Lexi Torgerson remembers the day nearly 14 years ago when a detective came to the door, asking to speak with her mother. Lexi, then 4, was living in Kalispell with her mom, who wasn’t around a lot.
After the detective’s visit, her mom took her to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.
“She dropped me off, and she didn’t say goodbye, she said, ‘Mom’s going to be back, and these people are going to take care of you,’” Lexi said.
Life hadn’t been perfect at home, Lexi said. But where she was heading – the foster care system – wouldn’t prove much easier.
Like many social services, foster care is evolving. One of the upcoming changes to the system is an effort to keep kids settled at one placement, and training the foster family to handle most issues that arise, along with providing a staff of people to support the child and the family.
In the Flathead, this new movement is the focus of a pilot demonstration project called Full Family Foster Care, a collaboration between the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and Intermountain, a statewide nonprofit specializing in integrated mental health services for children and their families, including foster care and adoption.
This new program, the brainchild of Intermountain’s CEO Jim FitzGerald, is built around the foster family – training and licensing them before they get a child. The program also provides 24/7 services and support for their charges, who, despite not usually arriving with many possessions, tend to come with some emotional baggage.
It’s now understood that moving children between homes is detrimental, causing nicks and cracks in their rapidly developing psyches.
“(Multiple moves) are not good for children,” FitzGerald said last week during a visit to Kalispell. “It’s psychologically very damaging.”
Last month, Intermountain was ready to train a whole new group of foster families to join the three who already completed the program. But the training was canceled when only one person showed up to orientation.
“When it comes to foster care and adoption, a lot of people think somebody else has that covered,” Adam Morrissey, the family developer and care coordinator for Kalispell’s Intermountain branch, said. “But the problem is, they don’t.”
There aren’t nearly enough foster families in the Flathead to serve the number of children who need placements. As a result, these children, through no fault of their own, can end up somewhere else in the state, either at the closest children’s shelter or with a foster family in an entirely new community.
“We need troops on the ground here,” Morrissey said. “We need people to get involved at a much more personal level.”
Lexi was born in Whitefish, and lived there until she was 3. After Lexi was taken from her mother, who was a drug addict, she was placed in no fewer than 10 different homes before she was 16 years old. There were homes in Evergreen and Kalispell, some of which left lasting scars.
She remembers one Kalispell home as calm and safe, living with two adult sisters when she was 6 or 7. But it didn’t last long; Lexi needed more psychological help than her foster moms could offer.
“I was just an angry, angry kid,” she said.
She was taken to a therapeutic group home, where she lived for a year before she was reunited with her mother. That, too, didn’t last, and Lexi went to the Watson’s Children Shelter in Missoula, where she would spend the next several years. When a placement with an aunt in Washington didn’t work, she came back to the Flathead, spending three years in Whitefish before another reunion with her mother, this time in Butte. But when her mom got into trouble again, Lexi went back to Kalispell, to live in the Flathead Youth Home.
Oftentimes, the moves from place to place felt punitive.
“Moving kids, it makes it seem like it’s their fault,” Lexi said. “I thought it was my fault.”
Pat Sylvia, a Child Protective Services supervisor in the Flathead who has worked with the agency for about 20 years, first encountered Lexi when she was a toddler, having just been removed from her mother’s care. At 16, Lexi was back in the Flathead after spending more than a decade in the system, bouncing from one foster family to another like a pinball in constant motion.
“I’ve watched Lexi for years bounce through the system,” Pat said last week. “I just believe kids should have a family.”
On March 18, 2013, Pat came for Lexi and took her out of the group home. Last Christmas Eve, she officially adopted the teenager.
There is a real need for more foster families in Montana, and in the Flathead. At Youth Dynamics Inc. in Kalispell, part of a statewide family-focused behavioral health treatment organization, Katherine Gerten, the licensing coordinator and case manager, said there were about 20 kids she couldn’t place with local foster families over a period of four to five months.
“There’s no place to put them,” Gerten said. “Kids will move all over the state.”
Gerten said Youth Dynamics also has a therapeutic-focused foster care program, in which foster parents are trained and supported by case managers, care managers, social workers, therapists and support groups.
By supporting the family this way, any problems the child may have or develop can be dealt with and the child doesn’t have to move.
Nicole Grossberg, the regional administrator for DPHHS Child and Family Services Western Region 5, said there has been an increase in the number of kids in care.
“The good thing we’re doing is we’re getting a lot better at kinship placements,” Grossberg said. “We look for that option first, then we look for foster homes.”
DPHHS went to the Flathead for the Full Family Foster Care trial because the community is so responsive to the needs of children, she said.
“There are a lot of people I believe in the Flathead who want to help,” Grossberg said.
FitzGerald, the Intermountain CEO, said neglect is the top reason children are removed from their homes, and drugs or alcohol are usually involved.
Lately, Montana has been trending back toward more removals.
“We have more kids in out-of-home care than ever before,” FitzGerald said.
He and Dee Incoronato, the chief strategy officer for Intermountain, were in Kalispell last week for a series of discussions with local community leaders who work with children, such as therapists, teachers, and judges, to get a feel for what is happening in the Flathead and how Intermountain can best serve the community.
