This year, the State of Connecticut implemented a new model of foster care and required all providers to submit proposals for the opportunity to continue serving children with complex needs. Aspire submitted a proposal with the hope and intention of continuing the Permanency Services program under the new model, but unexpectedly was not chosen. Aspire’s Permanency Services program will end on August 31, 2022.
The state’s decision in June sent shockwaves throughout Aspire, but the Permanency team rallied to the moment. Assistant Director Dave Gallagher reports, “It took about 24 hours for everyone to get through the initial shock. What grounded us again is the fact that we love our job. The team got right back to doing what they’ve always done. In a different profession, you might see people giving their notice in a week. Here, people are staying the course.”
The whole team—from Dave, Director Michael Auyang and Assistant Director Christy George, to clinical case managers and therapists Agnes Kulak, Angela Ferucci, Arlene Williams, Charlotte Condit, Janeka Downer, Talia Cassis, Tanesha Margaglione, and Tonya Williams, and licensing specialist Martha Wick – is working tirelessly to ensure that each child has the best possible transition.
The entire Permanency team, employees and foster families alike, can be proud of the decades of accomplishment in this program. The impact of this work will continue, in myriad ways.
As long-time provider Ellen McDermott sees it, the direct impact is clear in the “independent, successful, happy people” Aspire supported youth become, despite very challenging circumstances. Most children have been referred to Aspire because they have experienced abuse or neglect and have significant behavioral needs. Many transitioned from institutional settings. They often arrive overwhelmed, confused, traumatized, and blaming themselves for their losses.
Through the support of Permanency Services, “these kids know who they are now and how they got there, and that makes a huge difference in the decisions they make as adults,” according to Gallagher.
Some children have come to Aspire because of complex medical needs. Provider Pauline McRae has raised three girls in the Permanency program, and all of them have medical problems so significant that they were not expected to survive. McRae credits the support she received from Aspire with being able to completely embrace being their mom, “Their support let me focus on the girls. I love them with everything I have in me. You’d be surprised what love will do with a child.” Twenty years later, all three still live with her.
The program’s success can be charted in the numbers as well. Hundreds of children have come through Aspire’s doors since the Permanency Program’s inception. In the past five years, 100% graduated from high school, 86% have defined positive adult in their lives, and none have gone to homelessness. Only three children have gone to a higher level of care from Aspire homes.
Aspire’s families become a lifelong support for each individual--sharing holidays, milestones, and struggles along the way. Children grow up, and they become parents themselves. They bring to their roles as parents what their foster families showed to them. James Lynn, who’s been a foster parent since 1999, now has a family of 10 children. They are mostly grown, and between them, there are seven grandchildren. They get together on weekends and for special events. They recently went to a Red Sox game, 16 people together. They are extended family for each other, whether or not any one has reconnected with their biological families. Lynn says, “I’m so grateful to Aspire for bringing these kids into my life and trusting me. It changed my entire life and all the children’s lives.”
These families have worked through the many changes that the system of care in Connecticut has undergone. In 1988, the Professional Parenting Program began when Aspire was asked by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families to create placements for children with IDD and complex challenges who were at risk for institutionalization. McDermott was one of the staff who put the program together and ultimately became one of the early foster parents.
The initial approach was focused on Applied Behavior Analysis. The number of children in professional parenting homes grew rapidly. As Aspire’s success with children with behavioral challenges became known, more and more children with serious behavior difficulties and trauma histories became the focus of the program. Social workers and therapists became important members of the team alongside the behavior analysts and families.
In 2005, Aspire was one of six agencies given contracts by the state of Connecticut to provide intensive in-home support to kids who had historically required higher levels of care such as hospitalizations, long-term treatment facilities, or group homes. In 2012, Aspire was granted the Family and Community Ties contract to place high risk youth who are reintegrating back into the community from higher level of treatment. The program placed youth into highly trained families with the support of a multi-disciplinary team.
That support has been the cornerstone of the program’s continued success. Lynn reports, “Aspire supported us through tons of crisis – psychiatric hospitalizations, school suspensions. They were there at a moment’s notice.” McRae agrees, “I’ve got nothing but great things to say. I would never have lasted all that time without Aspire. Other people might complain about all the visits Aspire does. But I appreciated them. They know if you’re getting overwhelmed or need help.”
Over the years, the child welfare system has been developing a clearer focus on permanency and family reunification. It has become clear that children are seeking out their families once they leave foster care, whether they have been prepared for reunification or not. Additionally, evidence is emerging that if rapid evidence-based intervention occurs as soon as a child is removed, there is a good chance of helping them go home again safely. Aspire made this shift as well, reflected in the program name change to Permanency Services and a stronger focus on reunification or adoption. The new plan adopted by the state of Connecticut this year reflects the next step in the system’s evolution.
McDermott gives credit to Aspire for helping to spur this system evolution by being the first Connecticut provider to focus on professional, active treatment and data on outcomes. She said, “Sometimes you have to fight for what’s needed to support a child. Bringing good data makes the difference in what you get. We brought that, and it spread to other agencies.” McRae also noted, “Aspire is very professional, they don’t let anything slide. We have standards.”
Gallagher will be staying on to continue working with children in Aspire’s other services, identifying and responding to unmet needs. “What I’ve learned is the importance of relationships and listening to what people have experienced. It’s so important to understand who a person is and offer yourself up to listening in an authentic way. That’s when you can offer opportunity for change. And that’s true for everybody, not just the individuals we serve.” Those team members who are moving on with other agencies will bring their Aspire experiences with them. McDermott reflects on what will stay with her: “What I learned was the keeping the absolute center of everything with the kids – keeping your eyes focused on what the kids need.”