Therapeutic Resources and Environments for Kids, or TREK, is a Fort Oglethorpe-based division of Lookout Mountain Community services, and specializes in providing safe, secure homes for children in need.
As TREK has recently expanded its area of service into portions of the middle Georgia area, and as the need for foster and respite homes is greater than ever before, its leaders are hoping that more local families will step forward to offer house room and hospitality to area foster children with nowhere else to go.
“We’re always requesting and looking,” said Theresa Varos, Lookout Mountain Community Services director of marketing and community engagement. “Right now we’re having a big push to look for more people to become foster parents.”
TREK is the seventh-largest program of its kind in the state of Georgia. “We’re considered a placing agency,” said TREK’s director John Brewer, “and we’re considered a mega-placement agency.”
The TREK program receives its foster care referrals from the Department of Family and Children Services and works hard to train its families and match the right child to the right surrogate parental figures. TREK not only sources long-term placements for children with and without special needs, but makes arrangements for short stints of respite care to provide families of high-maintenance-care children a brief, day or weekend-long “break” from overwhelming daily responsibilities. Local open-hearted families and individuals are desperately needed for both foster and respite care in the northwest Georgia area.
Currently, there are approximately 44 TREK foster homes in the Region 1 area, which comprises nine north Georgia counties: Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Murray, Pickens, Walker and Whitfield Counties. TREK oversees an average of 130 children entering and leaving the program each year, with an average of 80 children in placement or in need of placement at any one time.
“It seems like that the need for foster parents seems to be greater than any other time,” Brewer said. “I don’t really know the answer or the reason why that is, but it’s that way across the state of Georgia. It seems like there’s more and more children coming into care on a consistent basis. So there’s actually a real need for people who will step up and make a difference in a child’s life.”
Brewer has seen the numbers of foster homes fluctuate since the program’s inception in 1998 — “I think the most we’ve ever had is like 47 at one time,” he said — but laments that even the current relatively high number is not nearly enough to cover the need, especially since few of those foster families stick around from year to year.
“There’s always attrition with foster homes,” he said. “Some folks need a break, and sometimes, to provide permanency for the child, we have foster homes who will adopt the child that is in their home, and so they quit being foster parents… We’re all the time needing to replace foster parents who leave for one reason or another.”
The attrition rate, however, belies the efficacy of the program and TREK’s dedication to selecting and training its foster families. “They do a really good job here with helping to train and screen families,” Varos said. “A lot of the families end up adopting the kids.”
In fact, many of TREK’s adoption stories represent their greatest successes.
“We had a family who ... accepted some medically fragile children,” Brewer said. “As a matter of fact, there were five children, and two of those children actually had to have feeding tubes that came with them. And they were in their home for about two years, maybe a little longer, and they decided — the children became available for adoption, all five of them — and that home actually adopted all five children. Fortunately the foster parent was a nurse and so she accepted the responsibility. But they just fit so well in that home, they fell in love with them, and they just felt like they needed to be a part of those children’s lives.”
Another success story is that of the Elswicks, who decided to start fostering through TREK as their own two children began to look toward graduation and college. Bobby and Cathy Elswick took three foster children into their home and subsequently adopted them as their own. Furthermore, they continue to help foster children in need to this day, and take joy in providing a temporary safe haven.
“Sometimes it is trying, but to see the difference we can make in a innocent child's life is worth it to us,” said Cathy Elswick. “These kids can overcome anything with the right help and guidance. Not all kids that come through foster care are the subject of abuse or neglect. We have had several children that were happily reunited with their parents once they got back on their feet, and for those children it was such a great feeling to see the excitement on their face when they got to go home.”
For every adoption story, however, there are many more tales of children who are still searching for a permanent home, which becomes more and more difficult as the years progress.
“We also have children who have been with us for significant numbers of years,” Brewer said. “Because when we get children, especially older children, when they get up to their teens, if you will, it becomes more difficult for adoption at that point. And we have children who have been in foster care with our program for as many as four years.”
Support for families and children
For families and financially stable individuals who become part of either the foster or respite care programs at TREK, Brewer is adamant that they receive high levels of support to make the experience as easy as possible.
“We will support our families the best way we can,” Brewer said. “Without foster homes, we don’t have a program. So I hold all my foster parents in high esteem.
“We give them all the training and resources that they need, prior to becoming a foster parent, and then we give them training throughout the year, usually on a monthly basis,” he said. “We provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week support for our foster homes. And they not only have the number of their individual case workers that are assigned to them, they also have back-up numbers that they can reach in case there’s an emergency. Not only that, we are in the home as often as we need to do to give them the support they need to be successful. We not only want the child to be successful, but we want the foster parent to be successful as well.”
Personal care and attention is given to each child as well as each foster or respite family. “We support them by coming to their home at least on a weekly basis, and more often if we need to,” Brewer said. “And our case workers only carry between 12 and 15 cases at a time, so they’re not overwhelmed with having too many cases. … We make ourselves available to our foster parents 24/7.”
For those who may not have the time or ability to foster children in need, it is also possible to become a respite care family, whose services are needed on a much more short-term basis, such as during the occasional long weekend. The respite program offers a needed reprieve not only for biological parents of foster children, but for foster families as well.
