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Cover Story - Posted July 28, 2017 9:26 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Rehabilitating Belief

Trauma. It’s a harsh word. The kind of word you don’t really want to have to speak aloud, for any reason. The kind of word that leaves a pit in the stomach. You hear it in the context of deadly car accidents or emergency room procedures. You may see it applied not just physically but psychologically, as the emotional pain left in the wake of a terrorist attack or a disturbing event.

But you don’t ever, ever want to hear the word associated with childhood.

Still, trauma is a word that flows unsparingly from the lips of the leadership at Arrow Child & Family Ministries in Amarillo. Founded in Texas, the local office of this Christian organization is headquartered on an 11-acre spread on Pullman Road, a couple miles east of the Route 66 Motor Speedway. Arrow provides child welfare services, advocates for foster care and adoption, and works with children and families in crisis.

While compassionate and hopeful, the professionals at Arrow are realists when it comes to the needs of the children they serve. That’s why trauma is so central to their vocabulary.

“All of the kids in the system are traumatized,” says Clay Thomas, Arrow’s director for the Texas Panhandle region, which includes Amarillo and Lubbock. He’s speaking of the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) system, which investigates reports of abuse and neglect and sometimes is forced to remove children from parental care. “They don’t have hope. They need to be rehabilitated, to have their belief systems restored.”

Children end up in the CPS system through no fault of their own, but because they live in homes that have been characterized by physical, emotional or substance abuse. When children are removed from these situations and unable to live with their parents, CPS tries to place them with a loving, stable relative – someone they know and trust – until they can be reunited with their families.

But sometimes they can’t ever return home. And sometimes, staying with a relative isn’t an option. When this happens, kids end up in the foster care system. This may be a good solution for younger, well-behaved children, who are much easier to place with suitable foster families. But older children can be particularly hard to place. Many of them end up in a crowded group home. Certain personalities may flourish in this type of environment, especially if it’s a well-organized, nurturing home.

Other kids are not so fortunate. Years of neglect or abuse – which pile on layers of psychological trauma – take their toll on a child’s emotional health. Teenagers who spend years in the system may develop aggression, a tendency toward self-harm, or other behavioral issues. As a result, they pass in and out of homes. They don’t match up with foster families. They don’t fit. This adds a brand-new layer of trauma.

Consider one 11-year-old who recently arrived at Arrow’s new Residential Treatment Center (RTC). Arrow represents her 10th placement. That means she’s lived in 10 different places since entering the system. Ten different schools. Ten different roofs over her head. Ten different moves. Ten different communities of people. Ten different times, her life has been upended and her surroundings have completely changed. And that happened after she was removed from her family due to abuse.

“The trauma, feelings, hurt and frustration that they have are real. It’s not that this is a bad kid or a behavior they continue to choose,” says Thomas. In these cases, acting out through violence or even criminal activity is far more than just willful defiance. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s how children deal with the trauma they’ve been dealt.

Labeling someone a “bad kid” or a “problem” keeps them moving from place to place within the system, but doesn’t address the root of the issue. “We cannot put that label on them. To sit back and label them is unfair, because the saddest part about a kid being labeled is they believe it,” says Thomas, who came to Arrow after a career in the juvenile justice system, culminating in a role as superintendent of a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Bryan/College Station. Already a father of four, Thomas has one adopted child and is in the process of adopting another.

He says kids don’t often have the cognitive skills to decide if a label is or isn’t true. “They don’t have the ability to think anything different,” he says. They just hear the label and let it define them.

At Arrow, a caring team of more than 40 case managers, professional counselors, and other staff members works hard to remove that label from a few of the nearly 1,800 children in CPS custody – and those are just in the Texas Panhandle region. That’s a lot of labels.

The only way to reach many of these kids is by addressing the original trauma, preventing additional traumatic experiences, and finding a way to move forward from these past experiences.

A Local Residential Treatment Center
While Arrow provides foster care and adoption services throughout Region 1 of Texas (see sidebar), it also offers residential care. In March of this year, it opened a brand-new Residential Treatment Center (RTC). The first phase of a $2.5 million, three-phase process, the 20-bed facility has been designed to provide care and shelter for children in the system that are dealing with complex behavioral problems or emotional issues. Right now, the new structure houses girls, with boys living in another home on the campus. When Phase 2 is complete, the boys will move into an identical 20-bed RTC facility designed for them.

