Ottawa County joins multi-county program to benefit foster children

Jan 30, 2024 | Around Ottawa County | 0 comments

Ottawa County Department of Job & Family Services has joined the Tiered Treatment Foster Home Program. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

BY SHERI TRUSTY

Ottawa County DJFS Executive Director Stephanie Kowal said the Tiered Treatment Foster Home Program will help her department better serve local foster children. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

In January, 2022, the Departments of Job & Family Services (DJFS) in Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot counties collaborated with the Mental Health Services Board of Seneca, Ottawa, Sandusky & Wyandot Counties (MHRSB) to create the Tiered Treatment Foster Home Program in an effort to better serve local children in foster care.

Now, Ottawa County has joined the program as well.

There is a strong need for family foster homes across all four counties, but there is a particular lack of treatment foster homes. While family foster homes offer placements for children in need of short-term or long-term, temporary care, treatment foster homes serve children with more complex needs, including behavioral, mental health or physical concerns. Treatment home foster parents are required to undergo additional, specialized training to prepare them to meet the children’s needs.

“Family foster homes don’t have the training to deal with kids who have a lot of trauma. They’ve grown up knowing how to interact with their circumstances from the perspective of trauma,” said Ottawa County DJFS Executive Director Stephanie Kowal.

Jenni Zaika, the Tiered Treatment Foster Home Program Lead for all four counties, works with currently licensed foster family homes to upgrade to therapeutic homes and recruit new homes. Prior to the program, parents wanting to become a treatment foster home had to go through private training.

The cost to license and supervise treatment foster homes is expensive and cost prohibitive for a single county outside a metropolitan area, Kowal said. By joining together, the four counties can share costs and resources, which can open the door for more treatment foster homes.

“On an individual county basis, we could never afford to do this alone. We split the cost between four counties, and the mental health board provides money for outreach to recruit foster families,” Kowal said. “All four counties have a shared dedicated caseworker for all cases. The family has a treatment plan, the child has a treatment plan, and the caseworker becomes the advocate for the family.”

In 2023, Ottawa County DJFS spent $768,000 for nine kids to live in residential foster facilities for part or all of the year.

“If we’re able to transition those kids to treatment foster homes, we can save $44,000 per child in a year’s time. That money can be spent helping families in our community,” Kowal said.

More importantly than the cost savings is the impact the Tiered Treatment Foster Home Program can have on a child’s life.

Treatment foster homes are a healthy placement for a child who needs more care than a family foster home can provide but doesn’t require the intensity of a residential foster facility. When no treatment foster home is available in the child’s home county, the youth is either placed in a treatment foster home far away, or they are placed in a residential treatment facility, when they would best be served in a home environment.

“We work with a qualified treatment facility, and we have two kids who are 3 ½ hours away,” Kowal said. “Being that far away, they can’t see their friends. They can’t see their family regularly, and the family members are not physically there for family therapy.”

Family therapy is important for the child’s success.

“We need to work with kids and families at the same time. The farther away they are, the harder it is to pull them together,” Kowal said. “When it’s time to reintroduce the kids back home, they can’t just go back to the same situation.”

The Tiered Treatment Foster Home program was founded and funded by MHRSB, and it has seen great success in Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot counties, said MHRSB Executive Director Mircea Handru.

“The multi-county foster treatment project produced outcomes above our initial expectations. I am very happy to see this project expand into Ottawa County. Just three years ago, we had no foster treatment homes in the Board district. Today, we have six foster treatment homes and an additional four homes pending,” Handru said. “I am an advocate for multi-agency collaboration for better outcomes and services for the local community. This is an example of a great partnership with other public agencies to better improve services for children while being responsible with taxpayer funds.”

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