Program Seeks to Make Foster Placement Last

Studies have shown that moving from one foster home to another undercuts a child's development and behavior. In San Diego, there's a new program to teach foster parents how to cope with problem behavior. The program tries to help foster parents better understand their charges and make more lasting commitments to them.

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PATTI NEIGHMOND: I'm Patti Neighmond.

If kids are to be helped by foster care, they need to be in one home as long as possible. Often their behavior causes foster parents to give up on them.

For Freya Gordon, her foster son just wouldn't answer a question in a straightforward way.

Ms. FREYA GORDON: We might say, you know, have you brushed your teeth? And he would say yes, or have I? Like it was a murder mystery or something, and we could never get a straight answer from him about anything.

NEIGHMOND: In San Diego, where Gordon lives, there's a new program to teach foster parents how to cope with problem behavior. For four months Gordon and her partner went to weekly classes.

Ms. GORDON: They were tools out there and there were things out there that would mean that our kids could have a kind of normal, if you like, life.

NEIGHMOND: The class that taught her the tools was developed by psychologist Joseph Price and colleagues at San Diego State University. Tools like praising kids when they do something well - as Price says, catching kids being good.

Dr. JOSEPH PRICE (San Diego State University): Thank you for minding me. Thank you for putting the dishes in the sink like I asked you to. Thank you for picking up your clothes, that's a big help. So it's a very specific reinforcement, and it's not just this kind of general, you know, you're a good boy, you're a good girl, but very focused on the changes that they want to see.

NEIGHMOND: With rewards for the children too. Gordon says parents were given jars and bags of marbles.

Ms. GORDON: One of the things that we worked on was doing homework, for instance. Always a battleground. And you know, if they came in from school and sat down and got on and did their homework without it being a major battle, then they'd get marbles. They'd earn marbles for that.

NEIGHMOND: At the end of the week, a full jar meant a special treat, like time on the computer. But there were also consequences for bad behavior, like marbles or points taken away. No argument about it, says Gordon.

Ms. GORDON: Consistency really is the key. Focus on the positive and be consistent with it.

NEIGHMOND: It clicked so well, Gordon's fostered three boys - now 13, 12 and nine. She and her partner plan to adopt all of them. As for the truth-telling with her son, there's been a turnaround.

Ms. GORDON: If he didn't, we would just take points away from him. There would be nothing else. And then, you know, by the end of the week he might not get his Naruto cards or whatever it was that he wanted. Pretty soon he's stopped doing that, and he was able to just tell us what we needed to know.

NEIGHMOND: And for most foster parents who also went to classes, their kids' behavior got better too. As a result, there were more adoptions and more relatives who agreed to take the children into their homes.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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