The RTC couldn’t have come at a better time, as the foster care capacity of the state of Texas has been rapidly declining. Some treatment centers have closed voluntarily. Others the state suspended from accepting children due to poor conditions, improper management, and other violations of children’s constitutional rights. Over the past two years, the state shut down around 250 RTC beds. Until Arrow opened its new facility, there were no RTCs at all in Region 1.

That’s a problem.

Imagine removing a child from his home in Amarillo or Lubbock. Due to behavioral problems, imagine then needing to place the child in a specialized treatment center. Only there aren’t any available in the region, so you look elsewhere in the state. According to Thomas, this compounds the trauma.

“You’ve been taken from your home because of your parents. That’s trauma you’ve experienced already,” he explains. In these cases, children enter out-of-home care but are told it’s temporary – they’ll have the opportunity to return home. Within the child welfare system, going back home is known as reunification. It’s the goal. But reunification is out of a child’s control, and hinges on the actions of the child’s parents. It requires in-person visits between the parents and their child. It requires communication. Parents must meet certain requirements by the state.

But if a child has issues requiring residential treatment – and the lack of a local RTC means sending her to San Antonio or Houston – the reunification process becomes a pipe dream. “If you take them 500 miles away, you can’t have a successful reunification,” says Thomas. “You’re not going to have visits. You’ve taken them out of the region and away from their family.” Teenagers understand the importance of family visits to the reunification process, and they know Mom or Dad can’t get off work to drive to Houston. “It’s taking their hope away,” he says. “They’re being put on a plane, bus or car and being taken down to a place they don’t know. They don’t know when they’re going to be able to go home. It destroys their belief system.”

The number of kids needing treatment isn’t insignificant. Thomas says the majority of children in the state’s care could probably benefit from an RTC like the one Arrow just opened. “Now we’re able to treat them locally,” he says. “What we want to do is keep these kids here and be within 10-15 minutes of their family coming to see them.” Staying in Amarillo means something. “It doesn’t matter how crappy their home is or how much they get beat up, the kids, for some reason, always want to go home. We feed them and they get nice clothes, but they would still trade that to be home.”

Once at Arrow’s RTC, most children will stay between six and 18 months, where they are under direct supervision and benefit from individualized treatment plans and counseling, as well as group therapy. That so many in the child welfare system require this kind of treatment says a lot about the current need. Thomas explains that a child entering an RTC is rarely one who has recently been removed from his or her parents. Kids who are new to the system tend to first get placed with a relative or foster home. “If you’re in an RTC, you’ve been in care a long time,” he says. “If you’re in an RTC, there have been a lot of failures in other places. You’ve not been successful in those other placements. We are the most restricted environment that a CPS kid can be in. We’re the last potential hope for a lot of our kids.”

Meeting Individual Goals
“Every kid that comes into our doors needs treatment,” says Sam Yarbrough, Arrow’s residential program director. Like Thomas, her resume includes a lengthy background in juvenile detention. She has served as both a houseparent and a clinical specialist in transitional living homes for children, and applied at Arrow when she learned it was building an RTC. “We do individual case plans with every kid. They have individual goals,” she says.

Each child’s overall treatment plan undergoes an adjustment every three months to reflect progress. Working side-by-side with licensed counselors, the children learn to process their trauma and deal with the events of their past. They also learn the things kids don’t always pick up in unstable environments – like basic social skills. “It’s the things we take for granted,” Yarbrough says. “These kids may not know how to have proper table etiquette or how to appropriately greet others. We also teach them cleanliness. How to clean your room. How to clean your area. They’re assigned chores and taught how to do laundry. These kids can’t be expected to do things they haven’t been taught.”

As children meet goals and proceed through their customized treatment plans, the intensity of the programming begins to decrease. That means it’s working. The goal is for children to learn the proper coping techniques and behavior modifications that allow them to leave the RTC altogether. “If we get a kid in here that’s doing great and it’s appropriate for them to ‘graduate,’ then we want them to be able to move into a foster home or group home. Some kids actually go back with their family,” Yarbrough says.

For others, reunification will never be an option because parents have had their rights terminated. These children may dream only of adoption, or may eventually age out of the system. Hopefully, by that time, they’ll have learned the skills to function on their own thanks to the discipline, organization and structure they found at Arrow.

But reaching those goals can be anything but easy.

“The new home is beautiful from the outside,” Yarbrough says. “When we [finished] the inside, we had pictures hung up on the wall and brand-new bedding on the beds.” Due to some of the kids’ complex emotional problems, the simple presence of nice, new accommodations was enough to cause them to act out. “Some can’t handle it. They don’t feel worthy to have nice things and don’t feel like they’ve earned it or deserve it,” she explains. “It’s easier to just tear up the bed.”

