Merlene Davis: Difficult-to-place children need special adults to offer foster care

Crystal Curry is a therapeutic "foster carer" for a 13-year-old boy with autism who lacks the skills to integrate into a regular foster home.
Crystal Curry is a therapeutic "foster carer" for a 13-year-old boy with autism who lacks the skills to integrate into a regular foster home.

At the end of May, Crystal Curry of Nicholasville took a week's vacation partly because she needed alone time and partly because she needed to do some soul searching.

For three months, Curry served as a foster parent for a 13-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder. She had quit her job as a pediatric medical assistant and fully embraced the work she was doing for Key Assets Kentucky, part of a worldwide network of agencies that find individuals and families who will care for difficult to place children who are in the state's care.

Reality, however, tends to paint rosy pictures grayer.

The boy came to her wearing Pull-ups and with a tendency toward self-injury and tantrums. It took two weeks to get him into underwear, but the rest has been a process.

"Everything is scheduled and routine," Curry said. "It is definitely non-stop. ...We do things about the same time every day."

Changes were usually met with tantrums.

For the 33-year-old single woman, life began to resemble a jail term.

"In the beginning, I would cry myself to sleep," Curry said. "I can't do this. I'm trapped. I'm in prison. It felt like my life was completely gone.

"Is this what I am meant to do?" she asked herself.

Before her May vacation, she called Chris Groeber, executive director of Key Assets, to warn him she might not want to be a foster parent when she returned.

Groeber understood. He knows how hard it is to be a therapeutic foster parent. He knows only a few can care for a child who hasn't fit into any other home setting because of behavioral problems or because of trauma, and mold that child into a human being who can successfully navigate society.

"It has to be a mission and a calling," he said. "The rewards are huge, but the sacrifices are equally huge."

Key Assets is the first branch of the Core Assets Group to locate in Kentucky. Core Assets started in the United Kingdom in 1994 and has spread its brand of foster care —called Fostering First International — to four continents, Europe, South East Asia, Australia and now North America. An office recently opened in Florida.

In Kentucky, Key Assets, a subcontractor for Kentucky's Department of Community Based Services, focuses on foster children with multiple physical or mental barriers or who are members of large sibling groups.

The goal is to take a child from an institutional setting and place him or her with a family.

"We must give these kids connections in the community and with significant adults because at the end of the day it is about relationships and relationships matter," Groeber said.

The agency supplies the foster carer, as he calls foster parents, with the support necessary for the child. That could be training, helpers, therapists or 24-hour crisis coverage.

"The foster parent is at the center of the service model," he said. "She is the leader of the treatment. We take our marching orders from that parent."

She thought about all of this while on vacation. When she returned, she said she was a different person.

"I cannot give up on this kid," Curry said.

Her foster child usually stayed in a placement for only two or three months, she said, never seeming to get past that point. And that's where they were in May.

When she decided to continue working with the boy, she realized she had allowed him to rule home. She said she had walked on egg shells to preempt tantrums that would lead to more holes in her walls from his head bangings in addition to the 20 that are there now.

"The boy needs to be told no," Curry said. "We may have been making it worse trying not to upset him. When I came back, I said things have to change around here."

And they did. Slowly her foster son came to realize he was no longer the boss. Curry stopped catering to his wishes when those wishes were unreasonable. She treats him like a teenager who doesn't have autism.

Now, she takes him out to new places and watches as he adjusts to the newness. He threw out the first pitch at a recent Lexington Legends game and seemed to enjoy it.

"All those people in the stadium had no idea how big a deal that was," Curry said. "He was standing out there instead of locked up in a facility."

They've been together for six months and the change in her foster son has been remarkable. "He came to me almost like an animal," she said. "He had never been out. To see him now and how controlled he is ..."

Kentucky has more than 7,000 children in out-of-home care; 3,500 in private care, Groeber said. "The number is not going down," he said. "We, as a state and community, have to learn how to deal with these children."

One managed care agency in Kentucky has 25 to 30 children needing intense supervision on a waiting list for foster home. And, he said, there are four other agencies with similar lists.

His agency has 22 foster families, five, like Curry, specializing in therapeutic care. As the children in specialized care improve and learn to live in communities, their level of care is reduced and they can be moved to permanent placement homes.

"This is not a lifetime commitment," Curry said. "This isn't something you have committed to doing for the rest of your life. Think of this as a job. You are preparing (the child) to be in normal foster care."

Difficult-to-place children in Kentucky need more people like Curry who are willing to change a child's life and future, Groeber said. He wants those special people to contact him for more information about becoming a therapeutic foster parent.

"Our job is to maximize potential," he said. "Do you want to be a part of maximizing someone's potential?"

Curry said it is worth it.

"If I, with no experience, can do this and change this kid's life, anyone can do this," she said. "It is giving up your life and it is hard. But seeing the smile on his face (at the Legends game) makes you think this is worth giving up a small chunk of my life to save another kid's life. I'm fine with that."