Grant Will Fund Preschool

.jpg photo of playground graphic for Child Abuse
Grant Will Fund Preschool

Nonprofit to open Bend preschool for Child Abuse victims

$448,000 grant will fund the preschool for three years

Bend, OR  –  A new grant will give MountainStar Family Relief Nursery the funds to open a preschool program in February for victims of child abuse and neglect in Bend.

The three-year, $448,000 Central Oregon Health Council grant will allow the nonprofit to start a preschool program for 22 students.

MountainStar Family Relief Nursery, one of 32 relief nurseries in the state, aims to prevent child abuse and neglect by providing therapy and other services for toddlers and babies who are victims of abuse, according to the organization’s website, and the new preschool will allow the nonprofit to continue such services for children who are too young to enter kindergarten.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Executive Director Tim Rusk.  “It’ll allow us to serve 3- and 4-year-olds for three years.”

Students will attend the preschool two days a week for three hours a day, and the program will combine a preschool curriculum with therapeutic services that address the needs of victims of abuse.

“When children experience trauma or have a high stress childhood, their whole neurology becomes attuned toward chaos,” Rusk said. “We’re structuring our classroom to anticipate that and work with kids who have these experiences.”

“The 3-to-1 student-teacher ratio will be ideal for children who need more focused instruction as they prepare for kindergarten and beyond,” said Donna Mills, executive director of the Central Oregon Health Council, a public-private entity created in 2011 that aims to improve the health of residents in the region as well as reduce healthcare costs.

The free preschool program will enroll children who have graduated from MountainStar’s therapy programs, Rusk said, as well as qualifying children who have never been clients.  Currently the program is only going to be available at MountainStar’s Bend facility, but expansion to the nonprofit’s sites in Madras, Prineville and La Pine is a possibility in the future.

“We’ll start here in Bend where most of the children are — the communities are much smaller in Madras and Prineville,” he said.

“Once we get going with this hopefully we’ll be able to sustain it and expand.  We’re working with a high-need population, and this type of program has been documented to reduce neglect and abuse by 70 percent.”

For enrollment information, contact Nydia Acosta at 541-322-6820 or NydiaA@mtstar.org – Reporter: 541-617-7829,
awest@bendbulletin.com 

TOO MANY CRIES SERIES #5

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Republican State Rep.-elect Stan Lambert

Abilene, Taylor County state reps vow to
address CPS

Abilene, TX  –  Incoming state representatives for Abilene and Taylor County intend to tackle the myriad problems facing Child Protective Services when they take office in January, acknowledging that money is not a panacea.

The Legislative Budget Board’s recent authorization of $150 million in funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, will help curb caseworker turnover by allowing the agency to hire more than 800 caseworkers and pay them more, leading to lighter caseloads for workers and more children getting the help they need, said DFPS Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman in an email.

Whitman declined in-person or telephone interviews with the Reporter-News.

But money alone will not “fix” the current system in place to protect the state’s most vulnerable children, said Republican state Rep.-elect Stan Lambert in an email, though he applauded the emergency funding.  Lambert will represent Taylor, Nolan and Jones counties in the Texas House come January.

“It will take all parties coming together in the weeks and months ahead,” Lambert said.  “This recently approved funding will help alleviate some of the backlog and will create more opportunities for cases of child neglect and abuse to move faster and be resolved more expediently.”

Part of that emergency funding request will go toward hiring 105 new foster care caseworkers, some of whom will be assigned to Abilene to meet the high number of children in foster care here, Whitman said.

Foster children have been sleeping in CPS offices, motels and emergency shelters because of a lack of suitable placements for them, he said.  Currently, no children are sleeping in any Region 2 — which encompasses Abilene and Wichita Falls — offices.

“That is just not right,” Whitman said.  “Too many good caseworkers are leaving CPS, and that puts more pressure on the ones left behind.  It also increases pressure on the new hires coming in to perform at a high level immediately, and in many situations that is just not going to happen.”

State Sen.-elect Dawn Buckingham, a Republican elected in November to represent a region that stretches from Abilene to Austin, said she’s familiar with the problems at CPS from her time-serving on the state panel that evaluated its parent agency, DFPS.

“We knew (CPS) was a mess,” said Buckingham, who takes office when the Legislature convenes Jan. 10, pointing out that the Texas Sunset Commission identified gaps in accountability and high staff turnover.

