Friday, December 19, 2014 · 7:09 p.m.

At the center of foster care

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James "Red" McCormick provides foster care for children in very similar situations to the one he was in as a young child in Crossville. (Photo: James McCormick)

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ annual report for the 2010-2011 fiscal year recorded that there were 7,643 minors in the system during the 12 months between July 1 and June 30.

Of that 7,643, some would eventually return to their birth parents. Some would relocate to a family member’s residence. Some—588—would be adopted. Wherever the children were permanently placed, the median length of time they spent in DCS custody totaled 9.3 months.

The goal is never to let a child “languish” in foster care, explained Carol Cox, program manager at Centerstone, an organization that provides residential treatment and therapeutic foster care in Tennessee and Indiana. 

However, this simple and common sense goal can be a more complex process to achieve because of the ever-present need for more foster parents, according to Michelle Snow, foster care coordinator at Centerstone.

A mission from the start
Centerstone, which also provides adults and seniors with addiction and mental illness treatment, has been a presence in Hamilton County since July 2009. Foster care is a core focus for the organization; it was, in fact, explicitly included in Centerstone’s mission statement.

The specialization in addiction and mental illness was purposefully linked to the therapeutic foster care because many of the minors admitted to Centerstone struggle with one or both issues.

A DCS contract provider, the organization receives the cases with high-level needs, and to ensure that the needs of both the adults and children in these situations are met, Centerstone has paired the state training curriculum with an in-depth training program for foster parents.

“It’s helping to outline for the foster parents the line of thinking as you approach your work with these kids,” Cox said. “There are some people that were raised in a punishment-oriented mindset, and that’s all they know. What we’re hoping to do with our training is bring [the parents] over to the way that they can build hope in the children, reinforce the good and reteach the negative behaviors.”

PATH, or Parents As Tender Healers, involves an introduction to the child welfare system, the impact of trauma, effective discipline, parenting strategies and proper documentation and policy procedures. Centerstone foster parents also earn their CPR and first aid certification and are qualified to administer their charges’ medications when necessary.

In addition, Snow works through 15 hours of therapeutic training—the extra element that prepares foster parents to work with the high-level need children. This covers more in-depth measures of discipline, methods of parenting teens and the Circle of Courage.

Taken from a Native American tradition and first applied to parenting in the 1990 book “Reclaiming Youth at Risk,” the philosophy consists of four spirits: belonging, generosity, independence and mastery. Each category is meant to help foster children be more aware of others in their community; feel connected to that community; and build the skills to contribute to that community as a positive, productive member of society.

What the training does not stress is how to love the foster children. In fact, James McCormick, outreach coordinator for Centerstone’s in-home treatment services, tells potential foster parents that they shouldn’t worry about loving the children.

“I ask instead that the parents simply live their life, a good, decent life, and expose our child to it—let them be a participant with them,” McCormick said. “Many potential foster parents feel they are going to have to have deep psychological insights or advanced education with skillsets beyond the norm. I argue that is not what these children need—they need the routine and structure of positive daily family life. Get up on time, eat meals together, talk to each other with courtesy, take a bath each night, etc. That is within the capabilities of any family with heart.”

On a child’s side
McCormick knows what foster children need most from several different perspectives. The Crossville, Tenn., native was a foster child whose foster family adopted him. He then grew up to not only foster children, but also set his career in the same system he had gone through as a young child.

Though his given name was Bernard C. McCormick, known affectionately as “Red,” he assumed his adoptive parents’ name. He came to Herbert and Willie Mae’s home in Hixson at age 9 when his mother’s abusive husband almost drowned McCormick in apparent anger that the boy couldn’t swim.

With their fostering and adoption of him, the McCormicks set Red on a very different life path that led to a degree in criminal justice from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a master’s in education from the University of Tennessee at Martin and the rank of captain in the U.S. Army before he returned to Chattanooga and the work of foster care.

“Throughout my life, at certain points there were people who cared, a teacher, a coach, fraternity brothers, etc., that invested in me through teaching, mentoring, role modeling,” McCormick said. “A quote I like to paraphrase is, ‘When we were young, someone cared; now, it is our turn.’”

Snow is also personally invested in the fate of foster children beyond her job. She and her husband adopted a girl and a boy, who are now 19 and 15 years old, in 2001. Their daughter was actually their first foster placement.

The Department of Children's Services places Hamilton County in the Tennessee Valley Region in its grouping of state services. (Screenshot: Staff)

The Centerstone team includes a myriad of professionals dedicated to supporting foster parents and children. While Snow coordinates the foster parents, another tenured child care provider coordinates the caseworkers, who themselves are serving as advocates for individual children. In addition, Centerstone has a clinical therapist on staff to provide intensive, one-on-one therapy for the children depending on their needs.

A how-to of the system
Foster children enter DCS custody through one of three tracks: truancy, in which the school notifies DCS after the student accrues an outstanding number of absences; delinquency, in which the minor has become involved in criminal behavior; or dependent/neglect, in which the child is in an abusive or neglectful home environment.

Those with addiction or mental illness issues are commonly referred to Centerstone. The agency makes matches between its foster homes and the cases based on age, preferences, space and the desire to keep siblings together. Cox said that she frequently turns down three to five cases a week.

She acknowledged that though families are given a stipend for each day that each individual child is in their care, there are real and assumed challenges to the work: Will the foster parents know what to do if they have never been parents or raised kids years ago? Will the foster parents’ biological children mesh with the new housemates? Will the foster parents be able to commit to the months ahead?

To each question, the answer is in the support built into the Centerstone system. Snow remembers the story of a foster parent whose first placement was four siblings right before Christmas. The children had settled in by early January, and their misbehaviors surfaced. 

The understandably stressed-out foster parent kept in touch with Snow, and six months later, the parent was relishing time with the children whose demeanor had vastly improved. All four remained with the foster parent for eight months until they returned to their birth parents.

“Sometimes people take the approach of this as a missionary project,” Snow said. “Not everybody has to got to Africa or India to be a missionary. You can be a missionary right here, and that’s pretty big. These children are our future, our community.”

Looking at a picture of her own son, smiling with his trumpet, she said, “This is the face of adoption or foster care. These are not kids who are bad kids. These aren’t scary kids. These are smart kids. They are talented kids.”

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