By Austen Smith, Heritage Newspapers
When it comes to abused children, it's never easy.
There are horror stories of kids who have come from family backgrounds filled with neglect only to be shuffled through impersonal foster-care programs that do not provide the support necessary for children with behavioral problems.
There are, however, many success stories and the Girlstown Foundation, located in Belleville, has been a shining example for more than 50 years providing a comprehensive range of therapy, social work, residential and foster-care placement services for kids whom have come from terrible situations.
The longtime nonprofit organization at first featured just the residential program for troubled girls, but has blossomed to include foster care and Supervised Independent Living, with approximately 50 kids involved with those two programs alone.
With a little more than 50 employees spread throughout the residential facility, called Loch Rio, and administrative offices located on East Huron River Drive, the program provides services to hundreds of children each year. Most of the staff at Girlstown includes social workers with backgrounds in psychology and criminal justice.
Assistant Director Maria Lessnau does not have an easy job.
Starting out as a certification worker in 1995, she has experienced nearly every type of heartbreaking and exhilarating scenario that passes through Girlstown.
"The big push right now is licensing relatives. There are a lot of kids right now who are living with relatives who are not licensed as foster-care parents," Lessnau says. "The state's goal is to have only 10 percent of the parents in the home not licensed."
Currently, there is a significant and ever-growing demand for foster parents and home providers throughout the state, Lessnau says. She attributes the spike to the economy and job loss.
But Colleen Steinman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, says there is always a great need for foster parents and the margin between children in need of a foster home and licensed caretakers widens every year.
"I would simply say it's not directly related to the economy. There has always been a tremendous need for foster parents," Steinman says. "There are often myths about foster parenting, such as you don't need to be married and you don't need to own your own home. All we look at is that the foster family is able to provide a safe and stable environment for a child."
According to DHS figures for July, there are approximately 16,600 children in foster-care programs throughout the state. Of those more than 16,000, only 5,870 were living in a foster home with licensed caretakers and another 1,079 were living in childcare facilities such as the Girlstown residential program.
Steinman said there are also more than 3,000 kids in foster-care programs who continue to live at home or are independent.
To become a foster parent, candidates are required to go through a battery of background checks, interviews, on-site visits and training. Steinman said that typically it is the foster placement service that provides all of the "legwork" when it comes to licensing, and then the licensing agent makes a recommendation to the state.
"The one thing to keep in mind is that for us to provide for the safety of the children placed in our care, we have to do everything we can to ensure that the place they are going to, is going to be safer than the one that they left," Steinman says. "If some people feel that it may be an invasion of privacy or too great, then they might not be appropriate candidates. But usually everybody understands why we are doing it."
Loch Rio Residential Program
At Girlstown's Loch Rio residential facility, there are many happy endings for girls whom come from a dangerous background of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect. And, in many cases, residents are pointed in the right direction toward independent living, college and career.
The residential program at Girlstown, which currently houses 14 girls, was originally the main thrust of the foundation, which started as a grassroots program subsidized by the nationally-recognized General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1958.
Now located on Quirk Road -- the original building was on Liberty Street in Belleville but suffered a fire in the late 1970s -- the facility offers therapy services that meet the needs for the variety of abusive backgrounds in addition to 24-hour staff, dining and recreational facilities.
Loch Rio is a "top-of-the-line facility and support system," says Lessnau, that provides more than just food and shelter for girls whom sometimes have nowhere else to go.
"We have a psychiatrist on staff. There is a case manager who works with all the girls all the time. They provide really good services to these kids," Lessnau says. "Pretty much all of the girls who are referred to the residential program have had some sort of abuse or neglect. They are there basically for treatment issues. It's not because they're bad, it's because the situation at home was not conducive to a proper living environment."
Lessnau says in some of the cases the parental rights are terminated before the subject ends up at Loch Rio, but the ultimate goal in any case is to place the child in a supportive and positive foster-care home with the hope of eventually reunifying with the family.
"There are a million different treatment issues that we see come through here such as mental illness, sexual abuse, physical abuse," Lessnau says.
The aim of reunification, however, can also get thrown off track because of legal issues with the parents.
So, does Girlstown and the Loch Rio program make up where certain parents fail?
"Well, the goal is always reunification with the family," Lessnau says. "Our hope is that the foster parent will work with the family to get reunified, but sometimes the family doesn't get reunified at all because the parents don't comply with what is required of them by the court. And, in some cases, the parents are deceased so there we know that the goal is adoption."
Girls admitted to the residential program typically stay there for less than a year, Lessnau says, but some stays are longer and some are shorter depending on what kind and how much treatment is needed for each case. Children are referred to Girlstown and the residential program through referrals that are accepted throughout Wayne and Oakland counties.
Lessnau attends a monthly case assessment meeting that brings together representatives from five different foster-care placement and therapy-based programs in Wayne County. There, case workers are able to share information and work toward a common goal of getting these children help and support.
"To get into foster care, there's not really a waiting list because if there is a child who needs to be placed, you just get a call and say, 'Can you place?'" Lessnau says. "Because it's always an emergency, it's never like we can wait for two weeks. Sometimes we can, but usually we will place the child right away."
Once the girl or boy --despite its name, Girlstown does take in boys and girls for all programs except for the residential facility -- is referred to the foundation, the best course of action is discussed and decided by the case worker and the courts -- whether to place with a foster care parent or home provider or send the child to the residential program.
But Lessnau says children younger than the age of 12 are not accepted into the residential program, in those cases finding a foster parent or home provider is imperative.
"... Because children, when they come into the program, you don't really know if they need treatment or not," Lessnau says. "Sometimes the programs work with another and it can be a continuum. If the foster care is not doing so well, then the subject can be referred into the residential program, or the residential can act as a feeder into foster care or Supervised Independent Living. It all depends on the behaviors."
Taking the next step
Similar to Girlstown's primary goal to either reunite the younger children with family members or seek adoption, Loch Rio staff is focused on helping the girls take that next step in their life. To that extent, Lessnau was pleased to report several recent success stories, including a resident who was significantly behind in high school but who has now graduated and is attending Wayne State University.
Another former resident of Loch Rio and the Supervised Independent Living program has returned to the state after graduating from a college in Tennessee and is now a lawyer and child advocate.
"We have a lot of smart kids. They just didn't have the potential to know how well they would do while they were living at home," Lessnau says.
On the flip side of that coin, however, there are stories that do not have such a happy ending. But Lessnau stresses the fact that even children who come into the program displaying severe trauma and behaviors are treated with a large support system from the case worker, to the schools and foster care parents or home providers.
Lessnau details a recent case in which a young man was placed into foster care after suffering physical abuse from the mother. She says in the home, the boy was fine but his severe behavioral problems were exacerbated at school.
"The foster parents, luckily, had a lot of structure in the home, and he was able to maintain in the foster home, but he wasn't able to maintain in the school. The issue was with the school," she says. "And he was on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but the schools would literally call every day asking the foster parents to pick up the child at noon. Well, that was against the law. You can't send a kid home at noon, and he was a special-needs student."
Lessnau says that child's case was just one of a wide variety of issues and challenges Girlstown staff members and foster parents are faced with daily. At the end of the day, however, the overall focus is making sure their children are safe and their needs are met, she says.
"We want great foster parents and good home providers and we want to make sure that these kids are safe," Lessnau says. "If we have a family of nine kids coming into program, they have a lot of needs -- educational and medical. It's not just one thing. There are so many things that we need to look out for."