Buckingham said money alone will not fix the agency, but she did agree that a salary increase likely was needed to address turnover and other issues.

“People are applying for those jobs,” she said.  “Unfortunately, they are not staying very long.”

Buckingham said she looks forward to working with Senate leaders and stakeholders as they craft legislation to address the CPS crisis.

The crisis may not be as dire in Region 2 as it is in other parts of the state.

Although the region has had the highest reporting and confirmed victims of abuse rate per 1,000 in the state for the past five years, investigators make face-to-face contact with children at a high rate, Whitman said.

As of Nov. 28, 98 percent of children identified by CPS as at risk for abuse or neglect had been seen by a caseworker, he said.

Additionally, about 80 percent of regional investigations are completed and closed within 60 days.

“Child safety specialists review certain higher-risk investigations as secondary approvers, and since March 2016, Region 2 has had fewer investigations returned by a CSS as compared to the state overall,” Whitman said.  “This indicates thoroughness and effectiveness in Region 2’s investigations.”

Whitman also applauded the region’s close collaboration with the faith-based community — 101 churches and nine ministries are registered for the CarePortal, a website that connects children in need with a church.  Participating churches in Region 2 include Beltway Baptist Church in Abilene and First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls.

But Whitman acknowledged that caseworkers need more investigative training to do their jobs and CPS needs more special investigators to help them, which is part of the emergency funding request.  He said his law enforcement background informed that decision because he is familiar with the “impact crime has on families, particularly children.”

Lambert said that crime is one of the “central causes” of child abuse and neglect that needs to be discussed more, in addition to substance abuse and mental health issues.

“As to future action to be considered, I would support funding to deal with the congestion these types of cases are creating in our family law courts,” he said.  “Increased funding could expedite and shorten the time involved to identify foster care families and allow adoptions to occur.”

Only time will tell if the additional funding approved by the LBB will help or whether the incoming Legislature will take further steps to address the problems facing CPS.

TOO MANY CRIES SERIES #4

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Cyndi Reed is the Foster Care Redesign program administrator for CPS Region 2.

Foster Care Redesign program comes to Abilene, the area

Abilene, TX  –  Major changes to the foster care system in the Abilene-Wichita Falls region are expected to begin in January, when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services plans to award the contract for its Foster Care Redesign program.

Region 2, which encompasses 30 counties from Brown to Taylor to Wichita County, will be the second area of the state to implement the new method of providing foster care services.

Under the new model, the state contracts with a single provider to serve foster children in geographic areas that have at least 500 new entries into foster care a year, said Cyndi Reed, Foster Care Redesign program administrator for Region 2.  Those areas may include an entire region — there are 11 in the state — or a portion of a region, called a “catchment area.”

“It changes the way we go about procuring for services,” Reed said. “Under the previous model, CPS (Child Protective Services) had what’s called an open enrollment process, where basically we would post a need out and anybody who was able to meet that need could respond.”

Under the old system, CPS contracted with multiple organizations across the state to meet the needs of foster children.  Region 2 has 14 foster care providers, Reed said.

“In the current system, when you open your doors — because there’s such a capacity crisis — you’re just as apt to have kids in your facility in Iraan, Texas, from Lubbock or Longview or Houston, San Antonio or anywhere across the state,” said Michael Redden, CEO of New Horizons.  “Kids are literally being transferred from the community they’re from to wherever the open bed is because it really is a provider-driven system.”

New Horizons, a child-placement and foster care agency that serves a seven-county area, submitted a proposal, Redden said.  New Horizons serves Jones, Coleman, Taylor, Brown, San Saba, Mills and McCulloch counties.

DFPS released the request for proposals in Region 2 on Aug. 1 and closed it Nov. 3.  Reed said the bids are being evaluated right now.

Under the Foster Care Redesign, the agency uses performance-based contracts to ensure the provider is just as invested in helping meet children’s needs, helping them heal and achieving stability as the department is, Reed said.

Performance is based on eight quality indicators:

  • Safety of children in their placements
  • Children placed in their home communities
  • Children served in least-restrictive environment with minimal moves
  • Connections to family maintained
  • Siblings placed together
  • Children’s culture respected in placement
  • Children have access to experiences and activities similar to non-foster children
  • Youths allowed to participate in decisions that impact their lives

“The contract itself restricts kids from outside the region being placed within families in the community,” Redden said.  “Texas specifically designed it such that the community would be involved in creating a plan with agencies that are from that community.”

