Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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Camp Connect: A Model To Follow

Directing Camp Connect, a summer camp that reunites siblings in foster care, is always a grounding experience for Judith Schagrin. "It really reminds me why I go to meetings all year and why I do this work," says the Assistant Director for Children's Services for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services (DSS). "I believe it's our obligation as child welfare professionals to make sure our kids have relationships with each other."

Many children in foster care grow up apart from their brothers and sisters, either because they have different needs, they come into care at different times, or homes just can't be found that accept large sibling groups. Each year, Baltimore County DSS organizes Camp Connect to bring about 60 siblings, ages 7-18, together again in June for one week of memory making and bonding. During the seven years the camp has operated, staff have improved on the summer camp model. They offer the following information for other agencies considering developing a similar sibling camp model:
  • Selecting campers. Camp Connect makes an effort to accept campers from every jurisdiction in Maryland. The number is kept to about 60 kids per summer camp session to keep the event personal. The same campers are allowed to return each summer to create a positive camp culture. "The kids come back…each year not only to see their brothers and sisters," Schagrin says, "but to also see other kids who come to camp each year."

  • The camp site. Camp Connect takes place at a facility in Pennsylvania, just over the Maryland state line, which gives the kids a sense of getting away. The facility has a swimming pool (one of the most popular camp activities), a dining hall large enough to accommodate all campers, a nurse's station, space for arts and crafts, and separate bunk areas for boys and girls.

  • Activities. Staff have discovered what works best for their campers is to keep them moving throughout the day. Two or three sibling groups are clustered together in "family groups" of no more than 10 campers. The family groups spend all day together, including meals. Activities are designed to appeal to both girls and boys and to kids of varying ages, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, and tubing. Arts and crafts have included the siblings decorating pillowcases, tie-dying shirts, or building teddy bears for their sisters and brothers. Children also receive disposable cameras, and their photos are developed near the end of the week so siblings can make scrapbooks for one another.

  • Staff. Camp Connect aims to match one counselor to every two campers. Volunteer counselors are recruited from DSS (vacation time is not deducted for volunteering) as well as from other professions or child-serving agencies. Social work students have also volunteered. Schagrin warns counselors must be prepared for a "physically and emotionally rigorous experience." DSS pays a nurse a small fee to attend camp and dispense medication.

  • Funding. The cost to run Camp Connect is not cheap--about $700 per child--but Schagrin says, "The goal is to take really good care of these kids this week and spoil them." She believes it's important for state child welfare systems to take responsibility for funding a sibling camp, rather than relying on donations. Her department uses Chaffee Independent Living Program funds to cover expenses.
For more information about Camp Connect, including serving as a counselor, contact Schagrin at 410/853-3961 or jschagri@dhr.state.md.us.

Residential Program Blends Treatment, Family Time, and School

Providing treatment to children with severe emotional and behavioral difficulties isn't an easy job. So rather than go it alone, the Hillsborough County Department of Children's Services in Florida has partnered with the county school system and other county agencies to conduct a five-day-a-week residential treatment program for elementary-age children and their parents or caregivers.

The focus of Hillsborough's Family Treatment Program--funded by the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners--is to address the needs of the entire family system to achieve and maintain therapeutic progress. While enrolled in the program, children stay in a dormitory setting on Hillsborough's 30-acre campus, Monday through Friday, and attend an onsite school operated by Hillsborough County Public Schools. Simultaneously, the children's families attend therapy once a week, parent support groups once a month, and parent education classes. Meanwhile, each child receives individual and group therapy in the residential treatment milieu.

The children return home on weekends, where they and their parents put new therapeutic understandings to use. Hillsborough staff monitor the progress of these weekend visits.

"The importance of working with the entire family is to not only increase the likelihood of the child making meaningful therapeutic gains, but also to help ensure those gains are enduring," says Hillsborough Program Manager Barry Drew. "We're trying to create a viable family system for the future."

In addition to treatment and schooling, Hillsborough assesses children's strengths and their individual and family interests, then identifies community resources where the children can more fully explore their interests, including sports, music, art, computer, and scouting. The goal is to build children's self-esteem and sustain it once they return to their families.

"Through these activities, the children are able to obtain mentors and healthier peer relationships," Drew says. "Wherever possible, they participate in these activities with their parents and siblings. In doing so, they begin to restore relations with their families through the development of shared interests."

An important part of treatment is a focus on reading. Through a partnership with the county library system, the children are required to have library cards when starting the Family Treatment Program; parents are encouraged to visit the library and read with their children. School and treatment staff take the children to the library to research cultural and environmental topics in preparation for field trips to museums, aquariums, cultural fairs, and theater productions.

"Reading topical material in anticipation of these trips adds excitement and relevance to the process of learning to read," Drew points out. "This is especially important for children with attention and learning problems who have encountered years of academic failure."

Before arriving at Hillsborough, children usually have been unsuccessful in prior educational and therapeutic settings, but more than 90% of families surveyed after participating in the Family Treatment Program report their children's behavior improves significantly.

For more information about Hillsborough County's Family Treatment Program, contact Drew at 813/264-3807, ext. 124, or drewb@hillsboroughcounty.org.

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