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Janice Miller has been waiting for this for 15 years.
Miller is a longtime DCS foster parent with four adopted children. She and her husband, Jeffrey, currently have two foster children in their Greene County home, where for over a decade and a half they have welcomed youngsters who have experienced and witnessed some bone-chilling trauma and horror.
They have seen children who have suffered the effects of drug-abusing mothers. They have cared for children who had watched as their parents were murdered.
“When you have children of your own, you think, ‘I know how to do this. I’ve got this,’ “ said Miller. “But with these kids, well, you don’t always.”
No foster-parent training, no DCS case manager who hasn’t fostered himself or herself can quite anticipate what it means to have an 18-month-old child you barely know throwing a daylong temper tantrum in the middle of your kitchen floor.
A KEEP group can, though.
One morning a week, for 16 weeks, Miller travels from Midway to the Fairhaven Methodist Church, between Johnson City and Jonesborough. Inside the fellowship hall, she meets with a DCS KEEP lead and a small group of her fellow foster parents. The sessions fly by, she said.
What many outside the direct foster-care world do not understand is the loneliness that can come with being a foster parent, Miller said. Confidentiality requirements designed to protect children and families can be an isolating barrier for a foster parent who is having a really tough day.
“Confidentiality can be a big hindrance,” said Miller. In her weekly KEEP sessions though, she gets to share with and learn from other veteran foster parents. Aside from the multitude of practical parenting tips she collects, the ability to talk freely and specifically about fostering is perhaps the greatest benefit.
KEEP is an integral part of a federally sponsored pilot program in Tennessee that, if it all works as expected, will safely reduce the overall number of children in state custody. Make fostering a smoother, calmer experience for everyone and the kids will reap the benefits. Foster parents will feel more competent and confident. Children will experience fewer disruptions and better outcomes.
And that, many DCS workers, planners, data analysts and administrators believe, will lower overall custody rates – the goal shared by the federal government, which funds the bulk of state’s foster-care programs. If it works as predicted, KEEP and the other strategies associated with Tennessee’s federal waiver program, will roll out across the state.
In short, it promises to revolutionize foster care in Tennessee.
KEEP was developed by Dr. Patty Chamberlain of the Oregon Social Learning Center. It has been widely implemented throughout the United States and Europe. Since this summer, Tennessee has introduced KEEP in its Northeast, East, Knox and Smoky Mountain regions.
DCS leads gather with small KEEP groups in offices, community centers and churches across East Tennessee. They offer child care so that foster parents do not have to worry about finding a babysitter. The program pays for mileage, and staff even throws in lunch or supper for those who attend.
The real draw is the conversation.
“I am super excited,” said Myrand Steven, a foster parent from the Northeast region. “Our group seems so willing to share experiences and has a total of 62 years of experience. This group is so personable and fun.”
DCS staff members are heartened by reception they are getting from participants. Donna Wall is a DCS veteran in Jefferson County who is especially familiar with the requirements that foster parents face.
“Here’s what they are telling us, said Wall: “ ‘Until now, DCS would tell us what we can’t do. Not what we could do.’ ” Providing well-proven practical and positive advice about how to be a parent and how to manage a bustling foster home makes all the difference, Wall said.
“It gives them much more confidence.”
The deputy regional administrator in the Smoky Mountain region has already detected a big change within the KEEP program participants.
“Our foster parents report less stress and improved outcomes just in the few short weeks that we have had KEEP up and running,” said Smoky Mountain’s Antonia Zimmer. “I can’t wait to see what the future of KEEP looks like in Smoky. I have been incredibly impressed by the way in which the region has embraced KEEP.”
When the sessions end after their 16th week, participants report that they still be hungry to keep the conversations going.
“It is good to talk to other people who have been where you are,” said Miller, the longtime foster parent from Greene County. “You feel better that you’re not alone. We are a family here, and it stays here.”