Initially, the contract for Foster Care Redesign began in August 2013 and covered Region 2 and Region 9, which includes the Midland area, Reed said.  The combined regions incorporated 60 counties and proved too large for the provider, who eventually pulled out.

“We’ve had an increase in the number of children who have come into care in our region,” Reed said.  “Region 2 was able to be selected on its own” for a redesign area.

The next area selected for Foster Care Redesign included seven counties in Region 3, the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  Those counties are Tarrant, Palo Pinto, Parker, Johnson, Hood, Somervell and Erath. The state selected ACH Child and Family Services as the provider for that area, called Region 3b, in 2014.

Wayne Carson, chief executive officer of ACH, said that after about two years of implementing the redesign strategies, the area has seen significant strides in meeting the performance criteria.  Few children in care have experienced abuse or neglect, and 83 percent of children placed by the agency were kept within 50 miles of their removal location, compared with 71 percent under the old system.

Additionally, 94 percent of new admissions have been stable in their placements, with no more than one move during the two-year performance window, compared with 88 percent with the old system.

Reed said keeping kids closer to their homes after removal allows them to maintain connections in their communities, such as going to the same church and school.  That way children do not suffer additional trauma by losing their support systems, she said.

“One of the reasons we’ve been able to place kids close to home is because of all the providers that work with us,” Carson said.

Our Community, Our Kids, the division of ACH operating the redesign contract, works with about 35 different providers to coordinate care.

“They share data with us about where their homes are and who has an opening.  We have a lot of really good information because of the partnership we have with the folks in the community,” he said. “When we get a child who is in need of care, we have a database that can tell us what homes are the best match for this child to keep them placed in their home community.”

In the beginning, Palo Pinto County had three foster families, Carson said.  The group managed to build the network by getting the word out that there was a need for more foster homes.  Now, there are 33 families in the county licensed or close to being licensed as foster homes, he said.

“That’s why we called the project ‘Our Community, Our Kids,’ because we really believe that the reason redesign is a better approach is because it allows us to start thinking about these kids as our kids,” Carson said.  “We don’t think about them as the state’s kids.  We don’t think about them as foster care kids.”

TOO MANY CRIES SERIES #3

.jpg photo of Judge that deals with Child Abuse
Inside his 326th District Court, Judge Paul Rotenberry swears in the latest volunteers of the Big Country Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children.

Success, from the man who grants it

Abilene, TX  –  Sometimes, Judge Paul Rotenberry gets to smile in his 326th District courtroom.

Taylor County’s family court judge has the dubious task of ordering separations between parents and children.  Often, those separations are permanent due to any number of circumstances.  But it’s not always the case.

There are some special times when parents do what the court orders, whether it be clean up a drug habit or attend violence prevention and anger management sessions or any number of remediation requirements.  And Rotenberry grants the return of the child to the family, reuniting a familial unit that may not be perfect but is still the preferred situation.

It’s all about safety of the child, he said.  That may mean something different to the court than it does in the realm of public opinion.

“Socioeconomic considerations don’t come into play, meaning we don’t compare quality of life in foster care as opposed to quality of life in a parent’s home,” Rotenberry said.  “We’re not going to keep a child in care just because the parents are poor.

“There is a minimum threshold that the parent has to be able to provide for the needs of the child.  So, if a parent can’t afford housing and doesn’t have a place for the child to live, I’m not going to send the child home.  But I’m not going to keep a child in foster care just because they’re living in a three-bedroom house in a suburban neighborhood with a pool in the backyard, as opposed to sending them home with mom in not as nice of a neighborhood without some of the amenities.”

This is an issue for some foster families, he said, who see what they’re providing the child and what mom might be able to give.  But the foster family often fails to understand the trauma a child or children suffer when they’ve been taken from their home in the first place.

So the court’s goal, always, is to protect the children,  Rotenberry said, including from the pain of being separated from family. Reunification is always preferred if it’s in the best interest of the child.

METHAMPHETAMINE: A TRUE EPIDEMIC

Rotenberry’s cases more often than not have him facing down parents who have in some way either tested positive for methamphetamine in their system or been found in possession of the highly addictive drugs.

While this often leads to the removal of the child, due to the drug’s ability to get into the child’s system and compromise his or her safety, there’s also a redemption story ready to be told if the parent has what it takes to get on the straight and narrow.