“We also try to offer our foster parents a monthly respite as well, like two days a month,” Brewer said, “that the child could actually go our for a weekend and give the foster parents a break.”
Although it is not intended as an incentive to foster a child, families who take on a youth in need do receive a small financial compensation for the child’s care and housing. The exact amount is based on a sliding scale of the child’s needs, as judged by DFACS.
“The state has decided that there are certain levels of behavior,” Brewer said, “and they attach a level of an amount of money, if you will, to that, and the children get what’s called a base rate amount. And then, if they qualify for additional funding, then the foster parents will receive an additional up to $35 a day or all the way up to $50 a day.”
The levels encompass everything from children with no known behavior or medical problems to those who require what is termed “maximum watchful oversight,” Brewer said.
“Those children have had more serious behavior problems. They may have had some dealings with (the Department of Juvenile Justice) or they may have been hospitalized at certain times for mental health reasons. So we work with those children as well.”
Although TREK does have a few foster homes who have been with the program almost since its inception, for those who may want to just test the waters in fostering, no years-long obligation is required.
“We don’t ask for a time commitment,” Brewer said. “We do ask that if a foster family takes a child, that they keep that child until the child is ready to move on to a more permanent placement.”
Getting a foster child back to a place of stability, or “permanency,” as it is called, is the ultimate goal of TREK.
“All children that come to us have a permanency plan created by DFACS and the court,” Brewer said. “And we support that child and the agency who refers the child to us and whatever that permanency plan is. So the only thing we ask of the foster parents is that, unless something happens, of course, we would like for them to stay with that child until the completion of the permanency, or they find where they’re going — maybe back home to their family, to adoption, or to a relative placement, or something like that.”
How you can help
In the meantime, however, TREK works hard to make sure its foster children have the best possible experience, including holiday events and occasional field trips.
“We try to take all of our children out on an outing twice a year,” Brewer said
Holidays are a big deal as well. “Maybe we rent out a bowling alley for an afternoon and have Santa Claus come visit the children,” he said.
During the Christmas season, especially, support from the local community is tantamount to ensuring a good experience for foster children.
“The last few years, we have had businesses in the area donate gifts to the foster children, and we help them gather that up and make sure it gets to the right people at the right time,” Brewer said. “So we do accept donations from businesses. We’ve had the local fire department here in Rossville do a fundraiser for us at one time.”
Brewer explained that throughout the year, one type of donation in particular is needed more than any other.
“One of the things that our children have a need of constantly when they come in is having a way to store their clothes, like suitcases or duffel bags or things like that. So we try to round those things up when we can. It’s really sad to see a child come and have to bring their clothes in a garbage bag.”
“If businesses want to donate something like that, that would be tremendous,” he said.
In the next few years, Brewer hopes that TREK can attract a significant number of new foster families and respite care parents, because no matter how many there are, more are always needed.
“We usually have in here at any one time around 80 children,” he said. “And over the year, we will have probably 130 children come through our doors. In other words, we have a turnover of about 50 to 60 children per year.”
The majority of the 50 to 60 in the turnover rate are those who successfully move on to permanency, Brewer explained. “It’s either adoption or going back home or having something more permanent in their lives.”
“We’re wanting just to expand to make sure that we’re covering the children who are in need of services in our area,” he said. “Where I want it to go is to be able to say that all the children in our region have the home that they can count on.”
And staying within the local region is incredibly important, as children who are placed in foster housing closer to their biological parents have a much better chance of moving on to permanency.
“It’s really easy for kids to reunite with their family when they live locally,” Varos said. “If we have a kid in a foster home and they’re really working on getting that kid back with that parent — because, really, that’s what DFACS is all about is getting them back together — and the kid is here in Walker, we can schedule visitations and everything else. But when we don’t have enough homes in this area, we have to put them somewhere else in the state. It’s very hard on these children not to see their parents. Because it doesn’t matter how bad those parents are in our eyes, they’re still those kids’ parents, and the ultimate goal is to get those families reunited.”
If you think you may be the right candidate for fostering a child, contact John Brewer at 706-806-1211 or Mark Wattenbarger, resource developer 423-653-0675 for more information.
In describing the right type of foster family, Brewer explained that “we’re looking for a home that cares about children, and money’s not the main issue. And I use the words ‘main issue’ because there needs to be some financial support, always, when you bring somebody new in your home.
“We want a parent to have a heart that they want to help a child in the community and be willing to accept that child into their home as one of their own children for the length of time that they’re there,” he said. “That’s the home we’re looking for.”
Foster/respite care program minimum requirements
· 21 years of age or older.
· Financially stable.
· Pass a physical and drug test.
· Agree to attend mandatory training.
· Be able to read, write and understand basic concepts (high school diploma or GED preferred).
· Three character references.
· Fingerprint and background check on all household members age 18 or over.
· Child Protective Services background check.
· Home, water supply, and sewage approved by the Health Department.
· Functional smoke alarms.
· Any and all firearms locked away from children.
· Adequate sleeping space in a bedroom with space for clothing.
· At least one parent with a flexible schedule in order to transport children, when needed.