At Miss Gwen’s Salmon Creek home, sunlight filters softly onto large plush couches and a table set for eight, while the happy chatter of children playing trickles down from a broad landing at the top of the stairs.
It’s the kind of scene you expect to find in a happy family home. But for these kids, it is not the kind of home or family they have known before.
Gwendolyn Greene — Miss Gwen to the kids — is a licensed therapeutic foster home provider, and this is a last hope for some of these kids. They have experienced trauma and loss in their own families, and have either been removed from other foster settings or deemed too challenging to even try such placement. These are the kids who have nowhere left to go.
Greene provides therapeutic foster care through Service Alternatives, which is contracted by the Children’s Administration of Washington state Department of Health and Human Services to provide a range of human services, including foster care. Therapeutic foster care is a specialized subset, offering care specifically designed for children who require intensive support and services to succeed in family living situations.
Therapeutic foster homes receive specialized training, and ongoing “wraparound” support from a team of professionals. That extra support makes all the difference, said Crista Hendrickson, Foster Parent Recruitment and Retention specialist for Service Alternatives.
Wraparound services include crisis response seven days a week, 24 hours a day. There is someone to call if foster parents need to talk, at any hour of the day. Members of the support team will come on site for assistance when they are needed.
Greene has been providing therapeutic foster care through Service Alternatives for the past two years, but she has spent her life caring for children in homes and classrooms.
“I am for youth forever, it’s just my make up,” she said.
And she knows just what these kids need from her.
“The main thing if you want to reach that child, is you have to have a relationship. That’s their therapy,” she said.
When kids come to Miss Gwen’s house, they discontinue behavior-related medications, learn life skills and get stabilized, she said.
“There are always going to be some problems because of what they go through,” Greene said. “I try to get kids in a normal atmosphere. I live with these kids and I know what they are capable of.”
Greene emphasizes the importance of consistency, and trust.
“Relationship comes from trust,” she said. “I don’t change when I say something. I’m very consistent.”
She knows that her charges will come to her not trusting adults, since adults are the people who hurt them. The calm at her home belies the storms she expects to see. The kids do come to her long on anger and short on trust. Kids take things. They run. They don’t want to go to bed, and they scream at her.
“They all do the storytelling,” Greene said of the tales they spin. She tells them, “You wasn’t born to lie. You choose to lie.”
She focuses on the lessons she wants them to learn.
“Punishment gets back at them,” said Greene. “Discipline teaches them and gets them on track.”
She makes sure that through it all, kids know her love is steadfast.
“Love ain’t got nothing to do with this,” she said. “Love ain’t on trial, what’s on trial is thinking before you act.”
“I signed up to treat this child while they’re in my care like they’re mine. If I get a note from school I’m on it. You have to really be there for these kids,” Greene said.
Miss Gwen takes “her kids” everywhere. The state capital at Olympia, Great Wolf Lodge, Mount Hood, places most of the kids have never visited.
Hendrickson said there are never enough foster homes to serve all of the children who need them. In Clark County alone, 15 kids are waiting for a place to call home.
Service Alternatives brings a hands on, supportive touch for the individuals and families who open their homes to foster children. A family isn’t just diving in blindly with a new foster child, emphasized Hendrickson. Service Alternatives has a child’s history, and they have a good idea of their past behaviors and needs.
“We look for a good match. We want to be sure kids are placed in a home where they will be as successful as possible,” Hendrickson said.
Ideally, kids stay in their community, where they can attend familiar schools and services.
“Kids lose six months (of learning) when they change schools,” Hendrickson said. “We are always working on permanency.”
Case workers try to move a child toward a permanent home as quickly as possible, whether that will be a family member, relative or adoption.
Hendrickson described the task of a therapeutic foster home. Some kids need a high level of supervision, possibly around the clock at times. They will need transportation to appointments, groups and community activities. Foster parents attend school meetings regarding education accommodations, and team meetings at Service Alternatives. There may be visits with the child’s biological family.
“It’s definitely something people have to think about,” said Hendrickson. “Sit down and talk about what it looks like.”
One way to explore a foster parent role is to become a respite care provider. Every foster care provider receives one weekend per month of respite care for the child, and foster homes are needed to provide this home away from home.
Greene began offering therapeutic foster care when a boy in the youth program where she worked needed respite care. She had bonded with the child while providing one-on-one learning assistance, she said, and she wanted him to have the security of weekends with someone he knew and trusted.
Happy chatter coming from Miss Gwen’s upstairs landing shows the difference that love and stability makes for a child. Her household now consists of a niece who lives with her, three foster children, and 8-year-old Makaila, a previous foster child whom Greene has adopted.
“I love what I do.” Greene said. “I want my kids to know there’s something out there besides bad decisions.”