Giving Kids a Lift
The little boy arrived with a human bite mark on his cheek. It was deep. He was so frightened he refused to utter a word. Christi Fisher, his new foster mom, wasn’t even sure if he understood English. But that first night, he did finally lay on her chest. He clutched her hair and wouldn’t let go. They slept like that, and the next day when she took him to work with her, he let himself laugh. Later, a full-body scan revealed a broken arm and ribs. At the hospital, they told Fisher that sometimes, when the abuse is so pervasive, children grow accustomed to the pain.
The boy was one of 11 children Christi fostered through DePelchin Children’s Center, Houston’s oldest foster care and adoption agency.
Seven years ago, as a single mother of a 6-year-old, Christi was surprised to learn she was not automatically disqualified from becoming a foster parent. On the contrary, DePelchin welcomes applicants from all backgrounds, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, gender, faith, ethnicity or age. Her son, Karsen, whose father passed away after he and Christi separated, was enthusiastic about the idea of a temporary brother or sister, so she completed the extensive application process and training requirements.
Adoption, she said, was never in her mind.
Christi got her foster license on a Tuesday and received her first placement that Thursday: a newborn girl who had tested positive for drugs and her 10-month-old brother. Over the course of nearly a year, she watched the siblings thrive in a nurturing environment with her and Karsen. Eventually, the sister and brother returned to their biological parents—who had spent those months overhauling their lives—but not before another child entered the Fisher home.
Jaxsen was found abandoned in what was essentially a live-in meth lab. He was five months old and severely malnourished. Child Protective Services (CPS) placed him with a family friend at first, but the father was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter and the family was no longer able to care for Jaxsen. After bouncing between homes, he finally arrived at Christi’s front door. But before the social worker set him down, he asked Christi if she was open to adoption. She took one look at Jaxsen and surprised herself by saying yes.
After Jaxsen, she fostered and adopted Bailey, who had been hospitalized for the first three months of her life due to drug exposure in-utero. Then there was Ember, who came to Christi at six months old—it would be Ember’s fifth and final home.
Christi cared for several other foster children—including the little boy who had been bitten on the cheek and who was ultimately placed in another adoptive home—until Kyron came along. At 3 pounds, 12 ounces, Kyron would be Christi’s last adoption, making her a single mother of five.
Children of trauma
When abuse or neglect is suspected, children are removed from their homes by CPS and placed with a relative or into foster care. Sometimes, children end up returning to their families, as long as those families are able to sustain a safe and loving environment.
“The purpose of foster care is to provide safety and treatment, and it should be a therapeutic experience for the child regardless of the outcome,” said Avia Benzion, LPC, program manager of Integrated Mental Health at DePelchin. “Many in our field believe that the best outcome is for them to return to their biological family, but only if it’s safe. As one parent said, ‘They need our love more than we need to protect our hearts.’”
Foster families are in high demand. Just last year, 6,551 children in Harris County alone were victims of abuse and neglect, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Throughout the month of April—National Child Abuse Prevention Month— DePelchin Children’s Center will tie 6,551 blue ribbons to its fence line for each of those children.
DePelchin focuses on children in the state’s welfare system and those at risk of entering the system, working to break the cycles of child abuse and neglect while improving the physical and emotional well-being of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Programs target both children and adults, including biological families at risk of losing their children, as well as foster parents and adoptive families learning the unique skill set required to help victims of trauma—be it physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or even exposure to drugs or domestic violence while in the womb.
“We now understand that trauma has a significant impact on the development of a child’s brain,” said Corrine M. Walijarvi, Ph.D., LMSW, vice president of Child Welfare and Strategic Planning at DePelchin Children’s Center. “If children have experienced trauma, especially multiple forms of trauma over many years, caregivers need to provide them with more than a safe environment. It is essential for parents and other caregivers to know how to connect with the child and help promote healing.”
Christi connects with her children through play, music, art and family trips to the coast. Karsen loves football, basketball and fishing; Jaxsen is a whiz at technology; Bailey is a gifted artist; Ember, a social butterfly, is a self-taught cartwheel expert; and when the music turns on, Kyron keeps the beat.
On a recent morning, Christi sat on her couch in Porter, Texas, and told her family’s story. All the kids were in school except Ember, who was playing in her bedroom and would periodically interrupt to ask for a juice or applesauce. On weekdays, Christi is usually at work, but her company, an underground water sewer drainage supply house owned by family friends, has been extremely supportive of her need for flexibility. At one point, she said, her office was filled with baby swings and cribs.
Christi will never know the extent of her children’s traumas. She will never know what drugs Bailey’s mother used while carrying her, or exactly what Jaxsen saw as he sat crying for food and inhaling the gaseous byproducts of methamphetamines. But she does know that they are all still struggling.
