Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bridging the Gaps in the System:

Federal dollars helped AzCA address needs of older children in foster care

In 2012, Arizona’s Children Association won the bid to receive a federal grant intended to help find homes for older, hard-to-place children in foster care. The five-year Fostering Readiness and Permanency (FRP) grant intended to get kids out of foster care and into permanent placements more quickly, particularly those who have spent years in care and are at risk of “aging out” of the system.

More than 30,000 U.S. teens each year reach adulthood and leave state custody without a permanent home, including about 700 in Arizona (AZ Republic). Children who are eventually emancipated from the child welfare system lack a vital safety net for helping to ensure a successful life. It is likely that the longer a child is in care, the more homes they are placed in and the fewer personal attachments they have, which can often lead to relationship insecurities and trust issues. Research shows that children who “age out” of foster care when they turn 18 are more likely than their peers to be unemployed, homeless, convicted of a crime, drug dependent, become a teen parent, and are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

There are many barriers to permanent placements. Per DES, national data shows that the older a foster child is, the less likely they will be placed with a permanent family. Why? There are many misconceptions related to older youths when it comes to adoption. These misconceptions include: older youths do not want to be adopted, placements of older youths are unsuccessful, older youths have more behavioral problems, and placements are no longer attempted due to their age. Other obstacles include a shortage of families for placements, lack of readiness for permanency, and limited resources due to state budget reductions.

The FRP Project targeted two populations: The legacy population of youth from ages 13-17 ½ who have been in out-of-home care for two or more years. The prevention population from ages 5-17 ½ who are in care for more than one year, but less than two years, and are at risk of remaining in care for over two years.

The FRP Project creates a Child Advocate Recruitment Expert (CARE) team that consists of a Care Coordinator, Youth Advocate, and the child’s assigned Child Protective Services (CPS) Specialist. The grant funded two programs to be used by the CARE team: the 3-5-7 Model and Family Finding. The 3-5-7 Model prepares children for life with a new family, and is aimed at reducing the chance that they’ll be returned to CPS by providing frequent therapy sessions to help them work through the grief and loss surrounding their biological family. The Family Finding program uses search tools to locate extended family members. Both programs have been successful in other states.

AzCA has worked with 59 kids since it began in August of last year.

Among the successes, 6-year-old Kevin* was reunited with his father and his father’s family. Esther, 55, who is Kevin’s maternal great aunt, has been caring for Kevin off and on for much of his life and plans on adopting him.

Kevin never really knew his dad. He’d see him when he would go to visit his mom or would catch a glimpse of him at a local gas station with a “Hey buddy!” remark. Kevin didn’t really remember his dad and the family members on his paternal side.

“I knew the dad, but I didn’t really know him. I knew of him, but heard [negative things about him] that made me not want to get to know him. I felt like his grandparents weren’t making an effort but that’s because they didn’t know how to get ahold of us. It was really just miscommunication and I am just so happy that Kevin has met his family.”

“They have already severed Dad’s parental rights and he is okay with that,” said Esther. “He just wants to be able to have a relationship with Kevin but he knew that he could not care for him the way that we can.”

According to Esther, it is hard for Kevin to get attached to others and to get close to them. The program has helped Kevin to establish meaningful bonds with his family and he has also grown close to the staff on his team. “It has all been a positive thing for us,” commented Esther. “Dad has been really trying to give him attention and show him that he loves him.”

Esther mentioned that it has been challenging to raise a school-aged child with a lot of emotional problems; however, she is glad his father and the rest of the family are now involved in Kevin’s life. She credits the FRP team for making this possible for Kevin and reuniting the rest of the family.

“This is just a great program,” added Esther. “Kevin has really opened up.”

Tracy Fish, a Care Coordinator for AzCA shared a story of another youth she encountered. “The thing that stands out most to me was when I noticed one of the children looking through the photos of his father as a young man and he grabbed his head and said, ‘my hair grows the same way as my dad’s does!’” said Tracy. “It was so neat to witness his excitement in discovering where he got a lot of his traits from.”

