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Kansas Children’s Service League’s focus shifts from adoption to prevention and keeping families together

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 28, 2013, at 7:28 p.m.

Brad Heyen doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t know he was adopted.

It was a topic that was up not only for discussion in the house where he grew up but also for questioning and for even humor.

“My parents and I used to drive past Hutchison and see Amish horse-drawn buggies on the road,” Heyen said. “They always used to joke that my birth parents were inside.”

Heyen’s story begins like many adoption stories in Kansas: with the Kansas Children’s Service League. The nonprofit organization, which celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, has been responsible for thousands of adoptions statewide since its founding in 1893.

But the definition of a “typical” American family has changed since then, and so have the services KCSL provides. Its staff members no longer focus on facilitating adoptions but on preventing child abuse in the families where kids are most at risk.

Heyen was adopted through the KCSL in the 1960s, when infant adoptions were the agency’s exclusive focus. Beginning in the 1970s, the number of infant adoptions KCSL facilitated each year began to drop, which reflected a nationwide trend.

Dona Booe, Kansas Children’s Service League CEO, said that this new reality necessitated a change in strategy for the organization.

“Our mission has always been to figure out the best way to support children,” Booe said. “But society has changed, and that means we’ve had to rethink what services we offer.”

KCSL still devotes some resources to adoption; it helped facilitate six private infant adoptions in 2012, and it maintains the website AdoptKSKids.org. The website contains photos and brief introductions to 400 children in Kansas whose parents’ rights have been taken away by the state – children who are looking for a permanent home. Booe said these are the children of the greatest need.

When Heyen tells the story of his own adoption, of his privileged childhood, his reunion with his birth mother and his life today, the most emotional moment for him comes when he talks about the kids whose pictures are on that website.

“I was adopted as an infant; I was lucky,” said Heyen, who recently completed a term as chairman of the group’s board. “These kids have had a tough life.

“We’re doing good work to prevent the situations these kids have had to grow up in.”

‘Start rescuing families’

Booe said she thinks of an at-risk kid’s life as a timeline.

There are different points along that timeline when you might step in and help, she said. KCSL provides services at different points on that timeline, from the moment the child’s mother learns she is pregnant to age 3, when that child could benefit from a program like Head Start, to age 14, when that same child’s foster parent is looking for tips on how to help him deal with the trauma of past abuse.

In Booe’s experience, the interventions that happen earlier on the timeline are the most effective.

Before she came to KCSL in 2006, Booe worked for the Kansas Department of Children and Families. She said when a social worker would bring a child into custody, her job was to hold the baby or keep an eye on the child while he or she waited to be taken to a foster home.

“If the child was old enough to talk, there’s one thing I knew I would hear: ‘When are you going to let my mom come pick me up?’” Booe said.

“Here’s the realization I came to after I heard that so many times: Here in Kansas, we need to stop rescuing children and start rescuing families.”

Booe said one of the best ways to achieve that is through a program called Healthy Families. It’s a home visit program that targets parents with certain risk factors such as social isolation, poverty, a history of abuse in the family or drug and alcohol problems.

“We teach them how to be good parents,” Booe said. “But we also teach them how to be economically self-sufficient. If they haven’t finished high school, we help them figure out how to do that. If they need help filling out a job application, we help them do that.”

Nearly 40 percent of child abuse cases occur in the first four years of a child’s life, and a home visitation program like Healthy Families can cut that number in half, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Finding a different way

Adan Grimaldo, 25, and his wife, Casey Grimaldo, 26, have been enrolled in the Healthy Families program since Casey was pregnant with their now 2-year-old son.

“Jesus talks about the blind,” Adan Grimaldo said. “We don’t always have parents who do what they should do. Then you’re left with a family that’s just lost, with no idea how to do these life things. This program helps people find a different way.”

Casey Grimaldo said that when she found out she was pregnant, she and Adan were having trouble paying their bills, and they wanted to get married. They sat down with Virginia Schwiethale, their family support worker, and made a list of goals: find a better-paying job for Casey, find a church where they felt welcomed and reduce the stress level in their home.

Back then, the couple was living paycheck to paycheck, and Adan Grimaldo said he was so anxious that he would start hyperventilating and pass out.

“Sometimes we’d have to choose between paying a bill and getting the jumbo pack of diapers to last until the next paycheck,” Casey Grimaldo said.

Asking for help wasn’t easy, Adan Grimaldo said. But knowing that Schwiethale was there for them, that she wouldn’t judge them, was important. So was the knowledge that any time they felt stressed or had trouble handling the challenges of parenting in a high-stress environment, they could pick up the phone and talk to someone.

These days, both Grimaldos have good-paying jobs, and they’re amazed at their son’s developmental progress.

“We’ve come so far since we first met Virginia,” Casey Grimaldo said.

Booe said that because of budget cuts, 200 fewer families like the Grimaldos will be able to take part in the Healthy Families program as of July 1, when state funding from the Department of Children and Family Services ran out.

“In times when budgets are cut, there’s no longer a focus on prevention,” Booe said. “They have to target the kids who are right at foster care’s door.”

A safe home for kids

Though its focus is on early intervention, KCSL also works with foster parents to create safe environments for children who have experienced abuse.

Pictures of three smiling teenage girls in basketball uniforms decorate the walls of Mark Stever’s office at the Veterans Administration center in Wichita. Stever is a foster parent, and he was certified through the Kansas Children’s Service League 10 years ago. The pictures are of his biological daughter and the two girls he has fostered over the past four years.

One of the girls is 19, with a high school diploma and her own apartment. She’s finishing up her training as a certified nursing assistant and stays in regular touch with Stever. His other foster daughter is 15, a high school sophomore who has been with Stever since Sept. 28.

He said both of the girls had traumatic childhoods. The foster daughter who currently lives with him, he said, went through four foster homes in five days. Before that, she stayed with one couple for three years, then they kicked her out.

“She would have had to spend the night in the social worker’s office,” Stever said. “Someone from KCSL reached out to us. When they brought her over, she only had one backpack – her former adoptive parents had taken back all the clothes they bought her.”

Stever said he values the support he gets from Tori Molder, the social worker he works with at KCSL.

“The folks at KCSL are in it for the right reasons,” he said. “It’s about genuinely helping people.”

Reach Elizabeth Scheltens at 316-268-6562 or escheltens@wichitaeagle.com.

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