WINDHAM – During the past 40 years, Jo Bradeen has been involved with just about every aspect of the foster care system in Maine.

Bradeen, 67, started out as a foster mother wanting to make to make a positive difference in the life of a troubled child. With much wisdom learned from caring for about a dozen foster children through the years, Bradeen uses that knowledge in her role as assistant executive director and treatment foster care manager for SMART Child & Family Services based on Tandberg Trail in North Windham, where she has worked since 2000. SMART serves York, Cumberland, Oxford and Androscoggin counties.

The Auburn resident, who has two grown children of her own as well, works to recruit new foster families and helps train them so they can earn their state license. Obtaining a foster-parent license involves a thorough probe of everything in a prospective foster parent’s life and background, she said. Bradeen then matches children in the foster care system to the families.

May is National Foster Care Month, and the Lakes Region Weekly sat down with Bradeen to learn more about her job, her organization, and the trends now in play in the foster care system in Maine.

Q: Folks drive by the SMART building, which has undergone physical expansions several times in past years, and probably wonder what happens there. How did SMART get its start?

A: SMART began in 1995. SMART used to stand for Southern Maine Alternative to Residential Treatment. But then we shortened it and added “Child and Family Services” because that is a better description of what we do.

Before I started work here I was on the board of directors for a year and a half. It began in Cornish, and the first office was in a building that was up by the Windham rotary. Westbrook resident Debbie Goss and a few foster parents founded it. They felt if the foster parents were better supported they could take care of the children better.

Q: Foster children are not adopted by families. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services remains a foster child’s official guardian, and SMART works with foster kids who have special needs, correct?

A: These are high-needs kids, because they’re the therapeutic or treatment level, rather than the regular foster care, meaning they have some type of a diagnosis. Whether it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or whatever. And most of them, especially today, they’re more damaged than they used to be when they came into care. So the foster care parents need the support of an agency.

Q: Why are they more damaged now?

A: Because the department is not pulling kids as quick as they used to. Back when I started foster care 40 years ago, they would take kids from the biological parents quicker than they do now. They’re not wrong, but they try to put a lot of services in the home to preserve the placement, which is what they should do, but sometimes that doesn’t work so then the kids have to be pulled. But by that time there’s been a lot more damage done.

Q: What kind of damage?

A: Emotional, physical, sexual. Any type of abuse the child is getting.

Q: Taking care of damaged children is a great responsibility. Are there enough foster parents out there?

A: No, the whole state is hurting for foster care parents. It’s a tough job and very intrusive to the family because their life is an open book to the department. And they give up a lot to be foster parents. They have to be really dedicated to wanting to make a difference in a child’s life.

Q: Is the economy affecting how many people are willing to take on a foster child?

A: I don’t know if it’s the economy that affects it. They get paid a stipend but they’re not going to get rich on that stipend. It depends on the level of the child, or the needs of the child, what the rate is per day. It can range from $16.50 a day up to $65.50 a day, depending on the needs. In addition to the stipend, the child gets a clothing allowance, and all of their medical and dental and mental-health care are paid by the department.

Q: Is there a typical foster family?

A: There is no typical family. Some parents have no other children, some have several. Some are empty-nesters. Some are single parents. And our job is to match them up. If I have a child who is sexually aggressive, I can’t put them in a household with other young children. So proper matching is very important.

The majority of our parents are married couples. We have had gay and lesbian couples. We have some single foster mothers. And as a treatment level you can have two children, except if there are siblings and then you can have more, but no more than four at a time in the home for treatment level. For regular foster care, it’s six children under the age of 18. But sometimes it goes over that depending on the kids coming into care.

Q: Can these families rehabilitate these damaged kids?

A: Most of the time. I’m a very optimistic person. These kids have a lot of problems, and it’s not their fault. If they grew up in a home since they were born where all sorts of stuff, whether it’s alcoholism or domestic violence, occurred, they don’t know any different, and that makes it tough because you’ve got to totally change their whole way of thinking. So it is a tough job.

Q: Are there foster kids who are not, as you describe, damaged?

A: Well, let’s face it, if you pull kids from the only home environment that they’ve known and the only parents that they’ve known, isn’t that pretty traumatic? Whatever they’re living in, that’s normal and that’s home. So when you pull them out of that, of course it’s traumatic.

Q: What is your fostering background?

A: I got my [foster care provider] license 40 years ago, March of 1973. And my first placement was a very difficult child, and he only stayed with us a week because he was very violent and my husband had to stay home from work because he was so violent. My next two placements were badly abused. One, Chris, had brain damage due to a blow to the head and cigarette burns all over his body. But he’s come a long, long way. He’s married. He lives independently. He can drive. He works.

Q: How many kids have you fostered?

A: Over a dozen. Some of them were longer term than others. And then unfortunately my husband and I were divorced and I had to go into the work field. So, I kept Chris but didn’t take a lot of new ones after that.