The project aimed to improve permanency outcomes for youth who are most likely to remain in out-of-home care by increasing their readiness for permanency, growing their number of support networks and connections, improving placement stability by enhancing the number of potential homes, and to advance their decision making.

“The individualized attention with the youth to process their experiences of grief and loss was important to address in order to strengthen these children to move forward in their lives,” said Candy Espino, Director of Operations for AzCA’s child welfare programs. “Our staff had what is often an unusual opportunity in this field to really begin to understand these youth and their families. We were able to connect many youth to family members that our kids did not previously know and may otherwise have never met.”

Widely publicized earlier this year, the Department of Economic Security has unfortunately cancelled the grant program. According to The Arizona Republic, the Department of Economic Security has stated that it could not comply with rigorous federal requirements to receive the grant money and adequately serve the growing number of Arizona children in foster care. This cancellation was especially unfortunate given all the positive feedback about the program. “It is a wonderful project, a wonderful model, and it was working,” said Jackie Smollar, who was part of the Quality Assurance staff at LeCroy & Milligan.

“The cancellation of the grant was entirely based on the state’s response to federal requirements for the dollars and was in no way a reflection on the work and dedication of our staff,” stated Espino. “Our staff continue to be incredibly passionate about this project and the opportunities it provides for improving lives of youth in care.”

“We owe it to these kids in care to help them build strong foundations for themselves when their birth parents are unable,” added Espino, “Although the funding through this particular grant is no longer available, we have found other ways to continue to provide these services because we believe in this work due to the outcomes that we have seen. We look forward to continuing to work with youth and families with these two models.”

*As a child currently in the foster care system, Kevin’s name has been changed to protect his confidentiality.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is Your Child Ready to Read?

by Debbie Heaton

Teaching your child to read early has multiple benefits and is the key to your child's academic future.  Why? Because reading is at the heart of all formal education; other advantages include neurological, educational, psychological, social, and linguistic characteristics.

Reading helps to develop a young child’s brain.  In the first six years, children learn at a faster pace than at any other time in their lives.  Necessary connections in the brain are made very early in life.  At birth, a healthy baby is born with approximately 200 billion active brain cells.  Given the right kind of stimulation, each of these brain cells is capable of multiplying and ensuring connections between them which store additional information.  Through these connections and early experiences, the basis of all future learning and intellectual ability form.

As parents talk, sing and read to their children, existing links among brain cells are strengthened and new links are formed.  At a younger age, learning is faster than it will be as the child grows older.  When a child is taught to read, the process of learning has a profound influence on the entire functioning and development of the brain.  Parents can play a critical early role by implanting not only reading skills and ability but more importantly, instilling a lifelong love of reading.

Reading opens the door to your child’s academic success and imparts a love of learning that leads to higher grades in every subject.  Strong language skills are the basis for literacy development.  When children learn to read at an early age, they have greater general knowledge, expand their vocabulary and become more fluent readers.  They also have improved attention spans and better concentration.  Early readers can recognize a larger number of words by sight, which enables them to learn more from and about their environment.

A child who learns to read joyfully at home, at an early age, with a loving parent or caregiver, grows in self-confidence and independence.  Reading promotes greater maturity, increases discipline and lays the basis for moral literacy.  It sparks curiosity about people, places and things and also satisfies the child’s curiosity by providing explanations of how things work.  It also exposes the child to a range of problem-solving techniques while igniting the child’s creativity and imagination.

Even at a young age, children have social awareness.  They know who is more popular.  They can tell who can do what.  If there are a few children in kindergarten who know how to read, they may receive awards and certificates, be called upon to choose books or are encouraged to write, illustrate and read aloud their own stories.  In some schools, they may even be asked to help other children, who may still be struggling with basic letter recognition.

Early readers have the opportunity to relate to their peers on a more confident, more competent level as they are already being recognized for their superior accomplishments.  Such experiences increase the child’s social status among peers as well as his or her self-image and self-confidence.

