Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interesting new development in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky

Fostering better ideas for children
Bellamy, Lana. Trailblazer, Dec. 8, 2011.

More than 6,800 children are currently in foster care through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, according to Last year, more than 700 of those children were adopted. Foster families are responsible for more than 80 percent of the adoptions.

Chris Groeber, chief executive officer for the foster care agency Key Assets Kentucky (KAK), has made it his mission to keep improving the fostering statistics. The main office in Mt. Sterling, Ky., is the first Key Assets program in the United States.

It all started when Groeber was doing social work in Florida. His co-workers asked him to come listen to a group from England presenting a new kind of therapeutic foster care.

Key Assets in England worked with Aboriginal families in Western Australia, as well as families as far north as the Arctic Circle. Their goal was to keep the children they were caring for close to the communities they were born into.

“I thought if we could do that in the Arctic Circle and we could do that in the outback in Australia, surely we can do that with the kids in Eastern Kentucky,” Groeber said. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me.”

A Morehead State University alumnus, Grober said he felt keeping kids in their original communities was something foster programs in Eastern Kentucky generally overlook.

Groeber said KAK is currently targeting Martin County because 94 percent of that county’s foster kids, who were placed in out-of-home care, were placed out of county.

“That severs the ties!” Groeber said. “I think we [Eastern Kentucky] are one of the few places in the nation to still appreciate community for what it is.”

Groeber said the Key Assets program in England inspired him and he invited its representatives to do a presentation in Kentucky and help start a new branch in the eastern part of the state.

By January of 2012, the staff will consist of five full-time and five part-time workers. There are now three offices in Eastern Kentucky located in Mt. Sterling, Salyersville and Ashland.

Groeber said he emphasizes staff involvement with the foster families.

Shannon Stull, executive assistant of KAK, said the greatest benefit their agency has to offer a child is a chance at a “normal” kind of life.

“At the end of the day isn’t that what anyone wants?” Stull said. “To be safe, loved and cared for.”

Groeber said, “One of the things we want our caregivers to know, is all of our staff. Even Shannon goes out and visits because she’s the voice they hear on the other end of the phone.”

“I want the kids to be able to bond to the agency,” Groeber said, looking around the comfortable office. “I want them to bond to this place and this space because they need a place and space to belong to.”

According to, in Kentucky there are 56 listings for foster care agencies, 61 listings for social and human services and five different options for child and adult foster care and services. But Key Assets Kentucky sets itself apart from other fostering agencies by creating a unique vision for how to care for the children it serves.

Groeber said, “We say we’re an agency that works with adults who work with kids.”

KAK,s pre-service process, called Journey to Foster, goes into the homes of prospective foster families before they adopt foster children and prepares them mentally and emotionally before they open their home.

Forty-two hours of training is required to become a licensed foster caregiver. Twenty-one hours of the training takes place in a classroom and the other 21 hours are in the home.

During the training, Groeber and his staff spend a lot of time with the foster families practicing crisis management and what to do when certain dramatic scenarios arise. They want to prepare the families before the child is adopted in order to create emotionally stable atmospheres.

Groeber said the extensive amount of time spent in the pre-service process is important because it sets the pace for how the family will help the foster child develop as a person.

Groeber said, “We believe that those foster carers who are with those kids 24-seven are the primary change agents in those kids’ lives, so we try to equip them to be the case-manager and the clinician because they’re going be there when the sparks fly.”

Besides having a less an atypical pre-service program, Key Assets also sets itself apart from other agencies by referring to those adopting the foster kids as foster carers instead of foster parents.

“Kids already have parents,” Groeber said.

Groeber added that even though the children have real parents, they were in foster care because things didn’t work out at home.

“We made a conscious decision to say, ‘You are caring for that kid. At best, you're re-parenting, but you didn’t give birth to this kid. You’re a carer, it’s for a limited time. For this season in this child’s life, you’re their carer,’” Groeber said.

Groeber said the main goal of KAK is to be the last agency to take care of the child.

“We don’t want those kids to bounce from us,” Groeber said, “because some of those kids we’re talking about have had two, 15, 45 placements by the time they get to us. By the time they get to us, we don’t want to be just another placement—we want to be the last.”

Although Groeber has been in social work for 25 years, he still encounters struggles.

“There’s always resistance from the kids at some level,” Groeber said. There’s the honeymoon phase and then we drop the hammer.”

Groeber said sometimes the resistance from the children comes when they are initially placed with KAK. In some cases, they blame the agency for taking them from their previous placement.

“I think a lot of times, these kids will want to place blame, and that’s fine. We’ll take the blame as an agency,” Groeber said. “If you want to blame me, that’s perfectly fine, but at the end of the day, I love you unconditionally — I care about you unconditionally, so that doesn’t matter.”

The main office for KAK is on East Main Street in Mt. Sterling. Just a few feet up from it is a quaint coffee shop Groeber and his crew built especially for the foster children. There is a main room followed by a study area and a computer lab.

The walls are lined with empty bookshelves that Groeber assures will be filled with books and movies and anything else the kids need for entertainment. A Christmas tree is lit near the window next to a wall with a row of photographs of children’s smiling faces.

On one of the bookshelves is a small pile of books filled with poems and artwork called Hundreds and Thousands, Secrets and Dreams completed by the foster children from the Key Assets agency in England

The poem on the last page of one book is by a girl named Azita with artwork by Sophie. Azita writes that the poem is dedicated to her foster family that took her in at her weakest and gave her strength.

An excerpt from the poem titled "Thank You" reads, “I’m really grateful they took me in at my weakest point, provided me a home and a loving family to live with. So there's proof that humanity still exists.”