Contract guides youth and parents in rebuilding relationship
Jonathan hopes that his good behavior eventually will earn him the privilege of getting a learner’s permit to drive the family minivan.
Ryan Bennett wasn't in the courtroom to hear the compliments about his work; he'd already moved on to his other cases. But on this late October afternoon, three lawyers gave Bennett much of the credit for reuniting the Clackamas County family that was appearing that day before Circuit Court Judge Douglas Van Dyk.
"Ryan Bennett is amazing," said Gay Canaday, the attorney representing the relieved father sitting next to her. She said Bennett, a family intervention specialist, and the intensive in-home services he provided were essential to the 15-year-old boy returning to his parents' custody.
Lynne Saxton wasn't in court either, but as the executive director of Youth Villages Oregon, this is exactly the type of outcome she expects from work done through her non-profit's Intercept program.
"The challenge of this work and the passion of this work is driven not just by handling the situation of the moment, but making sure that the child and the family are successful in the terms that we want all families to be successful,'' Saxton said in an earlier interview about the work of her organization.
Jonathan, the youth who was appearing before Judge Van Dyk, and his family are a case in point.
Ten months earlier, Jonathan's family was in crisis. His aging adoptive parents – both are 72 – faced a myriad of issues, including financial stresses that kept his father working nights as a janitor, a decade- long battle with cancer that kept his mother bed-ridden and the divorce of his adult sister who moved home with three small children. Jonathan was acting out, too, regularly missing school and being defiant at home. Finally, the parents sought psychiatric care for the boy, but the hospital determined that Jonathan was stable.
Against the parents' wishes, the state stepped in and took custody of Jonathan and placed him in foster care. Child Protective Services workers were concerned that Jonathan was required to care for his mother's medical needs, was regularly responsible for his young nephews and faced a negative attitude in the home that was detrimental to his well-being.
DHS caseworker Molly Doumitt was assigned the case. She was joined by Bennett. Through a contract with the DHS, Youth Villages Oregon provides specialists, such as Bennett, to work with families through its Intercept program for four to six months.
"One thing was clear from the beginning," said Bennett, "this family loves each other."
"The love is really there. But everyone had gotten so negative," said Doumitt, who emphasized that it was important to help Jonathan see himself as a good kid who could be successful.
The first task was to begin regular home visits so that Jonathan and his parents could begin rebuilding their relationships. Bennett and Doumitt worked closely together to make sure that visits occurred often and were monitored. Parents and child received guidance from Bennett on trust-building behavior and its benefits. Jonathan's father, Art, was encouraged to spend quality time with his son and responded by planning a camping trip to Washington. Jonathan's mother, Lillian, learned to praise Jonathan for his accomplishments. In turn, Jonathan learned his good behavior would be appreciated and rewarded.
As the animosity was replaced by understanding, Jonathan began spending more time at home while continuing to live in a foster home with other teens. Jonathan declined an early opportunity to move back home, saying he wanted more work to be done. But seven months after entering foster care, Jonathan and his parents were ready for him to come home on a trial basis.
Bennett, as prescribed by Intercept's proven techniques, was in the home at least three times a week. "Whenever we needed him all we had to do was call, and he was there," said Art. "He helped us see things from a different perspective."
The Intercept model also helps the family connect with community supports, which will be available to them long after the family specialist has moved on. In Jonathan's case, those community supports have included the school and scouting.
Bennett and Doumitt met with school officials in the fall to seek an Individual Education Plan for Jonathan to determine his learning abilities and what educational supports might be needed. Bennett talked with Lillian about scouting, and she made the necessary contacts for Jonathan to become involved. Jonathan particularly likes the troop activities, such as a recent bike ride from Banks to Vernonia.
A neighbor who is a deputy with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Department also has stepped forward to mentor Jonathan, taking him to ride along on patrols so that the youth can see how his interest in law enforcement might play out in a career.
Doumitt and Bennett began to see progress.
"Jonathan started seeing himself in a different light," Doumitt said. "The parents and Jonathan knew what to expect from each other."
An important ingredient in the process was the Home Living Contract drawn up by Bennett with assistance from Doumitt and signed by Jonathan and his parents. The judge was so impressed with how well the contract worked that he said he would use it as a model with other cases. Jonathan's lawyer, Jim Bernstein, called it "a work of art" that helped his client see problems from all perspectives.
The contract says, for example, that Jonathan will attend all of his classes every day of the week. As a reward, his parents will allow him to have a weekend sleepover with a friend. It calls upon Jonathan to do routine household chores, but says he will not be responsible for handling his mother's medications.
In court, Judge Van Dyk commended Bennett and the Intercept program for providing the support and structure the family needed and talked about how happy he was to see the family reunited. "This is my happy case today."
He also told the parents that they should all be proud of themselves. He told the father and mother, who attended the hearing via phone, that they had learned to be more positive and set reasonable expectations.
"But you stepped up," he said, looking directly at Jonathan. "Are you proud of yourself," he asked the boy, who quietly responded "yes."
