Brenda Brown’s calm demeanor, compassionate heart and can-do attitude have served her well as she’s proudly worn the title of foster mom for 26 years and counting. In addition to her four grown children, Brown has mothered 15 foster children, many of whom come back to visit, drawn by her nurturing spirit and belief in them.
“If they don’t have any family, they still come on holidays and participate in Christmas or Thanksgiving,” said Brown.
If they need gas money, she’s quick to give it. When former foster kids have been in college, she visited regularly to provide encouragement and a meal. Those in the military come by on breaks. One recently knocked on Brown’s door because she craved the comfort and security of sleeping in her old bed.
“I told her, ‘you are 26 years old!’ but she said she didn’t care,” laughs Brown. “She slept for four hours and then said she’d come back to see me next year.”
Those lifelong relationships are a testament to the environment Brown cultivates in her home, with her priority being children feeling safe and understood.
“They have this wall built up,” said Brown. “They come from hard places and they don’t want to trust you.”
Her focus on open communication, clarity about expectations and spending time discerning and enhancing each child’s strengths slowly opens that door.
“I just talk with them,” said Brown, “figure out what they like and don’t like. I try to show them that all I want is for them to develop and grow.”
Watching her foster children achieve milestones is a highlight for Brown, who now mentors other foster parents.
“She is what all our kids want,” said Misty McGaugh, field manager for Therapeutic Foster Care and Shelters for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Child Welfare. “They want to feel safe, secure, loved and attached to people who care. Brenda does that beautifully.”
What is therapeutic foster care?
Brown worked as a case manager for Department of Human Services for 27 years, and her initial foray into foster care was by happenstance. An experienced babysitter, Brown agreed to take in a young foster child in an emergency situation. She eventually adopted him, and she found her niche in therapeutic foster care.
“We work with children who require move intensive care, who have psychological, social and emotional needs,” said Brown.
Children in therapeutic foster care have been diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition, like ADHD, anxiety, OCD or PTSD, and have needs beyond what a traditional foster home provides. Children in TFC homes receive the benefits of a family environment and more intensive therapeutic interventions with licensed professionals. McGaugh said some misunderstand TFC as care for children with extensive special needs or overwhelming medical conditions, but in reality they are dealing with fairly typical childhood diagnoses. But those mental health or behavioral diagnoses are compounded by the trauma they’ve undergone in their biological home or simply by being removed from the only home they’ve ever known.
“I had a girl in TFC tell me she feels like there is a black cloud that follows her around and dumps on her,” said Cheryl Ibrahim, TFC recruiter for OKDHS. “TFC helps a child like that learn to dance in her rain.”
Unlike traditional foster care in Oklahoma, managed by both DHS and foster and adoptive placement agencies, TFC is managed by six specific agencies. Currently in Oklahoma, there are, on average, 180 to 200 children in TFC care, with 25 children on a waiting list for placement. The numbers have improved considerably since MetroFamily first reported on TFC homes in January 2016, when there were more than 500 children in TFC care and 150 on the waiting list. According to McGaugh, in addition to a decrease in the total number of children in foster care in Oklahoma, OKDHS has improved its collaborative effort with TFC agencies to better assess children who need this level of care. But, she said those numbers don’t account for children who haven’t yet received a behavioral or mental health diagnosis that would qualify them for TFC, and they have no way of predicting how that number could grow in the future.
“We don’t know what tomorrow or next year will bring, and we need to have fully trained foster parents who will support kids in their darkest times,” said McGaugh. “We want to have homes waiting for our kids so teams can place them in a home that would best suit their specific needs.”
Each child in TFC is supported by a team, including their foster parents, therapists, DHS case worker and a representative from their placement agency, who work together to assess needs and develop a treatment plan. Based on a child’s behavior and diagnoses, his or her team defines goals to track the child’s progress.
“These behavioral or mental health diagnoses are lifelong circumstances; they aren’t just going to go away,” said McGaugh, “We want to help them better manage those needs in everyday settings.”
TFC parents must have more hours of upfront and ongoing training than traditional foster parents, and they receive specialized training around each child’s individual health and behavioral needs. Ibrahim said families learn that children’s behavior is an attempt to meet some type of need and then how to help them work though those triggers. In the 26 years Brown has been fostering, she said the training offered has improved greatly.
“There is a lot of knowledge and material out there now,” said Brown. “If I knew then what I know now, I could have helped [my first] children faster than I did.”
Brown said her support team is critical to her success as a foster parent. Her church provides school supplies and Wednesday night programming. TFC agencies offer 24/7 crisis response for foster parents, as well as consistent respite care options so families can take a break as needed. Brown takes regular vacations and goes to the gym while her foster children are at school.
“I have to make sure I take care of myself so I can take care of them,” said Brown.
TFC parents are responsible for teaching basic living and social skills and turning in weekly reports documenting foster children’s daily activities and progress in living, clinical and therapeutic skills. Brown provides her children structure and focus, savoring both bestowing knowledge and watching it come to fruition.
“We teach money management, we work on job skills, manners, nutrition and diet, we help with homework and help them learn how to cope,” said Brown.
Along with her biological and adopted children and grandsons, Brown enjoys taking her foster children out to dinner once a month to practice manners and appropriate behavior in public.
When a child is placed in TFC, the goal is not for them to stay there, but to learn to cope with both their trauma and diagnosis so they can be moved to less intensive care.
“We try within six months to give them enough training and build their skills so they can go home,” said Brown.
When home isn’t an option, a child may move to a traditional foster home, a kinship placement with siblings or to an adoptive home. While saying goodbye isn’t easy, Brown delights in her foster children whose accomplishments in therapy allow them to transition out of her home, to a less restrictive level of care.
“We need more therapeutic foster parents like Brenda who want to celebrate a child’s achievements and all the things they are overcoming,” said McGaugh.
Brown displays that same attitude about reunification with biological families. Like in traditional foster care, bridging with foster children’s biological families is a critical piece of TFC, when deemed appropriate by the judge in each case. MGaugh said the more connections a child has to their family of origin, the more success they see from that child behaviorally, at school and even with their physical health.
“Visitation is a key predictor of whether families are able to reunify,” said McGaugh
Brown invites her foster children’s biological parents into her home and communicates with them frequently.
“I try to be positive, asking them a lot of questions and letting them know they can ask me anything,” said Brown. “I haven’t had a difficult parent yet.”
Brown said for most biological parents, the shock of having their children taken away spurs them to complete their required treatment plans to be reunited with their children. Often a lack of resources or education leads to the poor choices that instigate their child’s removal.
“It may be something they did wrong that they didn’t even mean to do,” said Brown. “Some have problems [with their treatment plan] but most want to complete it.”
Brown calls reunification the most beautiful part of the foster care journey.
“You meet a child’s needs, help them grow and develop, and then they get to return home to their parents,” said Brown. “It makes me feel like I have helped someone and accomplished something.”
Generously sponsored by Kimray, this is part one of a series that will provide stories of OKC foster families. Find more information about the foster care system and how to become a foster parent at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/foster.