“Jaxsen doesn’t know what happened to him, but his brain does, and that’s how it developed,” Christi said. “It formed over fear and neglect and drugs and abandonment. He’s almost 7 and that’s still with him today. And I fear it will be with him for the rest of his life. He’s going to be paying for the neglect and abuse and the trauma for the rest of his life. It doesn’t go away no matter how much love I give him—and that goes for all of them.”
Jaxsen lives in “fight or flight” mode, sometimes trying to kick out car windows or escape from classrooms because he is wired to feel trapped. He feels safest outside, where there are no walls or locked doors. And although his special education classes help him with his fears and aggressive tendencies, he still must take medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, something Christi reluctantly abides.
“I feel like I’m having to give him poison to help with the effects of the poison he was exposed to as a baby,” she said, wiping away tears.
When Ember arrived in Christi’s home she was severely malnourished. Although the 5-year-old has lived with Christi since she was 6 months old, she is still obsessed with food and remains laser-focused on her next snack or meal.
“She has a ton of support and family and friends that just shower her with love, so you wouldn’t think you would find her digging food out of the trash can or at the park picking up food off the ground that someone had left, but she does,” Christi said, adding that all of her children have an intense need to be in control.
“Being a mom who parents children of trauma, that’s the part that is difficult and sometimes very frustrating for people who don’t understand.”
Love is not enough
DePelchin Children’s Center understands that foster parents need specialized training, as well as ongoing support. Years ago, the organization put a trauma team in place for crisis situations—the late-night calls from families struggling to cope with a child who has lost self-control and is damaging property or threatening to harm someone.
But thanks to private funding, DePelchin also created a team that aims to foresee and address potential problems before they ever escalate. The FIRST program, which stands for Family Integrated Relational Services Treatment, blends mental health services—including home-based therapy for children and families—with DePelchin’s core child welfare program to provide foster families and those working toward adoption with early awareness, needs assessments, trauma-informed care and ongoing support.
A team of social workers serves every foster family, and children who are identified as high-risk receive ongoing mental health services within the home. It’s a proactive system but also a way to reinforce DePelchin’s availability and resources.
“Behavioral issues are to be expected,” Walijarvi said, “so we want to make sure that from the first day a child is placed in the home, we provide the environment and support that promotes healing. That is why we provide intensive, trauma-informed training to prospective foster and adoptive parents before we place a child in their home.”
These parents quickly realize that love is not enough.
“Love is necessary but not sufficient,” Benzion said. “That’s what we’re there for—to provide parents with the understanding, knowledge, tools and skills so that they know how to help the child. We view the parents as therapeutic agents. When a child experiences trauma such as abuse or neglect, it happens within the context of an interpersonal relationship, and so it must be healed within the context of a safe interpersonal relationship.”
The program is working. Now more than ever, DePelchin foster kids are staying put. Walijarvi explained that it is considered a good outcome if 85 percent of the children have two or fewer moves while in foster care. DePelchin, she said, now exceeds 99 percent placement stability.
“You hear about children who go from foster home to foster home, and every single one of those moves is traumatic,” she said. “We can help improve their outcomes and help the families. And many of the families are now moving toward adoption of the children instead of sending them off to another foster home.”
Unfortunately, many children are never adopted and eventually age out of the foster care system. For those young adults, DePelchin’s TAGS program, or Transition to Adulthood through Guidance and Support, provides an intermediate living environment to help them complete school, get job training and save money before heading out on their own.
“The young adults who age out of foster care are some of the most vulnerable youth in our community,” said Julie Crowe, DePelchin’s vice president of Prevention and Early Intervention Services. “They are the ones who are most likely to become homeless, to commit a crime or to end up in the justice system. They’re also much more likely to become victims of crimes themselves.”
Christi’s kids are among the lucky ones because they now have Christi as their mother. But she also understands the value of birth parents, and when appropriate, she stays in contact with her children’s biological families knowing that someday, her kids will start asking questions.
Kyron’s birth father is, perhaps, most involved. Last July, when Kyron turned two, Christi agreed to bring him to a local Chuck E. Cheese’s for cupcakes and presents with a few members of his biological family.
“I’m grateful that he wants to be in Kyron’s life,” Christi said. “Kyron is African-American, and he’s going to know that we look different. He’s going to ask me, ‘Who’s my birth mom? Who’s my birth dad?’ I want to leave a healthy, open path for them when that day comes.”
Karsen, now 13, loves having four other siblings: Jaxsen, 6, Bailey and Ember, both 5, and 2-year-old Kyron. Most days when they’re out of school, they can be found together in their back yard, swinging wildly on the large play-scape donated by the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl.
Christi might watch them from the kitchen window— Jaxsen balancing on the swing, Karsen lifting Kyron up to dunk a basketball, Ember and Bailey twirling. Her chest might tighten when she thinks about their pasts, but the present is undeniably encouraging. They are coping, they are resilient, and they have each other.