A youth of few words, Jonathan said little during the hearing and provided no details when asked outside the courtroom about how he felt. He merely grinned and shook his head when asked if he was happy about being at home.
But Jonathan did have a few words to send Bennett: "Tell him hi … and thanks."
Lynne Saxton was confident that youths struggling with addiction and mental health issues were receiving excellent residential care at ChristieCare of Oregon. But she was looking for what she called "a change in trajectory" for children and youth who enter the child welfare system because of these issues.
She and her organization found what they were looking for in nationally lauded Youth Villages and its Intercept Program, which provides intensive in-home services to youth with emotional disturbances and complex family problems. The merged Youth Villages Oregon was born in mid-2011, and the success of its Intercept program in Clackamas and Washington counties has made it one of the models for the state's Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families legislation. The legislation is part of the state's continuing effort to safely reduce the number of children in foster care.
"There will be thousands of families helped by Intercept by the time we're done..." - Lynne Saxton
Lois Day, director of Child Welfare for the Department of Human Services, sees the benefit of working with Intercept. "We are very excited about the results Intercept has achieved in other states. Their model envisions a comprehensive and holistic approach with the family, and we are looking forward to an expansion of this program in Oregon."
Saxton is ready for the challenge. "There will be thousands of families helped by Intercept by the time we're done,'' she said. A new contract with DHS means that youth in Multnomah County can now receive Intercept services. Ultimately, said Saxton, the program could "significantly reduce the number of kids who are in episodic foster care."
Work with Intercept in Oregon is relatively new so no statistics are yet available. But Youth Villages, which has served 20,000 youths in 11 states and the District of Columbia, reports that two years after completing its in-home programs 87 percent of youths were living successfully in families or living independently. At the same time, 90 percent were in school or had gained a high school or equivalency degree or were earning a GED; 84 percent reported no trouble with the law. These statistics are far better than what most foster youths experience.
Youth Villages, which allows outside groups to audit its results, also reports that its programs save money. At the one-year mark, about 100 Oregon families had received Intercept services. While the average 15-month stay in foster care costs $30,000, the average cost of Intercept services is $14,000 if the child can safely remain in the home and $20,000 to $25,000 if the child has been removed and family reunification is the goal.
Saxton, who previously worked in the utility industry, sees a good business model in those numbers. "My orientation, having not come from a mental health background, was how do we get the most possible services for kids and families in Oregon, best outcomes and best investment."
She also favored what she describes as Youth Villages holistic approach to working with the family. For example, she said, many youths with emotional and behavioral issues have difficult relationships with their schools. Their parents don't want to deal with the schools because they also may have had difficulties in school.
"So, if that child is going to be successful, he needs to be in school,'' she said. "Part of what our job may be is helping that family address its own issues about why they don't want to go to a parent-teacher conference. And maybe we go with them to a parent-teacher conference … and help them make that relationship successful. It's becoming a partner in finding a path forward."
The intensiveness of the program is the key to its success, agreed Saxton and Michelle Jenco, regional supervisor for the Intercept program.
"The idea is to really support the family on all levels – 24 hours a day," said Jenco. "Whether it's clinical needs or basic needs or skill building or crisis support – the specialist is their everything." She explained that a family intervention specialist is in the home at least three times a week and sometimes as many as six or seven. Visits might last four to six hours. The specialists are on call 24/7 and serve four families at a time for a period of four to six months. The supervisors also accompany specialists on some visits, so that the family becomes familiar with them as well
""We meet the families wherever they are," said Jenco. "I've had staff there (in the client's home) at 6 in the morning to help with the school routine because that's a struggle ... We've had families that have needed some support with budgeting, so we're at the grocery store with them making sure they can apply what we're teaching them."
Children and families referred to the program – and who agree to be part of the program – come with a variety of problems, including drug and alcohol addiction, aggressive behavior and issues related to past trauma. Specialists are trained in these areas and receive support from supervisors and a clinical consultant in providing the needed treatment.
The goal, said Jenco, is to teach the child and parent the necessary coping skills. But the program can also identify and support the family in receiving long-term help within the community after Intercept services end.
Family specialists also will work with families to meet DHS and court-ordered requirements for regaining custody of their children, go to court to provide updates on progress and advocate for the families and youths.
The small caseloads and the amount of time spent with the families are what separate Intercept from other types of programs that support families in Oregon, said Jenco. Additionally the family works with one specialist instead of having multiple people coming into the home, setting conflicting priorities for the family.
Given the difficulty of the work, it's important to keep the specialists motivated, both women said. One way is to prove to them that their work gets results, said Saxton. Because Youth Villages tracks the youths 6, 12 and 24 months after leaving the Intercept program, the workers get to see the long-term success.
That long-term success is no accident, said Saxton.
"This is an experience model,'' Saxton said. "We (Youth Villages) have been doing this for 20 years. What we know is that the sooner we can get in there (with the family) and the intensiveness that we bring is what brings the success."