For instance, the RTC was furnished with Apple computers for its young residents. One young girl picked one up and broke it on purpose. “After she did it, she said, ‘What kind of an RTC has computers for the kids?’” remembers Yarbrough. “It broke my heart because she didn’t feel she was good enough. That’s not right. It feeds into the trauma that they already have.”

Another girl arrived with violent tendencies. “Every time something didn’t go her way, she punched or kicked a hole in the wall. That was her thing,” says Yarbrough, who had to stay on top of drywall replacements, repainting and other repairs. Meanwhile, counselors addressed the girl’s coping mechanism by teaching her more appropriate outlets for her anger. “It’s OK to be mad, but how can you handle it? What are some things you can do when you get frustrated?”

As a result, Yarbrough and her staff have had to make fewer drywall repairs. “Rarely does she do that anymore. She uses her coping skills. To me, that’s huge for her because of where she came from,” she says.

Not destroying a wall may be a highly visible breakthrough, but others are much smaller – and only become visible after Arrow staff have put in the hard work of getting to know each individual child. “You have to find them and seek them by developing relationships with these kids. They are human beings. They have intrinsic value,” explains Yarbrough. “When I ask a kid if he would give me a high-five and he says ‘no’ a hundred times, [maybe] on the 101st time I ask he’ll finally give me a high-five. That’s huge to me.”

Letting the Kids Ask Why
Thomas says that kind of persistence in the present moment is the most helpful way to bring about lasting restoration among such children. He believes you can’t change the trauma of the past. Yesterday can’t be fixed, but its wounds can be treated. “That’s what we’re trying to do: To teach our kids the skills so they can live with the trauma and be able to be functional. You’ve got to pick yourself up when something bad happens,” he says.

At the same time, he’s stopped expending his energy trying to understand the past. “I tell our staff, Let’s don’t ask why this happened. Let’s say ‘What now? What are we going to do?’ I’ve done this a long time and a long time ago I gave up asking why these parents abandon their kids. What we need to do is teach our kids what to do to go forward.”

But if Thomas and his team aren’t asking the why question, they are definitely hoping to hear it from the kids. “I always tell our staff the way you learn that a kid believes in you is they’ll turn their head sideways and look at you and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Clay, why do you care?’ If they start asking those type of questions, that’s progress,” Thomas says. “They’re starting to see somebody is staying the course with them.”

He says that question typically comes three or four months after a child arrives at Arrow, and it’s significant. “When a kid starts asking those questions, we know they are starting to head down the road where they believe. We are possibly getting some of that hope we strive for.”

Asking “why do you care?” may be the first step toward hope, but Thomas and the rest of Arrow know it’s a long journey. Yarbrough may be relatively new to the ministry, but her career working with troubled children has shown her that the long view matters. “In all the other programs, I’ve had kids call me months or years down the road and say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s ‘I’m sorry I hated you back then. I did and said mean things to you,’” Yarbrough says. She understands those behaviors aren’t the actions of a troublemaker, but the consequences of trauma. She’s learned to look beyond the trauma to find the scared little boy or frustrated little girl whose chance to grow up in safety and security was taken away. She knows reaching that child won’t happen in a day. It won’t happen in a week or month. It may take years.

“I plant seeds every day,” says Yarbrough. “I don’t always get to see them bloom or grow, but I know they’re being planted. Even if they show up 10 years later, they were being planted.”

Now that Arrow has opened its long-awaited local RTC, look for a bountiful crop of hopeful young adults to begin flourishing in 2027.

Finding Foster Families

In addition to its residential homes, Arrow Child & Family Ministries is a tenacious local advocate for foster care and adoption. Amy Anderson, who spent more than a decade with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services before joining Arrow, manages the organization’s Foster and Adoption Program. She oversees the process of recruiting and training foster parents, helps match children for placement and adoption, and monitors a network of 50 foster homes in Amarillo and Lubbock. Arrow is currently responsible for 75 children who are in foster care or in the process of being adopted.

After working so long with the state, the religious element of Arrow’s mission captured Anderson’s attention. “You have to have a heart for what [these children] are going through. I tell everybody it’s a ministry,” says Anderson, whose husband, Benny Anderson, is a pastor at St. John Baptist Church. “It’s something God commanded all of us to do.” She quotes James 1:27, which says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress...” (New International Version).

