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Archive for Monday, February 9, 1998

PROGRAM PLACES JUVENILE OFFENDERS IN HOMES

February 9, 1998

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A new program that places juveniles who have been in trouble with the law into local homes is bringing some parents back into the foster care system.

It's no secret to social workers, court representatives and children's advocates that most juveniles in Kansas youth group homes and detention centers didn't grow up in a stable family.

A new program through an Emporia-based foster care provider is going to the heart of the matter -- the family -- to give juvenile offenders both the stability of a home life and the structure of an institutional setting.

The Phoenix Youth Transitional Care Program has placed 104 juvenile offenders -- including 16 in Douglas County -- in foster homes across the state. The foster children, ages 10 to 18, are getting the guidance that's missing in group homes, settings that often breed contempt for authority figures, according to some of the teen-agers who have been in both situations.

"There's too much drama in a group home," said Donny, a 17-year-old who's lived with a Lawrence couple for the past four months. "There's fights, you get hassled by the staff. It more or less adds gasoline to the fire."

Peg Martin, president and CEO of The Farm Inc., the organization that sponsors the Phoenix program, said institutions don't always offer the right solutions to problems that cause juveniles to get into trouble.

"Kids are kids. They are children and they need a place to call home," Martin said. "I think people see family foster care as something for younger children, and not teen-agers. These teen-agers might be 16 years old, but inside, they're still 5 years old. They're missing a sense of growing up in a family."

A local advisory council met last week for the first time to discuss the Phoenix program and others offered through the Farm, including plans to recruit and train more foster parents. Although the Farm has placed juvenile offenders in homes across the state for the past five years, the advisory councils will investigate gaps between services to the foster children and how to overcome those gaps.

"We're looking at bringing this program at the local level, to integrate it with the services that are already in place," said Frank Naylor, executive vice president of the Farm.

The Phoenix program is rising from the ashes of the former juvenile justice system in Kansas that used programs from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and other agencies. Since July of last year, all juvenile services fall under the umbrella of the Juvenile Justice Authority, and the SRS is shifting its responsibilities.

"We're trying to keep a balance to maintain the social welfare model, but also trying to bring accountability to the child," Naylor said, through community corrections and probation agreements.

At the same time, many former foster parents in Douglas County were so frustrated with changes in the system caused by privatization of child welfare services that they quit housing the children. The non-profit Kaw Valley Center Inc. of Kansas City, Kan., which took over the administration of foster care service in northeast Kansas, has been widely criticized for lack of training, high staff turnover and delayed services to children. In 1997, the number of foster homes in Douglas County plummeted from 60 to 22 in about half a year.

The new Phoenix program seems to be luring some of the foster parents back into the system, but this time they're dealing with youths who are on probation or in community corrections programs. All have been in some form of trouble, and despite the Farm's description that the program is for non-violent offenders, some have been involved in gangs or have been kicked out of school for aggressive behavior.

Mike and Barbara Williams ran the Trinity Foster Home, 2627 Manor Dr., for 13 years. The group home disbanded in the wake of privatization, and the Williams were planning to move to Nebraska -- until the Phoenix program came along. They now have three juvenile offenders -- referred to as "J.O.s" by people who work in the foster care system -- living in their southwest Lawrence home.

"What I worry about with kids being institutionalized, is that if a child stays in an institution for years and years, it's real hard for them to come back into society," Mike Williams said. "This allows them to work with the courts and have a case worker."

No foster parent of a juvenile offender can truthfully say every day is not a challenge. Some openly express frustration with the constant struggle of everything from language and curfews to drug and alcohol problems. Although every foster parent in the Phoenix program has been involved in SRS foster care in the past, they go through extra training to learn about gangs, anger management, drugs and other issues.

The first J.O. in the Williams' house lasted a month.

"His anti-social behavior was such that we just couldn't deal with it," Mike Williams said. "A lot of these kids already have their morals set when they get here. Some of their family lives, you just wouldn't believe. It takes a lot of patience and just being real consistent with your rules. I think it's really improved our parenting skills with our own kids."

The Williams have three kids of their own, ages 17, 11 and 8, which certainly ensures Mike and Barbara have busy schedules, even though neither of them have a full-time job. With their children, it's band or sports practices, with the J.O.s, it's social worker or court appointments.

Just last week, Mike Williams met with public school officials about problems in school. Two of the three foster children in their home were recently suspended, one after he placed a trash can over a mentally disabled student in a junior high school bathroom.

Although the Williams' children have grown up with foster children living under the same roof, there are times when tensions increase between the children.

"We've tried to have our kids be an example, to treat people with respect," Mike Williams said. "These (foster) kids have very little respect for authority, especially the ones who have been in institutions for a long time. Some of them can do it, but some don't even try to do it."

Mike Williams handles the discipline, and the foster children know a suspension means they will have to spend the day at "Mike's School," which is a seat at the kitchen table for long hours and few breaks. The Williams don't hesitate to call police if a youth decides not to come home on time.

Greydon Walker spends his days at the Northeast Kansas Juvenile Detention Center in North Lawrence, and then comes home to four foster children after work -- three of whom are J.O.s.

"Living with the J.O.s has given me a better insight into the rational, or irrational, thinking that kids in their situations have," Walker said. "It's a lot different than what I thought when I was their age."

Greydon and Nancy Walker realize that they can only guide the foster children, who will eventually have to make their own decisions. One of their current foster children, Anthony, ran from their home twice before, because of "not being able to do what I wanted when I wanted," he said.

"The worst thing you can do to these kids is smother them," Greydon Walker said. "You're talking about children, but they're not really children anymore. They've had too much independence to begin with and it's really difficult to bring back some sort of discipline and structure to a life that has been without structure.

"You can come down like a ton of bricks on them."

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is koger@ljworld.com.

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