Now 17 and a junior in high school, Lexi is a sharp, funny young woman. She’ll be the first to tell you she’s brutally honest, and will bring up stories of how tough she is, telling stories about scraps she’s gotten into with other girls.
It’s not hard to see she’s developed a thick, protective shell, which Pat says was an adaptive necessity, given the volatile environment in which she grew up. But once you get past the prickliness and posturing, Lexi is kind and open, with an affinity for cats and country music. She revels in the approval of a job well done, whether it’s from the staff at Flathead High School who monitor her job as a guidance office aide, or from her boss at a local fast food restaurant.
She’s not shy about her past, and acknowledges that her trials in life have taught her some valuable lessons. Coping skills she learned at the group home have helped her keep her temper and stay out of trouble, and seeing the havoc wreaked on her mother’s life, Lexi knows it’s easier not having a criminal record.
Lexi thinks the foster care system is headed in the right direction with its goal of moving children less frequently, and she hopes kids in the Flathead get the helpful, supportive, and stable foster families they deserve.
After she graduates, Lexi plans on attending Flathead Valley Community College, then following that up with time in a college program for 911 dispatchers.
Though Lexi has only been with Pat for about a year, Pat said she’s seen the teenager become more centered and self-confident; she’s dependable and honest, always making curfew on the weekends. It doesn’t take much to help a child thrive, Pat said; basics like kindness, respect, consistency, and boundaries can go a long way. She’s seen Lexi become more of a normal teenager, one who doesn’t have to worry about adult concerns just yet.
It was a bit of a challenge getting Lexi to understand that she’s not on her own anymore and that she can give up some of that control, Pat said, but it’s getting better.
“It’s nice to see her grow and enjoy friends, to see her mature,” Pat said.
For Lexi, the adoption hasn’t quite registered for her as something different. She said she’s stopped caring about a lot of things in life, because once you care, there’s the chance to get hurt. Pat hopes to quiet some of those fears by sticking with Lexi, no matter what, because that’s what a family should do.
In two months, Lexi will be 18. She’s looking forward to the freedom of being a legal adult. She’ll still live with Pat for her senior year of high school, but she won’t be under the system that has been making choices for her for 14 years.
Whatever comes next for Lexi, wherever she goes, for the first time in her life, she’ll be there because she chose it.
At Intermountain, Morrissey said he has tried to find adoptive homes in the Flathead for six children and foster placements for another six children from Western Montana since the beginning of the year, but to no avail.
Bernie McDonald, the assistant coordinator at Intermountain’s therapeutic group home, named the Providence Home, said the prospect of foster care can be daunting for many people. She is well-versed in the pros and cons of taking in children, having fostered more than 65 children in the Flathead over 13 years with her husband.
The McDonalds ended up adopting two of those children. They also have biological children.
Many of the fears potential foster families harbor can be dispelled, McDonald said, though there are challenges. Some of the children have psychological needs, and many have either been neglected or abused. Sexual abuse is also a factor in many of these children’s lives, but learning how to handle that situation if it arises is a major part of the pre-licensing training foster parents receive, she said.
Along with developing more stable environments for children, the Full Family Foster Care program is also aiming to be an emergency foster care option for the Flathead. There’s no longer a children’s shelter in Kalispell for kids younger than 10, who are typically sent to Watson’s Children Shelter in Missoula.
Families trained through FFFC would be ready to take in these little ones, McDonald and Morrissey said, because they are prepared to keep a child anywhere from two days to 20 years.
Following the first 30 days with a foster family in the FFFC program, the child goes through a psychological assessment to see if he or she has specific needs. If so, the family is given more support, Morrissey said, and the child stays put.
The goal is to be able to have a trained and licensed family a phone call away in an emergency situation, and if an arrangement cannot be made with any of the child’s family members or anyone else the child’s social worker might have in mind, the program moves forward with supporting and stabilizing the foster family.
Full Family Foster Care would just serve children from the Flathead, Morrissey said. Other placements, such as those through the organization’s therapeutic foster care program, could include more children, already in the system and possibly from different communities, who need a placement.
Since its launch in October, the FFFC program has licensed three families and placed eight local children.
“I do think it has a lot of promise,” FitzGerald said.
McDonald and Morrissey said there are different types of fostering that people can be licensed for, such as respite care – taking kids for a scheduled time to give their foster family some time to regroup – or full-time care.
Many people have the strength of heart for foster care, Morrissey said, but believe the financial strain would be too much. However, foster children come with a monthly stipend to help defer their costs, though it’s not enough to supplement the foster family’s income, McDonald stressed, meaning no one should foster children for the financial incentive.
“Those people are usually weeded out pretty fast,” she said.
Intermountain needs a minimum of three families to start its next training for the FFFC program. Anyone interested is asked to call Morrissey at 406-249-8846. No decisions need to be made on the phone, and it’s a good time to answer questions and dispel myths, he said.
“I really believe that everybody can take care of at least one child,” McDonald said. “I don’t have enough adjectives for how fulfilling my life has been with my children.”
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