Children who can read independently and early have more opportunities to encounter the written word.  The sooner children learn how to read, the more books, knowledge, and ideas they will be exposed to.  The result is improved linguistic skills in the form of a richer vocabulary, correct grammar, improved writing, better spelling and more articulate oral communication.

Graham County’s very own “Story Lady,” Giane Powell, earned a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and has worked at the Safford Library for 23 years providing Storytime, Summer Reading and Early Literacy programs.  Giane provides the following information to parents in short presentation formats:

Help Your Child Get Ready to Read

From the time they are infants, children learn language and other important skills that will help them learn to read.  As parents and/or caregivers, you have been your child’s teacher from the day he or she was born.  You know more about your child than anyone else.  You are in the best position to help your child get ready to read because:
  • Young children have short attention spans.  You can do activities for short bits of time throughout the day.
  • You can help your children learn in ways and at times that are best for them.
  • Parents are tremendous role models—if your children see that you think reading is important and enjoy it, they will follow your lead.
  • Children learn best by doing—and they love doing things with YOU!
  • To become successful readers, children need to understand the meaning of what they read.  Making sense of written language—comprehension—is at the heart of what it means to be a good reader.
  • Vocabulary and comprehension skills start to develop from the time a child is an infant.  A baby listens to what parents and other caregivers say and they learn the meaning of words.
  • The more language experiences children have the more words they learn and the better they become at understanding the meaning of what is being said.  This will help children understand the meaning of written words as they learn to read.

The best way to help your child get ready to read is to spend time with them.  Talk, sing, read, write, and play.  Just have fun!!!

You can visit Giane Powell at the Safford Library and check out her Toddler Storytime on Tuesdays from 10:30 to 11:15; Pajama Time on Tuesdays from 6:30pm to 7:30pm; Preschool Storytime on Wednesdays from 10:30 to 11:30 and Thursdays from 11:00 to 12:00; and Open Play Time on Wednesdays from 2:00 to 4:00pm.

It’s never too early to begin reading to your child.  Even the youngest babies will gradually come to associate books with the warmth of being held by you and the soothing sound of your voice.  By establishing reading time as an enjoyable time, you’re helping to jump-start a lifetime of reading and learning—a benefit that lasts throughout childhood and beyond.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies.  The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bonding with Your Baby

By Debbie A. Heaton

Ever notice how your baby’s face—those chubby cheeks and sparkly eyes and that mischievous smile—is somehow more fascinating to watch than even your favorite television program? That’s no coincidence. The two of you are hardwired to thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. And if you follow your instincts and develop a great rapport now, you could set him up for a lifetime of stellar relationships.

Bonding is the intense attachment that you and your baby have for each other. It’s the feeling that makes you want to shower your baby with love and affection, when you know you would do anything to protect him. And while you’re savoring the high, the hormone dopamine is also helping your baby attach emotionally to you.

You probably started to bond with your baby while he was in your tummy. This love-before-sight may have begun when you first felt his movements or hiccups. Or it may have started when you saw him grow week-by-week at your ultrasound scans, or developed as you massaged or talked to your ‘baby bump.’

As parents, when we spend time loving our infant, we are also helping to safeguard their health. How? Attentive mothers are helping to buffer their child against chronic stress, which can cause sleep disorders, digestive problems, memory impairment, depression, and obesity.

Bonding with your baby is both intuitive and a joy. Attachment isn’t about acting the ‘correct’ way; it’s about watching your child and responding with sensitivity. So if you are both having a good time, you’re doing it right!

What can parents do to bond with their infant and continue as they grow?

Birth to 3 months: Did you know there’s a reason the scent of your baby’s skin triggers pangs of affection? It’s true! When you smell, hold, or breastfeed your infant, your body releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that prompts new mothers to be more loving and protective of their infant—and also encourages him to cuddle right back.

From birth, your child is programmed to connect with you. He can distinguish human faces and voices from other sights and sounds, and more than anything, he loves watching your every move. He sees best at about 8 to 12 inches—the exact distance between his face and yours when he’s cradled in your arms. He can even recognize his parents’ voices and will turn when he hears you speak. Babies are very eager for face time with any caregiver who is willing to hold them.

