By Jennifer Fernandez
A pilot program called Bridging Families offers siblings who are entering foster care a chance to stay together and pairs them with “professional parents” who actively work toward reuniting the children with their families.
“We just don’t have enough foster families. Kids end up being split up,” said Sarah Norris, chief program officer at Crossnore Communities for Children. The organization created the Bridging Families program and has garnered state funding to expand it. Its overall mission is providing child welfare services such as foster care and adoption, trauma-based therapy and youth independent living programs.
Thousands of children get placed with a foster family every year in North Carolina, usually if their living conditions are deemed unsafe or their parents are unable to care for them for various reasons, such as drug use or other health issues. The ultimate goal is to reunite families, although that is not always possible. State data shows 10,643 children were in the foster care system as of October 2022.
State officials hope Bridging Families will help reunite more families by giving both the children and their parents the support they need.
“What we want is children to live in families,” said Lisa Cauley, senior director of Child, Family & Adult Services for the state Department of Health and Human Services. “So this fills a need in our system to make sure we can offer those children a family-like setting with parents who are consistent.”
Former teacher Deb Eiserman fosters two teenage boys in a house on the Winston-Salem campus of Crossnore Communities for Children.
The brick home was painted white and underwent other renovations before Eiserman and the boys moved in several months ago.
Workers expanded the kitchen and turned a small bedroom into a laundry room at the home, which previously served as staff housing on the Crossnore campus. They added a deck on the back overlooking an expansive lawn. Eiserman, who loves to garden, said her foster sons offered to help her landscape an area around a tree back there.
“I’m very lucky,” Eiserman said. “My two boys, they’re very awesome.”
Eiserman, 60, started with Crossnore about five years ago, first as a cottage parent, where she monitored a group of youth living in one of the many multi-resident homes on the Winston-Salem campus. Then she worked with the youth independent living program for teens who don’t need as much supervision.
She is a full-time “professional foster parent” through Bridging Families, which allows her to focus not only on helping the boys she is fostering, but also on working with their mother toward reunifying the family.
Eiserman said the mother wants to be with her children and is really involved.
“It’s always a partnership,” Eiserman said.
Bridging Families foster parents go through the state-required training, but they also get training in two evidenced-based practices — a curriculum that focuses on parent coaching and helping support children with their parents, and a piece on how to best connect with children who have suffered trauma.
Norris said the foundation of Bridging Families is based on research into four areas:
— Equitable access to services.
— Improving child mental health.
— Importance of family connection.
— Family resilience.
Just like in a typical foster situation, referrals from county departments of Social Services are used to pair children with a Bridging Families foster home. But to participate in Bridging Families, Norris said, reunification must be part of the original family’s court plan and they must be willing to engage.
Through Bridging Families, the children get professional mental health services, medical services, case management and educational help. Meanwhile, their parents get an organized structure for working with the program’s “Bridge Parents,” who act as a bridge between the children and their natural parents as the family goes through the program. They also get coaching and complete a parenting skills curriculum.
Because many families have experienced some type of trauma, they also receive training on how to cope and rebuild nurturing relationships. They get more time together in a natural home setting and receive family therapy.
“I’m just very, very excited about the potential this has to make a systems change,” Norris said.
DHHS was looking for a demonstration program to improve foster care outcomes for sets of siblings needing placement.
The N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services came up with a proposal. They found three agencies, including Crossnore, that were interested in doing something new, Cauley said.
And Crossnore was ready to go. They were already working on the Bridging Families program, she said, with professional parenting as a key component and physical locations available. Crossnore has Bridging Families homes on its original Avery County campus and its newer Winston-Salem campus.
Cauley said the state had “time-limited” state funds that could be used for a short pilot that goes through the end of the fiscal year in June.
The $692,000 in state funding covers the cost of three sites. It supports the room/board for children, parenting classes for the biological parents and a trauma component to address any issues.
Cauley said what DHHS is looking at from this pilot is “a good solid program that meets the needs of children, and allows us to see what this program can do with reunification and building the skills of parents.”
She cited Crossnore’s evidence-based programs that support reunification. They use peer support, which Cauley said “is always a strategy that is beneficial.”
They’re also using Triple P Positive Parenting Program, which does a lot of work first on child development then on teaching parents techniques for managing children’s behavior.
And Bridging Families has a lot of structure on how parents are engaged.
“This program, it doesn’t just serve the child, it serves the child and their family,” Cauley said.
Crossnore’s pilot is much larger than just the three state-funded sites. Crossnore already has nine homes planned for Bridging Families, with several already operational.
Norris said they’ll likely run their pilot for two years to get longer-term data on its effectiveness.
While the state funding just goes through June, the hope is the state will be able to continue its partnership with Crossnore after that, Norris said.
“Through this pilot we are learning things about what we need to enhance, what we need to focus on,” Norris said.
Meanwhile, the families in the program are working toward reunification. The goal is typically 12 months, but it can vary in either direction, Norris said.
For Eiserman, reaching that goal will be bittersweet.
“It happens in every program: They steal your heart,” she said. “But they’re going somewhere better.”