Opening their Home and Hearts

The first time the Stanfields met Alexis, she was 4. Dressed in pink shorts and a white T‑shirt, she had long brown hair that draped her pale face. Removed from her family because of safety concerns, she was waiting for her social worker to find her a temporary home. Her clothing and her stuffed bunny filled the black plastic garbage bag beside her.

Flagge and Michele Stanfield had just become licensed as foster parents. They had finished their pre-service training, completed the paperwork, and passed background checks and home visits.

The couple was newly married and wanted to expand their family. Michele’s son from her previous marriage had just left for college. Flagge, at 49, had always been a bachelor. After conversations with relatives and friends, they decided to apply to become foster parents through the Crossnore School & Children’s Home in Winston-Salem.

The very day they were certified, the call came in about Alexis.

On the drive home from the Department of Social Services, Michele sat in the backseat with the little girl, describing their neighborhood, their backyard, their fluffy white Maltipoo and two brown dachshunds. At the grocery store, Alexis pointed to her favorite breakfast cereal; at the Stanfields’ house, she accepted the pets’ curious sniffs and friendly licks.

Michele and Flagge tucked her in at bedtime with her stuffed bunny at her side. Michele spent sleepless hours in Alexis’ room, fretting that she might wake up frightened. Both she and Flagge remember feeling the gravity of having someone else’s child in their home and the charge they had been given to help her heal.

We didn’t expect her to grow out of what she experienced,” Michele says, but we wanted to make sure we were doing what we could to help her grow through it.

As Alexis settled into a routine, Michele and Flagge received resources and coaching from their foster care supervisor at Crossnore. Michele enrolled in a ten-week series called Together Facing the Challenge, an intensive training program that helps foster parents support the children in their care. She felt better prepared for handling bumps in the road as Alexis turned 5 and 6.

We didn’t expect her to grow out of what she experienced,” Michele says, but we wanted to make sure we were doing what we could to help her grow through it.”

In North Carolina, the primary goal for children who enter foster care is to help their families resolve their challenges and reunite safely. When that isn’t possible, social workers try to find a forever family” for the child through adoption. Many youth, however, end up staying in foster care until they age out and live on their own.

Alexis found her forever family” with Michele and Flagge, who adopted her in 2016. These days, as she plays with the dogs or hunts for a snack in the kitchen, she sparkles with a second-grader’s mischief. She loves having her nails painted by her mom, and sneaking off for ice cream with her dad.

The joy of being Alexis’ father,” Flagge says, is being able to provide for her and give her the unconditional love she deserves in a safe place that she can call home.”

The joy of being Alexis’ father is being able to provide for her and give her the unconditional love she deserves in a safe place that she can call home.

Together Facing the Challenge

In North Carolina, more than 11,000 children are in foster care. In South Carolina, the total is 4,200.

With numbers reaching critical levels, both states have an urgent need for qualified and caring foster and adoptive parents. Child welfare agencies are working hard to recruit and retain those parents; The Duke Endowment is supporting their efforts by helping them offer effective training and coaching programs.

One program, housed at Duke University School of Medicine, is called Together Facing the Challenge, an evidence-informed therapeutic foster care training model designed to support child welfare agencies.

In child welfare, a distinction is made nationally between therapeutic” and traditional” foster care based on the complexity of the child’s needs. But the complexity of needs in traditional” foster care is growing, and experts believe that foster parents who serve those children can benefit from the same training in trauma-informed care.

The same training and coaching techniques are applicable, and we’re starting to work with agencies that offer traditional care,” says Maureen Murray, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine who leads Together Facing the Challenge.

Together Facing the Challenge was developed from data about what was working in existing foster care agencies with the intent to integrate those improved practices into participating agencies.

In a five-year randomized clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, research showed that increased training and consultation for supervisors and treatment foster parents led to improved outcomes for children.

On the three measured outcomes — symptoms, behaviors and strengths — the enhanced model showed significant improvements over previous practice. Researchers noted reductions in outward” behaviors (such as aggression and school difficulties) and in inward” behaviors (such as anxiety and depression). 

In the Carolinas, Together Facing the Challenge has trained more than 500 staff members, who have trained some 2,000 foster parents.

The Duke Endowment’s support for the model included funding a second randomized trial focused on whether additional consultation using a coaching-focused approach would yield greater results.

Findings from this study suggest additional coaching-focused consultation can enhance outcomes for children in therapeutic foster care. Supervisors in the enhanced group reported that treatment parents understood the interventions they were coached on significantly better than the treatment parents in the control group, and treatment parents reported being in more frequent contact with their supervisors. 

The Endowment is also supporting organizations in the Carolinas that are recruiting and training foster families using the model.

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