Special people, special care,special kids

HOME THERAPY

March 12, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Staff Writer

The argument happened two years ago -- one of those emotional scenes played out daily by teen-agers and parents around the world. Now 16-year-old Bob DeFelice can't even remember what it was about.

Bob can recall, though, how the clash ended: He stormed out and stewed during a long walk around the apartment complex where his family lives.

"That was the only time I ever thought of running away from home," he says. "But while I was walking, I started to think about what I had. I had parents who cared for me. And I was glad I had them. So I came back."

This domestic drama might seem typical, but Bob DeFelice's home is anything but that. For the past three years, the emotionally disabled youth has lived with Raymond and Dorothy Dashiells at their Owings Mills apartment. They were brought together by the Therapeutic Foster Care program, operated by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

Traditional (or, as DSS calls it, "regular") foster care finds homes for generally healthy children. Therapeutic care takes children 4 to 18 with emotional problems and places them in the homes of families that have at least one non-working parent.

They're special kids who need special care.

"These are children who have not done well in other settings like regular foster care homes or residential treatment centers," says Frances Kelly, coordinator of specialized adolescent services for the social services department. "The idea is to help kids whose next step would be [a psychiatric hospital] and put them into a stable home environment," she said. "We're a safety net above the institutions."

Ms. Kelly says 10 of the 13 children in the 6-year-old program have been physically or sexually abused. Nine have been diagnosed with depression. Nine suffer from "attention deficit" and hyper-activity. All 13 have been in psychiatric hospitals or other residential treatment facilities.

Finding homes for these troubled children, especially teens, is not easy, Ms. Kelly says. In addition to the 13 children in the program, 12 are on a waiting list.

"It takes unique people to be Therapeutic Foster Care parents," she explains. "You have to open up your home to kids who have a lot of needs and aren't too communicative. You have to be extremely loving and patient. You have to fight for your kid when you feel his school is not serving him well, or when other parents say they don't want their kids playing with yours."

Before entering the program, parents are subjected to a thorough background check. They then undergo 24 hours of training. Each year thereafter, they are required to take 30 hours of refresher instruction.

"They're professional parents. They're trained in how to care for this kind of child," says Ms. Kelly.

Parents receive $1,200 in state money, or twice the monthly stipend paid to parents in the regular foster care program, to cover each child's needs.

This year, the state provided $300,000 to fund the program. Despite Maryland's economic woes, Ms. Kelly says she expects no change in the therapeutic care budget for fiscal 1993, which begins July 1.

Each child in the program is watched closely by a "treatment team" that includes the foster parents, a social worker and a mental health therapist from the Social Services Department, a psychologist from the county's Bureau of Mental Health and, when possible, the child's biological parents.

The team regularly keeps tabs on the child's progress and decides when he or she is ready to leave for a less-intensive form of care, usually after a year or two in the therapeutic program. The child might then go into regular foster care, become adopted or, if 18 or older, attempt "independent living" in an apartment, with intermittent supervision by a social worker.

Bob DeFelice visits with his biological father every other weekend,but he sees his natural mother only a few times a year, he says.

"It's not necessarily a matter of biological parents not caring. They just have problems of their own," says Ms. Kelly. "In many cases, they're just not able to raise their children."

Bob's therapeutic foster "sister" at the Dashiells' home, 13-year-old Kelsa Mili, has not seen her natural parents since she was 3, when she came to this country from her native Chile to be adopted by a couple in the United States.

But the adoption didn't work out. So Kelsa, like many other children in the therapeutic program, spent most of her childhood moving from one temporary residence to another. She moved in with Bob DeFelice and the Dashiells at their Owings Mills apartment six months ago. (The state allows no more than two therapeutic foster children in a home.)

Dorothy and Raymond Dashiells have taken in eight foster children since 1985, in both the regular and therapeutic programs. The couple also has 12 grown biological children and 17 grandchildren. Photographs of all their biological and foster kids and grandkids fill a large set of shelves in their apartment.

"When the last of our own children moved out, we just found ourselves bored," says Mrs. Dashiells, 59, a retired nurse, explaining why they first got involved in foster parenting.

"We missed all that activity of having kids around," says Mr. Dashiells, 59, who is retired from the Army and the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mrs. Dashiells says the ultimate plan for Bob is independent living when he turns 18, while Kelsa probably will be adopted -- but not by the Dashiells. "It wouldn't be fair to a young child to have parents our age," says Mrs. Dashiells.

As for Bob and Kelsa, they're far from fully rehabilitated, but they have made progress since entering the therapeutic program, Mrs. Dashiells says.

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