Therapeutic foster parents provide loving homes to children with unique needs
Two families share their trials and triumphs about being part of the therapeutic foster care system and why they choose to provide loving homes for children with unique emotional and mental health needs.Posted — Updated
It's often said being a parent is both the most challenging and rewarding job on earth, and this statement is no different for foster parents.
"I've always wanted to be a foster parent. My whole life, I've had people in my life who were foster parents, and I decided to jump in and start helping too," said Terri Cummings, a therapeutic foster parent with KidsPeace, a private charity organization that aims to give "hope, help and healing to children, adults and those who love them."
KidsPeace services include therapeutic foster care and community-based treatment programs. Therapeutic foster care differs from traditional foster care in the types of children it serves and how its foster parents are trained.
Almost every child who is referred to therapeutic foster care has endured trauma of some sort. As a result, therapeutic foster parents undergo specialized training to understand and appropriately respond to challenging behaviors that may present as a result of this trauma.
"It is not uncommon for children who have experienced or witnessed physical, emotional or psychological abuse to act out their emotions even after they are removed from dangerous situations," states the KidsPeace website. "Many children who enter KidsPeace Foster Care have endured intense trauma and are in need of counseling and/or medication in addition to safe, nurturing homes."
While this may seem like a daunting task, it is one many therapeutic foster parents like Cummings have willingly and happily taken on, with success to boot.
Cummings's two foster daughters were placed with her 19 months ago. The teens came from an abusive home, and when they first arrived in Cummings' care, they were going through a lot.
"They were and have been dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD — everything that you could imagine from a mental health aspect after experiencing trauma," Cummings said. "They both had experienced significant abuse for quite some time and had overall feelings of worthlessness. I had to teach them that they are worthy of being loved, they're bright and kind and successful — and that took a lot of time."
There were moments — hospitalizations, breakdowns and bouts of immense depression — when Cummings said these notions of worthiness were really tested. She noted there were a lot of barriers to overcome. However, the transformation Cummings has witnessed in her girls over the past year and a half has been significant.
When they moved in with Cummings, for example, both sisters were failing school. Now both girls are high-performing students and one was recently inducted into the National Honor Society. Cummings also said both of the teens speak about the future, which wasn't always the case.
"They used to say, 'I don't see myself living past XYZ' and 'I don't see myself going to college' or 'I thought that I would be dead by now,'" recalled Cummings, who tells her daughters every day they are competent and capable. "To hear them say they want to go to college, that's a huge change."
Cummings is honest about both the trials and the triumphs that have occured along the way, and said people interested in therapeutic foster care need to know what they're getting into, but noted the "rewards are far greater than what it takes out of you."
Therapeutic foster parent Kyle Pennebaker agrees.
Pennebaker and his wife, Stephanie, have been foster parents for more than 18 years. After witnessing a brother-in-law become a foster parent, the Pennebakers hoped to help in the same way and have had roughly 20 placements over the past two decades.
"Sometimes it's challenging — you have some good days and some challenging ones," Pennebaker admitted. "But you have to be patient and work at it. The reward of helping people and looking back on those experiences is great, especially when you have a child come back [after they leave your home]."
One of the Pennebaker's early placements, a foster daughter, has left a lasting impression on him after all these years.
"She stayed with us for about three or four years. I helped get her a car. Even though she ended up not finishing high school, she got married and had children and has brought the kids over," Pennebaker said. "We've thrown birthday parties for her kids over here. She made us a part of her family."
Pennebaker recounted another foster daughter who started calling him and his wife, "mom" and "dad" as soon as she walked through the door. To this day, they've stayed in communication with her and she still endearingly refers to them as mom and dad, even after reuniting with her biological family.
People may be surprised to find out that when this foster child came to the Pennebakers, she had a stealing problem. But with a little patience and by practicing the techniques they learned in training, the Pennebakers were able to help set rules and boundaries for her.
The Pennebakers are a great example of successful fostering that does not end up in adoption. While adoption is certainly a successful outcome scenario for some foster children, other times the goal is to reunify the child with their biological family or help them transition into independent living.
In therapeutic foster care, success can be viewed through many different lenses, but the driving force is always love.
Pennebaker, who credits his faith as being a pillar throughout the years, explained fostering hasn't been all roses and that kids make mistakes, but you shouldn't give up on someone — especially a child.
"I think most things can be worked out," he said. "We try to make all of our foster children feel like they are family. I think foster care is something that more people should get involved with — there's a lot of kids out here who need help."
"I've worked with youth for quite some time before becoming a foster parent, and teenagers, especially teens of color, it's a demographic that's not reached as often in foster care. If this is the case in traditional foster care, then it's double the case in therapeutic foster care," Cummings added.
KidsPeace uses a curriculum called Together Facing the Challenge, a comprehensive system of training that integrates trauma-informed approaches to promote healing and resilience. Cummings said one of the most useful techniques she's learned is active listening, and then providing choices.
"Kids in foster care don't have a lot of choices about their circumstances. Providing them with simple options like, 'Would you like mac and cheese or peanut butter and jelly' may not seem huge, but it gives them more control over their lives," Cummings explained. "A lot of kids are acting out because they lack control, and with foster care, there are so many rules and regulations. Giving children, especially teenagers, choices and appropriate boundaries, has been huge."
As mentioned, the primary goal of foster care is familial reunification, but when that cannot happen, adoption is an option. Cummings is currently in the process of adopting her two foster daughters and is excited to continue to love them as her own, but also wants to respect their ties to their biological family and their culture.
Though she is a different ethnicity than her girls, Cummings is planning a culturally significant celebration for her daughter and is learning to cook traditional meals her girls enjoy. It's commitment like this that sets great foster parents apart from good ones.
"Being a foster parent has changed my life and helped me put things into perspective," Cummings said. "For me, it kind of comes down to a moment. Hearing a child who constantly believes false narratives about themselves and then seeing something you did really impact their life — it's completely life-changing and rewarding to see those false beliefs flip into positive affirmations."
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