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Free Therapy for Foster Youth: An Organization You Need to Know This Foster Care Month

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Kayla Kreis, at age six, was a bully.

At school she had been acting out on her anger and frustration over her life's instability. She bounced around family members' homes before being adopted.

Her adoptive mother, Donna Stapleton, who had cared for Kayla, her twin sister and younger brother while they were in foster care, was worried. After receiving many reports from the school about her daughter hitting other children and stealing items from the classroom, Stapleton thought the best assistance for her daughter would be therapy.

She just didn't know exactly where to look for resources within the child welfare system, and how to pay for not only Kayla, but her other two children, to begin to work through much of the trauma they had experienced growing up.

"There is no list for anything," said Stapleton "You have to be proactive and find things out. The system isn't set up to help you find resources."

A social worker assigned to her children's school told her about A Home Within, a non-profit organization that matches any child who has been in foster care with a volunteer therapist, for as long as the child needs, at no cost.

"It's astonishing that the service is free," said Stapleton. "When you put all your means into three children who need therapy once a week, it takes a toll."

A Home Within has been a resource for youth throughout the nation since 2001, when executive director Dr. Toni Heineman decided to expand the organization's reach beyond its home in San Francisco. Today, they serve children in care and emancipated youth in 25 states.

Former foster youth who aged out of the system experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at rates higher than soldiers returning from the Iraq War, according to the 2005 Casey Northwest Alumni study. Overall, 21.5 percent of foster youth experience PTSD , five times the rate of the general population.

Part of the service that therapists of A Home Within provide to youth in care is not only a space to heal and deal with issues, but a stable relationship with a caring adult. The importance of that relationship is a large reason why therapists must agree to work with young people for free, says Dr. Heineman.

"Often times the therapist is the only person in the child's life who isn't getting paid to help them," said Heineman.

Dr. Heineman started the organization in 1994 with a small group of clinicians who saw a need within the child welfare system and wanted to serve. The group would casually gather and discuss ways of offering services to youth in foster care. After a while, its endeavor proved difficult with navigating reimbursement and other bureaucratic hoops.

So they thought, "What if we just work for free and do what we want to, which is psychotherapy?" recalls Dr. Heineman.

Since then, therapists have opened spaces in their private practices and other offices to youth in care. And since 2001, when the organization started tracking the number of youth they serve, they have provided free therapy to over 900 youth. Therapists work with youth for an average of 3.5 years.

Their dedication hasn't gone unnoticed. This month, Dr. Heineman, as a representative of A Home Within, was named a finalist in the Schwab Global Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award competition.

To fund the administration of the organization, A Home Within receives 70 percent of its funding from foundations and the remaining 30 percent from individuals. This month, in honor of National Foster Care Month, all donations are being matched dollar-for-dollar by the Peery Foundation, up to $25,000 dollars.

Pamela Braswell, a therapist who has volunteered with A Home Within since 1998, has heard from youth she has worked with how that consistent relationship makes a difference. One of her clients, a child with whom she had worked since he was nine years old, expressed to her when he was 21 how their relationship made her different from every other adult in his life.

"Not until later could he say, 'Wow, you really know my history. No one else does,'" Braswell recalls.

Stapleton has already seen results in her child. When Kayla turned eight, Stapleton and her partner remember their daughter coming to them with an epiphany, confessing that she no longer wanted to be a bully.

"I used to be a bully, but not anymore," said Kayla, now 10, "because it's rude to steal things, and I feel much more comfortable in a family."

"She is far more able to handle conflict and express her feelings. She's resilient, she's amazing," said Stapleton.

This story first ran in the Chronicle of Social Change, a new online publication dedicated to children and youth issues.