region, says the goal of bringing therapeutic foster care to this part of the state, is simple: to keep children in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.

“So out of the 56 villages, we would like to have some type of hub of therapeutic foster homes,” said Gardner. “In which case, the child would be able to stay closer to their culture, to their relatives, to their parents.”

There’s just one problem.

“I do not have a ‘yes’ yet,” said Gardner. “I still need the communities to come together and bring somebody forward,” said Gardner.

Therapeutic foster care carries the basic framework of regular foster care, but it’s designed to offer mental and behavioral health treatment to children who have suffered severe trauma, like abuse. The program also works to improve the behaviors of the parent.

AK Child and Family is the licensing agency for the delta.

Doug White, is the agency’s director of community programs, and he says the name ‘foster care’ in the title may be bit misleading.

“They simply need a placement out of their home for a period of time, for the family and children to address any behavioral issues that they might be having,” said White.

Therapeutic foster care parents are trained on mental health issues, solutions to handling them and community resources available to assist the child.

Success in the program is measured by its ability to keep children in their communities, instead of sending them elsewhere for these types of services.

“When that link is broken is broken within the family system, it’s often very difficult to get children back,” said White. “We hear time and time again from families and elders that children leave for treatment and don’t come back for years.”

White says the factors for becoming a successful therapeutic parent are flexibility, openness and understanding. These qualities don’t necessarily equate to a certain income or education level.

But there are some barriers.

Part of the requirement of becoming a therapeutic foster parent is a two-month training in Anchorage. However, the agencies are trying to find ways to have the training in a hub, like Bethel.

In general therapeutic foster care is more community-centric. Social workers conduct more house checks, and families interact with health care professionals more, they have to attend treatment-planning sessions, take the child to appointments, and complete daily reports on the child’s behavior.

Currently, OCS and AK Child and Family, among other agencies in the delta, are meeting once a month to discuss ways to increase public awareness.

They’ve focused on foster parents currently in the Delta. But to date, no one has committed to the program.

Yurii Miller, an OCS licensing manager, says reasons for not participating may in part be due the time commitment needed for training and the amount of paperwork.

Miller acknowledged that part of the challenge is that the program is designed to work best in a bigger city, like Anchorage—a place filled with more resources. But they’ve applied this framework for the program elsewhere–like Nome.

“I will say this much, it’s been done in other communities and it’s been successful,” said Miller. “I think it just takes a lot of planning on behalf of the agency and children services. The resources are there, it’s just a matter of putting them together.”

As of September, there are 191 children in out-of-home foster care in Western Alaska. The amount of foster parents in the region is 151, but this number also includes people currently applying to become a foster parent. In Bethel alone, that number is 33.

The number of people applying to become foster cares parents, in the region has remained steady, and is mostly comprised of family members.

In Alaska, there are 43 therapeutic foster parents. But Miller says the biggest barrier in the delta, seems to be the time commitment to becoming one.