If your newborn smiles in the first month or so, sorry to say it but that smile doesn’t mean much! It’s just a reflex. By six weeks, though, babies start to respond to their environment, and by two to three months their brains are developed enough that they can look right at you when they smile, letting you know that they are pleased with your company.

Build your bond by showing your baby you care. Hold him when you’re able and pay attention when he’s squirming or unusually quiet. This will help you figure out how he tells you when he’s hungry or content. Answer his cries, provide plenty of eye contact, talk to him, and smile often. Breastfeeding, cuddling, and giving him massages are great ways to bond as well. Remember, interacting with your baby as you care for him doesn’t just help you to bond; it also helps your baby’s brain to grow and develop.

During face time, interact using expressions, coos, and cuddles that feel natural to you—but don’t just plaster a grin on your face every time you turn his way. Why? Because he knows when you are faking! Babies are very intuitive. If you are smiling, but it’s not related to what he’s doing, he’ll prefer to look somewhere else.

4 to 8 months: At this point, you are your child’s first friend. Your baby’s developing intellect helps him to recognize that his interactions with you are different from those with strangers. Young children learn that “Mom comforts me, and when I cry, Dad usually feeds me.” Your child expects certain things during an exchange with the adults in his life.

If you’re consistent in your efforts to soothe, and your baby feels as if you’re watching out for him, he’ll begin to play with toys, your keys, and anything else close at hand. He will begin to explore his world, which is exactly what his developing brain needs right now. An infant learns something unique when he picks an object up or puts it in his mouth, versus just looking at it. It’s important that your baby is encouraged to get hands-on with his environment. If your infant is feeling comfortable in his surroundings, your transition back to work won’t be as frightening for him. He’ll be capable of playing without you by his side. This is the appropriate time to start teaching your baby that strangers, like daycare workers, will take good care of him. When you return home, he’ll greet you with a smile. If he turns away, it’s because he’s learning to regulate emotion and the joy of seeing you is too intense.

Build your bond by feeding your child’s hungry mind as you interact with him throughout the day. A baby can tell when you’re ignoring him—say, by propping him up in front of the television—and when you’re just plain busy. So talk to your child whenever you’re near him, and play peek-a-boo as you fold clothes. As he starts to play with toys, encourage his efforts and don’t take it personally if your child is not in the mood. Sometimes infants need to look away—constant interaction is awfully tiring!

9 to 12 months: Focus on security. Your child may start clinging to you when you leave his side. It’s normal—and temporary! Separation anxiety appears around the ninth month, when your baby can remember you even when he can’t see you. But he can also sense patterns and understand that you always come back. By giving your baby consistent cues, he knows you’ll come back and he’ll trust that you will. The children who struggle the most are often those who can’t predict whether their caregiver will come back or not.

Amid those tearful goodbyes, you’ll see another social stride: Your child will begin to communicate using gestures, like waving or raising his arms to be picked up. Babies will start to share their intentions as well. For example, he may stare at something fully expecting that you’ll turn to look at it too. He’ll also ‘share’ smiles, grinning at a toy and then turning his toward you.

Build your bond by continuing to send clear, consistent signals that you love your baby and that you’re doing your best to interpret what he’s trying to tell you. That isn’t a marching order. It’s more like a permission slip to hit pause on your busy life and do what your instincts are telling you to do. In our culture, it’s hard to put down our finances or laundry and just sit with our baby and see what he’s doing. Your baby does want to engage with you, so allow yourself to let the other stuff go sometimes and just enjoy him! Weigh the pros and cons: A sink full of dirty dishes or snuggle time. I’ll take the hug anytime, anywhere!

In an ideal situation, the journey of bonding progresses smoothly from birth through young childhood, empowering the child to venture forth into his ever expanding world with a solid sense of self, but we can only achieve that by responding to our child’s cues, spending quality time with him, and reassuring him that he is both loved and wanted.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.