Foster mom Tina Tracy sees young children come into her Kansas home who are scared and confused and don’t understand why they can’t see their moms or dads.
Others may act out because of past trauma and abuse. Or they may initially think it’s their fault they were taken from their parents.
“A lot of times these kids get so worked up, they’re in the moment,” says Tracy, of Valley Center, Kan., who with her husband, Jeff, has had 19 foster children pass through their home in the past 31/2 years. “Sometimes as a foster parent, we don’t know what to do. … It would be nice to be able to speak with a therapist on those days.”
But many families live, as the Tracys do, 30 or more miles from the nearest counselor. Or their busy schedules make it difficult to get to an immediate appointment. Some may have to wait to visit a therapist.
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Technology, though, is about to change that for hundreds of foster parents in Kansas.
Within the next few months, KVC Kansas will begin providing iPads to some of the nearly 550 foster families the agency serves. The tablets will be equipped with a program called MyLink, a video conferencing system that allows foster children to talk with therapists in a private chat room.
The MyLink technology won’t replace therapy sessions but will enhance what’s already taking place, said Jenny Kutz, communications director for KVC, one of two foster care contractors in Kansas. Time on the iPad with a therapist will be equivalent to “booster sessions,” she said.
“If normally they would meet once a week, midweek they can chat with their therapists on the iPad,” Kutz said. “Just little check-in points that improve continuity of care.”
In the next year or so, all the families KVC Kansas serves will get the iPads.
Grant money provided by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development also funds the tablet technology for the KVC system in Nebraska. Last year, KVC agencies in West Virginia and Kentucky also began using MyLink.
Chatting on a tablet may make some kids feel more comfortable, said Chad Anderson, president of KVC Kansas.
“Kids are going to want to interact more if it’s an enjoyable experience, and that leads to more engagement,” Anderson said. “There can be a session on a Tuesday, and instead of the therapist saying, ‘Hey, I’ll call you to check in on you,’ they’ll say, ‘I’ll link with you on Thursday and be able to see how you are doing.’
“That’s far better than a phone call.”
Increasing the impact
Licensed counselor and social worker Debora Wells started using MyLink more than a month ago in West Virginia. She’s gotten past the newness and how children initially would make silly faces as they saw themselves on the tablet.
Now, she counts successes that have come from being able to link in with children when they need to talk. Kids are often more open when they’re in a quiet place in a home rather than an office. They’re eager to use the tablet, fitting in a few minutes after school rather than having to travel to an appointment.
And parents are able to call whenever they need guidance to calm or connect with their child.
In one case, biological parents who had been reunited with their daughter reached out to Wells when the daughter became distraught. She was struggling at school, where she’d been bullied. Parents weren’t sure whether she needed to be taken to a residential facility. Using the technology, Wells was able to see the girl had been cutting herself.
“I could see how serious the cutting was,” Wells said. “They were all the way up her arm. … She was desperate for someone to hear, feel and see what she had to say. She needed attention.”
The girl didn’t want to go to the hospital. So there on the tablet, Wells told her what she could expect at a hospital, from the clothes she would wear to whether she could see her family. Together they checked out the hospital’s website.
“She calmed down,” Wells said. “She agreed to get in the car and go to the hospital. That was a crisis that was handled right then and there.”
In another case, a young girl had been having trouble in her foster home. She had been picking up books and tearing out pages, without any explanation.
One day the foster mom called Wells. “We’ve had a breakthrough,” she said.
The girl had ripped more pages, and this time she told her foster mom why. “I want to know that even if I do this, will you still love me?” she said.
The foster mom told Wells she’d assured the girl she would still love her.
After listening to the story, Wells said: “Hey, put her on the iPad.”
The girl could see Wells’ smile and how happy she was. “It’s great you could tell her how you felt,” Wells told her.
Talking to her, Wells could see how MyLink was working.
“Sometimes kids can get distracted,” she said. “When you have sight and sound, it increases the impact.”
Making the connection
Initially, the iPads in Kansas foster homes will come only with the MyLink program. On top of the time with a therapist, the program can be used to introduce a child coming from a psychiatric facility to a potential foster family.
Before the technology, if a foster family wanted to know whether the child would be a good fit, they’d have to rely on a phone call with a worker, or on paperwork describing the child and his or her needs.
With MyLink, “instead of the foster family seeing diagnosis on the page, they can meet the child (using the tablet) and see firsthand,” said Kutz, of KVC. “On video, you can get a better sense of a person.”
One day the tablets could be used as a way for brothers and sisters to keep in touch. KVC works to keep the majority of sibling groups together, but in some cases in which there’s a large number of kids, they may be separated. The iPads could give them face time.
“Kids are more interested in what’s going on with siblings sometimes than with mom and dad,” said foster mom and social worker Cindy Beeson of Arkansas City. “If they’re not living together, they are worrying about them.”
For the Tracys, the tablets will allow them to better help the children who come into their home. Nine of the 19 foster kids they’ve cared for have been long-term placements.
Having that immediate advice and guidance could be critical, Tina Tracy said.
“A therapist can give us ways to defuse some of the outbursts before they got out of hand,” she said. “If they don’t get therapy, they have a hard time processing what’s going on.”