Rotenberry said these situations often require the parent to complete some form of rehab stint, whether inpatient or outpatient in nature.  There’s also drug testing involved, after a drug counselor determines if the drugs are present in the parent’s system to begin with.

Once a parent can demonstrate to the court an ability to follow a program and to be clean over multiple tests, Rotenberry said the court can reunite the family on a monitored basis.  Essentially, Child Protective Services visits the parent on a set schedule to make sure the issues of the past aren’t coming up again.

“If that parent continues to test positive, the child’s not going to go home,” Rotenberry said.  “But if we’re in a situation where a parent has been clean for a number of months, and we’ve got consistent drug testing and that’s shown in the parent has attended rehab of some sort and, maybe hasn’t completed all of the services the court required but they’re working on it, and we feel we can return the child to the home, we’ll do a monitored return.”

A drug problem, Rotenberry said, is typically just one part of the reason the child was removed from the household in the first place. There’s usually something else happening, too.  And those issues need to be addressed also, before the youth is permitted to return home.

THE OTHER BIG ISSUE IS VIOLENCE

Violence of any kind can be harmful to a child’s upbringing, to a child’s maturity and to a child’s future, Rotenberry said.  But domestic violence, committed by a parental figure against another role model, can be even more devastating.

When these cases present themselves in his courtroom, Rotenberry said, it almost always comes with a mandate the abusive individual complete some sort of batterer intervention program.

These can take six months to complete, meaning the process is lengthy.

“Just like with drugs, domestic violence is going to take some time to convince me it’s going to be safe to send the kids back home,” he said.  “It’s far worse to return a child and then re-remove than it is to delay return.

“It’s really sad that we have this problem, especially to the extent that the problem exists in Taylor County.  And without overstating the case, I really think that the quality of life that our children will enjoy is going to be impacted largely by how successful this generation (is at) dealing with this problem.  Because the percentage of the population that’s impacted is only going to grow.”

HAPPY WITH A SIDE OF GUT PUNCH

It’s not their fault, Rotenberry said.  The children didn’t do anything to deserve the treatment or dysfunction that landed them in the system in the first place.

None of them ever asked for a mother who keeps drugs in the house or a father figure who beats up on their mother figure, he said.  So it hits him hard thinking about the cases he deals with.

And there are many cases, he said.  But he forces himself to remember that the volume of the problem in Taylor County doesn’t take away from who these children are on their own.

“It’s gut-wrenching because we talk about numbers of cases, numbers of children, but each one of these numbers has a name,” he said.  “And a future. And these children don’t deserve to have gone through what they have had to go through to be in the system. It’s not their fault.”

But he’s hopeful, he said, for a future that will be determined by those who are coming through the system.  He must maintain his optimism, he said.  When that’s gone, when he goes to work and has lost his hope in humanity, that’s when it’s time to end his tenure on the bench.

Here’s where the successes come in to his mind, he said.  Those are the good days, the ones that reinvigorate him and his mission to protect the children walking through the doors of his courtroom. Whether it’s the drug rehab, an end of the abuse or any other improvement, the parent stepping up means love isn’t dead that day.

“If a parent has done what they need to do to be able to have their children come home,” he said, “and necessarily that means that the children have reached a place where they feel like they can trust their parents as well, then … the parents are essentially good parents.  They love their children and they’ve done what they need to do.”

TOO MANY CRIES SERIES #2

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Shaun Bustillos, with the Regional Victims Crisis Center, talks to children at Thomas Elementary School. Bustillos is a primary prevention educator and a certified victim advocate.

Groups offer Child Abuse prevention
training, programs

Abilene, TX  –  “The kids love it, and the schools love it,” she said. “One in 10 kids tell, but statistically we know victims tell others but no one helps them.”

Bunton said 70 percent of children who are brave enough to make an outcry do not get the help they need from the people they tell.

“After a while, kids get tired of telling,” she said, “and our goal is to get them to tell because we can’t help unless they do.”

Starting as early as age 3 and up until first grade, the WHO program teaches boundaries, safe places to be touched and the “icky” feeling kids get when people touch those unsafe places or stand too close, Bunton said.

The program uses videos, puppets and conversations with students so it doesn’t even appear that they’re learning.  Shaun Bustillos, primary prevention educator with RVCC, recently brought the WHO program — and her puppets — to a Thomas Elementary first grade class.

