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FFT Special

Parent Intervention & Training
Helps Support Struggling Families Heal

by Kim Phagan-Hansel

When Jennifer Smith (whose name has been changed to protect the privacy of her children) decided to become a foster parent she wanted to support the reunification of children with their biological families. The single parent was on board with the plan for the first children to come into her care, Josh and Tom, to transition to their relatives after being with her for just two months.

“I got my boys as my first placement in February 2012,” Smith said. “They were with me for two months and they were moved to the biological family members.”

Smith eventually sent a letter to the family to find out how the boys were doing. That letter lead to emails and phone calls and eventually lunches and weekend visits. Ultimately, the boys ended up being too much for their aunt and uncle so Smith stepped up to take the boys again with a plan for adoption.

Although Smith was happy to have the boys returned to her care, almost immediately she was overwhelmed with their behaviors and the challenges they presented daily. Some days they would spend hours raging, especially the youngest, Tom. Though Tom was 2 when he first came to live with Smith, the neglect and abuse he experienced prior to that left a profound impact on the child.

“There was no honeymoon period,” Smith said. “I thought it would settle down and it just never did. Both boys were born drug addicted and experienced very severe abuse and neglect. My youngest was 3 and he was completely out of control at that point.”

Smith was reading everything she could about parenting children from the foster care system, working with therapists to help the boys and reaching for anything that could possibly help the situation. She attended a few Empowered to Connect conferences and working closely with therapists, it was eventually recommended that Smith hire a parent trainer to help her navigate the minefields of daily life with her children.

Smith was connected with Debra Jones of Parent Intervention and Training. Unlike the therapists and other professionals she worked with, Jones offered something different — the experience of parenting a child just like Smith’s sons, who Smith officially adopted in 2013.

Jones’ son Dane had been adopted as an infant from a Romanian orphanage and what Jones and her husband Alan went through for the next few years were the darkest and most challenging days of their lives Jones shares.

“For so many years we felt so hopeless,” Jones said.

That hopelessness stemmed from Dane’s out-of-control behaviors, many of which were caused by the perfect storm of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and early childhood traumas. What Jones learned throughout the years by working with Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University to help Dane heal became a higher calling for Jones. It was a very long journey for the couple to get Dane to where he is at today, a fairly independent 25-year-old with a job as a courtesy clerk at a local grocery story.

“He’s just really reached a level of stability that we never dreamed possible for him,” Jones said. “We’re ever thankful for the work of TCU. It’s really come full circle. Now it brings us such joy to help others.”

As Dane gained stability and successfully began to navigate the world as an adult, Jones began looking for a way to help others. With a background in special education, Jones also completed the Trust-Based Relational Intervention Training for Professionals at Texas Christian University in 2011, followed by Alan in 2015. The TBRI program was designed by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross from the original ground-breaking work they did with Dane and other children like him.

“We just followed the need,” Jones said. “We just wanted to have the most expertise so we could provide support to these families. The parents need someone to coach them through it. We have such a huge heart for parents and families in crisis.”

From calming strategies and de-escalation techniques to information on trauma-informed care, Jones works with parents to help them understand their children on a deeper level, become hyper aware of their child’s needs and really reconnect through relationship building.

“Many of them have tried numerous parenting techniques that just aren’t going to work,” Jones said. “Most truly embrace these strategies and see success almost immediately.”

Unlike children with neuro typical brain development, children who have experienced abuse, neglect, drugs and alcohol in utero, as well as early childhood trauma and loss, have brains that function and react differently to their surroundings. With their brains stuck in a constant fight for survival due to those early childhood experiences, Jones said they don’t respond to normal parenting techniques. Until children can feel safe and connected to their caregivers, little change will be made in behaviors.

“We coach them in high structure and high nurture,” Jones said. “We emphasize a lot of calming strategies. We look at parenting types, as well as the needs of the kiddos.”

Typically, Jones will work with families for about four days intensively. She works with the parents on parenting techniques and she works with the children to get the entire family unit to a baseline of structure and expectation. After working with the families intensively, Jones does a lot of follow-up consultation via phone calls. Depending on what she witnesses in the family dynamic and what’s going on with the child, Jones often recommends additional on-going therapies and supports.

When Jones arrives in a home, many times the families are in crisis. The child or children are raging for hours, the behaviors are escalating out of control and the parents are worn out, beaten down and frustrated as they look for anyway to help their child and family.

“For many parents, Trust-Based Relational Intervention can feel quite overwhelming. Parents aren’t sure where to begin and feel they need someone to coach them individually on how and when to apply the connecting, empowering and correcting strategies,” Jones said. “An in-home intensive intervention is a time of close observation, individual goal setting, and creative problem solving to help parents identify the specific needs and/or fears beneath the behaviors their child is experiencing. It is a time to, in a sense, wipe the slate clean and start fresh with meeting needs, giving voice to the child, and helping him return to the correct developmental trajectory he should have had from the beginning with a safe, nurturing adult consistently meeting his needs and building a foundation of trust.”

Because the Jones’ have walked this path with their own son, Jones relates well to the families and the behavioral challenges they’re facing with their children.

“They know we truly understand this journey,” Jones said. “The personal experience is vital in helping families have hope.”

Smith has worked with Jones off and on over the years, her sons now 8 and 6. At one point, Tom was so out of control that Smith took a family leave of absence from work and for six weeks spent time working intensively with her youngest son. During that time, Tom could be no more than three feet away from her.
“Being able to know she walked this same road is huge,” Smith said. “It was so helpful to know she was on the ground and in the trenches with me.”

With Jones coaching her through it, Smith worked one-on-one with her son to help him heal. It also meant leaving the housework and other responsibilities and just focusing on her son and his need to build trust and feel the safety that just wasn’t there for him as an infant.

“The biggest thing she taught me was to see low levels of dysregulation,” Smith said. “The trust aspect was huge. I gained his trust and his ability to regulate.”

While Smith is quick to admit that working with Jones wasn’t a magic cure for her sons, it was still a huge step toward healing for all of them. Some days are still hard, but Smith leans on the things she learned from Jones and tries to help her sons continue on the path healing from the trauma they experienced at such a young age.

“There are seasons of time that are really hard,” Smith said. “But we’re in a better spot than we have ever been.”

For more information on Parent Intervention and Training and the work of the Jones family, visit http://www.parentintervention.net.

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Fostering Families TODAY supports the innovative AdoptUSKids initiative administered by the Adoption Exchange Association. Visit their site at:

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