Whether caring for literal orphans or children who have simply been abandoned by their parents, Anderson revels in matching children with adults who will give them the love they’ve been denied. “When I look at [potential foster] families, I look at their heart for kids and why they want to do this. It takes unconditional love,” she says. The decision to love a child with no strings attached is necessary because no child in the foster system is perfect due to their difficult upbringing. “I tell families all the time ‘I love that you want to bring a kid in and set the bar high so they don’t have to live in their circumstances, but I don’t want your expectations to be so unrealistic that they can’t reach it.’ I want them to love those kids regardless.”

Many of those kids may be like Daniel*. Last year brought a rash of news reports about children under Child Protective Services custody that were sleeping in CPS offices and other impromptu housing arrangements due to shortages in the foster care system. Daniel, who was 15 years old at the time, was one of those children. He was tough. He had behavioral problems. He had proven impossible to place.

Born in Alabama, Daniel’s CPS file carried reports of investigations going all the way back to 2002, not long after he was born. Raised by a father who used drugs, he and a sister had been subject to physical neglect until 2009. The family was known to sleep in churches and parks on a regular basis. After a car accident blamed on drugs and alcohol, the father ended up fleeing to Texas. It wasn’t long before Daniel and his sister ended up in CPS custody.

Tasked with finding Daniel a place to stay, Anderson approached a foster parent she knew to be exceptional with teenagers. The woman had a heart for tough kids and happened to have room in her home for one more. “I told her what was going on,” Anderson says. “She said, ‘I’ll never force a kid to be in my home. I want him to be here because he wants to be here.’” Daniel spent a trial weekend with her last year, loved the environment, and decided to stay.

He has since begun to thrive. “Come to find out, he’s very intelligent and has done well in school,” Anderson says. Having grown up transitioning from church to park to hotel, he loves nothing more than to curl up on the couch and read a book, or to sit and watch television. Daniel grew up without a stable home. Now he’s become a homebody.

Anderson attributes these changes to a well-matched foster family. “[His foster mother] wins kids over because she’s consistent,” she says. “She’s patient. She walks with them daily through their trauma and their behavior. She knows it’s a process. She meets them where they are and journeys with them without judging them.”

This year, the woman decided to adopt Daniel permanently. “He always says it’s because she loved him for who he was,” says Anderson.

Finding a forever home for a teenager like Daniel is one of the most rewarding parts of Anderson’s job – and also one of the hardest. “Everybody wants the babies and the perfect kids, but we really have a need for families that can bring in a teenager and love them,” she says. Because Arrow is a Christian agency, Anderson is quick to implement faith into the process. “We get to bring the Gospel [message] as we recruit families and work with families. We get to pray with them and talk about God with them,” she says.

The built-in support system of a church and the biblical call to love others works hand-in-hand with Arrow’s goals – and child placement agencies have begun to recognize this. “Even some of the state is partnering with pastors and starting their recruitment within the church,” she says. “Partnering with people of faith is a key thing now. We get to share our faith as we walk this journey together.”
* Daniel’s real name has been changed to protect his identity.

Get Involved with Arrow

Arrow’s needs reflect the needs of the children it serves. The non-profit organization always accepts financial donations through its website at arrow.org, as well as donations of new or gently used clothing – children arriving at Arrow’s Amarillo RTC often have few possessions of their own. Adoptive or foster parents, of course, remain a constant need, particularly those who can take in teenagers.

“We are also in the process of getting ready to launch a mentor program that is going to be extremely important for the kids,” says Clay Thomas. He recommends contacting him directly at (806) 335-9138 or via email to clay.thomas@arrow.org.

Going to School

Until this summer, Arrow’s teenage residents attended classes within the Canyon Independent School System. But due to the complex issues some students face, public school isn’t always a positive or helpful environment. As of the 2017-2018 school year, Arrow has arranged to provide an on-campus charter school for the students in its care. Working with a Texas-based charter school program – one that specializes in students with emotional or behavioral difficulties – the Arrow campus will serve students from sixth to 12th grades.

“This is a huge deal for us,” says Clay Thomas. “It allows us to keep more and more activities confined to our campus.” The on-campus accessibility is important, because it allows staff members to be present in classrooms, and keeps medication and therapeutic services close at hand.

A charter-school solution also promises much more individual attention than a student might have received in a large public school. For children like those at Arrow, that’s an incredible benefit. “It’s a one-on-one, individual investment,” Thomas says. “It will help give them a better sense of belonging.”

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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