Q: What is the average length of time foster parents have a child?

A: Right now, the department prefers no longer than 18 months, although we have had some much longer than that. They want them adopted or reunified with their biological parents.

Q: Is there still a stigma with foster care?

A: There is. Many people think foster parents do it for the money. That’s a big stigma. And it’s a stigma for kids to be in foster care. Kids hate that label. And so many of them when they get to be a teen, they’ll do anything they can to get out of the home because they don’t want the department to be their guardian anymore.

Q: How many families do you have now?

A: We only have 14 families. We have wonderful, wonderful foster parents. One just passed away. She was a wonderful lady. She’s a big loss because she did an incredible job with teen girls.

Q: What makes a good foster parent?

A: Patience, understanding and being able to accept the child where they’re at. I think those are important things. And you’ve got to have a sense of humor.

Q: Is it tough to find foster parents because it’s so disruptive to their lives?

A: It’s disruptive in the manner that their life is an open book. If they sneeze wrong you can almost get an allegation.

Q: By the child?

A: By the child or anybody. And they have a lot of appointments. They have their medical appointments, of course, and most of them have counseling, and they have evaluations. Back when SMART started, [the state] required that one parent be home full time. And now, because the department cut the stipend, that’s not required any longer, but we do require if they don’t have a job that they can leave if they have to, that they must have a backup person that can pick up the child at school if he’s sick, or stuff like that.

Q: What is going on behind the scenes in foster care policy?

A: The Department of Health and Human Services is putting out to RFP treatment foster care and we’re not sure it’s going to look the same as it does now. Right now there are about 10 treatment foster care agencies throughout the state, and we do everything: the recruiting, the training, managing. We suspect that [the department] plans to dismantle all of that. We expect that it’s going to look differently than it does now but we don’t know.

Q: What do you mean? Are you saying there may not be placement agencies anymore and the state will do it?

A: I think we don’t know what it means. That’s what’s bothering us. We know they’re changing the whole structure but we don’t know what it’s going to look like.

Q: How does SMART make money? Is that the issue, the state doesn’t want a middleman taking fees?

A: I don’t know what their thinking is. We get a daily stipend per child. With that daily stipend, we pay the foster parent’s stipend, we pay our staff, we provide in-home supports for the family, we provide training for the parents. For instance, a foster parent could call, and their child is just really having a meltdown. The caseworker would go out and spend time with that family and child calming them down to save the placement, because we don’t want the kid to have to move from place to place. They need the stability and structure and the caring people in the home.

Q: What’s the benefit of fostering rather than adopting?

A: Some people don’t want to adopt. They don’t want that full-time, lifetime commitment, but they want to help children. I didn’t go into foster care to adopt.

Q: It must be tough for a parent to hand a child back over if a good connection has been made.

A: You have to go into it with the idea that you’re making a difference in that child’s life while you have them, because you’re giving them a good, stable home. Many people used to say to me, I don’t know how you do it because I couldn’t give them back. And I said, well, you need to go in with the mindset that you’re what that child needs at that point. And my personal philosophy is, there’s nothing more important that we can do than to make a difference in the life of a child whether it’s your own, foster children, grandchildren, your neighbor’s kid, whoever it is.

Q: How do you recruit foster parents?

A: It’s getting more difficult all the time. We advertise in the papers. I’ve spoken at different places like churches, Rotary clubs. We put posters out and flyers.

Q: What does the state do with the children if there are not enough homes?

A: Good question. They used to have a lot more residential homes than they do now, like a big house full of kids and rotating staff. And, honestly, there are some kids that belong in residential versus a private home because they’re not safe to be in a private home. And sometimes they have a hard time functioning in a private home because they don’t want to get close to anybody so they’re going to sabotage the relationship. But “residential” is sort of a bad word, the department doesn’t want to use that.

Q: How do think the state is handling this issue?

A: We just don’t know what’s going to happen with the restructuring, and that’s pretty scary to the foster parents and to the agencies. And my biggest fear is what’s going to happen to the kids. We have a lot of parents who say they couldn’t take care of these kids without the help of an agency.

Q: What motivates you to do your job?

A: My whole life has been devoted to kids, and not only foster care. I was a Cub Scout den leader. I’ve always taught Sunday School, Vacation Bible School. I don’t think there’s anything more important we can do than to make a difference in the life of a child. And I’m also a Christian and I believe God didn’t put us on this earth to live a selfish life. I love kids. That’s where my heart is. Someday I’ll retire. But I’m 67, and I’m still doing care.

Jo Bradeen, assistant executive director and treatment foster care manager for SMART Child & Family Services, located on Tandberg Trail in North Windham, has spent 40 years in the foster care field, both as a parent and agency director. Staff photo by John Balentine

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