Healing of abused children begins in a mentor's home


July 26, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

Terry Simpson believes that if you have a broken leg, you need to lean on someone.

"The fact that a person is broken inside creates the same need," said Mrs. Simpson, a 50-year-old Columbia resident. She is providing a home for a 16-year-old who was sexually abused by (( her stepfather.

Mrs. Simpson is a "mentor," or treatment parent, under contract with the Mentor Clinical Care program. Mentor Clinical Care, a division of Lifetime Corp., is a private health agency that offers therapeutic in-home treatment to troubled adolescents and children. The organization provides specialized services in non-hospital settings to patients with mental and physical problems such as head injuries, mental retardation, and developmental disabilities.

Mrs. Simpson understands the pain of dysfunctional families, having come from one in which she was abused. And she also knows the anguish that parents can feel when they are separated from their children.

In 1969, she was divorced, on welfare, and unable to care for her four children, whom she placed in a foster home. After earning a degree in American studies at a community college in California, she took a job correlating information for a map-making firm and brought her children home in 1974. She later took in her 14-year-old nephew because of conflicts he had with his parents.

Today, Mrs. Simpson has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and her children are grown. She is teaching computer software classes at Howard Community College. Mrs. Simpson and her husband, Rick, an instructional designer in computer education, are still involved in the daily rigors of family life.

In addition to her husband's two children -- Evan, 24, and Kellen, 21, who are at school -- the household bustles with the in and out activity of three young people: Mrs. Simpson's son, Robin, 26, a full-time student at UMBC; Rick Simpson's 18-year-old nephew, Ryan, who has lived with them for four years because his mother has multiple sclerosis and is unable to care for him; and Carrie (not her real name), the 16-year-old who was placed by Mentor Clinical Care.

In March, Mrs. Simpson learned she would be the right match for Carrie, according to Larry Horwitz, a licensed clinical social worker and state director of Behavioral Health Services for Mentor Clinical Care.

"We look for people who are nurturing, warm, flexible, bright, able to cooperate with the social worker, people who aren't rigid and who have well-organized homes in a family type atmosphere," Mr. Horwitz said.

Mentors receive $350 a week to provide a structured environment where children and adolescents can stay from a few days to several months, depending on the individual case.

After a thorough screening process, Mrs. Simpson entered an intensive training program that covered medical care, discipline, unexpected problems and crises.

"They called me in March about placement. I met Carrie, brought her to the house. I showed her where her room was and explained the rules, which were on a typewritten list that I made up," Mrs. Simpson said. "The thing that delighted her was having her own room."

"I was a bit uneasy at first," admitted Carrie, who has received psychiatric care in several institutions. "Basically, I thought, 'This is my last chance; anything is worth trying.' But I worried, 'What if this doesn't work out? Then I will be back to square one,' " she said.

Mrs. Simpson describes the first two months as a honeymoon period in which Carrie was very pleasant and seemed willing to please.

"By mid-June, she felt safe enough to argue with me. I knew that as soon as she felt safe, she would start testing. It's a normal teen-age thing," Mrs. Simpson said.

But in addition to the normal stresses of being a teen, there are also the wounds of the past. Patients are provided therapy up to three times a week, depending on their needs. There is a 24-hour on-call service with the child's social worker or clinical psychologist.

Monthly training sessions with the staff and other mentors from the region provide information on recognizing and dealing with children who are abused physically, mentally or sexually, issues of grief and loss, and fire and safety information.

"The home visits, therapy, and the supervision of the mentor in the home are a viable alternative to psychiatric hospitals, residential centers and group homes," said Mr. Horwitz. "They are in a family having one-on-one attention. Each patient has an individualized treatment plan for the person in that one home and in that one community."

Mentor Clinical Care was founded in Boston by Byron Hensley Jr., a former director of a group home for troubled adolescents. He conceived the idea after worrying about what would become of the disturbed youths if the group home in which they were living were to burn down. In an experiment, Mr. Hensley and his staff each took a resident home for a week and were astonished with the results.

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