When she asked the class who keeps the school safe, the students said grownups.  Bustillos said, “No, it’s you guys because you have more eyeballs.”

Bustillos went on to teach the class about safe people to talk to — not strangers — and the differences between hurting someone on accident versus on purpose, secrets versus surprises, and good, bad and confusing touches.

“No one is supposed to hurt you,” she told the class of excited first-graders.  “If someone bullies you, lean forward, put your hand out and say ‘please stop.'”

And if someone makes them feel “icky” or bad and asks them not to tell anyone, Bustillos told them to talk to their “safe people,” like family members, teachers and police officers.

The RVCC also offers a specialized 12-week program for students who are at-risk of being victimized or who have been victimized called Promoting Alternative Thinking, or PATH.  The evidence-based program is administered at two elementary schools during lunch and at two after-school programs to help the students learn empathy.

Additionally, the crisis center is one of 25 agencies in the state selected to build an evidence-based program to teach gender equality in middle school at Mann and Ortiz middle schools, Bunton said.

The program administrators will follow these students for three years to see if they can make “attitudinal change in their community to end gender equality issues related to violence,” she said.

“The statistics show that for every individual that we can teach about child abuse and gender equality and all types of victimization… we have the potential to save 100 kids,” Bunton said.  “Everything we do is long-lasting.”

The RVCC doesn’t just teach about prevention.

It has a staff of licensed professional counselors who offer therapy to victims for the rest of their lives and certified victim advocates who go to court with them if the victims need support.  The advocates receive certification through the state Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Victims of Crime in Washington D.C.

“A lot of time we’re working with family members on how to deal with their feelings, their emotions, their myths,” Bunton said.  “It’s not uncommon for the parents or the adults in the house not to believe or not be supportive of the children.”

In conjunction with the Abilene Regional Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, the RVCC offers nurturing parenting classes on Thursday nights.  The classes also are taught at Methodist Children’s Home and Mission Church, Bunton said.

“These are families in which children have been pulled from their homes already, and they’re having to do the class to meet the criteria to get their children back or close out (Child Protective Services) cases,” she said.

The RVCC has a 24-hour hotline to respond to victims of violence of all ages: 325-677-7895.

BCFS works closely with the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, to provide programs, such as the Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support, said Emily Cole, North Texas regional director.

The community-based program teaches prevention primarily through parent education, talking to parents of all ages about the challenges and issues that arise with having children in the home, Cole said.  Their youngest client is 13;  their oldest are grandparents who have custody of their grandchildren.

Staff goes into the homes of these families and educates them based on the age of the child, ranging from when to take an infant to the hospital because of a high temperature and what can cause harm to children in the home, she said.  For example, the largest instances of poison in the United States involve makeup.

“As women, we don’t perceive it as a toxic thing, and we leave it lying around,” Cole said.  “It’s a lot more accessible than the Clorox wipes because we know to put those up.”

She said the program, which also emphasizes how to maximize parent-child interaction time, is empirically based and has high success rates of preventing abuse inside the home.

Moreover, BCFS partners with the YMCA, area psychiatric hospitals, the Boys & Girls Club, and Court-Appointed Special Advocates to teach children how to voice concerns if they are being abuse or know of someone being abused.  The program is called Yellow Dino.

Another program, Stewards of Children, geared toward providers and caretakers of children focuses on sexual assault and educates them on how to recognize if someone has been sexually assaulted.

BCFS administers a 12-week group program called Fatherhood Effect in conjunction with Dyess Air Force Base and the Abilene Dream Center, a Christian program aimed to help drug and alcohol addictions, to teach fathers about what it means to be a dad in 2016 versus when they were growing up, Cole said.

Parenting has changed since the 1980s or 1950s with the introduction of technology, she said, and this program arms and prepares them for being a parent in this age and dealing with situations like divorce.

“We reiterate to them that an absent father has tremendous effects on children,” Cole said.

Children who do not have fathers are four times more likely to go to jail and are just as likely to be abused, she said.

New Horizons, a local child-placing and foster care agency, provides the Services to At-Risk Youth program, which serves children, up to age 17, and families that need crisis intervention.  The program offers counseling, emergency short-term respite care, and youth and parent skills classes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PROGRAMS AVAILABLE IN YOUR COUNTY:

www.dfps.state.tx.us/Prevention_and_Early_Intervention/Programs_Available_In_Your_County