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Horses Help Boys Practice Better Behavior

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With their backgrounds--the often traumatic experiences that brought them into the system, and the all-too-frequent changes in placement that occur after they are in care--youth in the child welfare system can be forgiven if they find attachment and relating to others challenging. Catlin Dix and her colleagues at Morning Star Boys Ranch use a program with horses to let youth practice making bonds and creating healthy relationships.

Riding and horsemanship skills make up the equine program at Morning Star Boys Ranch.

Dix, equine program supervisor at Morning Star Boys Ranch, a CWLA member agency, represents the third generation of her family to be involved at the ranch. The facilities for horses at Morning Star are named for her grandfather. "Each resident at the ranch has an opportunity to join the horse program," she explains, and when they are at capacity with residents, this translates into two sessions with the horses each week. When there are fewer residents, boys who are interested can have more sessions.

Dix works with four boys at a time, each with his own horse. The boys at Morning Star come from foster care and permanent families, both birth and adoptive. Currently, their time is spent developing horsemanship skills, which often serve as the springboard into life skills. Along with riding and caring for the horses, the boys sometimes have offranch field trips, like a recent one to visit a newborn foal on another ranch.

Dix says the horses make excellent therapists for the boys. "The horses and animals in general are great therapists because they're so honest and they're so pure. They don't play mind games with you, and I think kids know that," she says. Interacting with the horses can help improve interactions with people, Dix continues. Some youth at the ranch have trouble with taking nonverbal cues from people; they get extra practice with the horses, since all their communication is nonverbal. And once a boy establishes a connection with his horse, he often finds it easier to connect with people. "Especially kids that have reactive attachment disorders and have problems bonding with people--this is sort of the first step to build that bond," Dix says.

Currently, this progress is made only through horsemanship. But Dix has been working towards certification in an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) program, in a model from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Dix started working at the ranch in September, and was introduced to EAGALA in October. With 90 hours of in-session training and a first level certification completed, she hopes to implement EAP at Morning Star upon completion of final certification. "Basically you have to let go of everything you know about horsemanship--there's no riding, no horsemanship," she explains. "It's abstract, it's openended." Youth watch the horses' behavior, and are asked if anyone in their lives acts in a similar way--aggressively, or overly friendly, etc. "Almost immediately they'll come up with a name," Dix says, adding that youth "project their lives onto these horses."

A boy at Morning Star Boys Ranch takes time to get to know his horse.

Even without the technical therapy of EAP, Dix has seen plenty of improvement with the boys at Morning Star. "Just recently we had a boy come here... he was adopted from Sudan, and he was terrified of animals, didn't want to come near them," Dix says. After being introduced to the program, however, the boy wanted to ride on his first day. "He actually said to me in his own words yesterday that he's building a bond with the horse--this is from a 12-year-old boy," she continues, explaining that the boy was brushing his horse, but a different horse started acting aggressively and bothered the boy. "His own horse, that he was brushing, pinned his ears," Dix says, signaling the other horse to back away, which it did. Dix says the boy told her, "He was helping me out, we're building a bond." She was amazed to hear such a statement from a young boy after only a few weeks of equine experience.

She also recalls a day a horse got out of its pasture. "I was actually dealing with some of these boys who had run away," she says, and asked them what they thought should be done. "They were devising plans to provide more structure to this horse," not realizing they were thinking just like the parents and caregivers in their own lives, Dix explains. That happens frequently, she says. "I think it comes up on them unaware. And then we'll talk about it, and I'll give them a smile, and they'll say, 'Oh, I see where you're going with this.' There's that 'oh!' moment."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

Focus on Education

A Texas program is aiding judges to make the best placement decisions for foster children with a focus on their educational experiences. Since its establishment by the Texas Supreme Court in 2007, the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth, and Families has gathered interested parties to recommend better placement options--except the educational system was not represented. Facing statistics from the American Bar Association that a foster child loses one year of educational growth with every four changes in placement, the Court has established a new committee under the commission with the goal of eliminating the barriers between children in care and a good education.

A Transitional Family

Mary's House in Escondido, California, is a family-style transitional housing setting for young women in San Diego County. Six girls at a time live in the house in a semi-supervised setting after aging out of foster care; they do chores, buy groceries, make meals, and work towards the goals they've set up for themselves. The YMCA of San Diego County runs the house, and the county refers potential residents. The program began in 2003 and has housed about 50 girls, who on average stay for about a year. Private funds supported the house for five years, but it currently receives state funding.

Watching for Abuse

Employees of Memphis Light, Gas, and Water recently added a new responsibility to their jobs: watching for signs of child abuse. A local news station arranged training from the Memphis Child Advocacy Center after two young siblings left home alone died in a house fire. After reporting the story, the station set up a child abuse hotline and a cable technician called to report suspected abuse at a home he'd visited. Around 200 field technicians with the utility company visit 20-25 homes each day, and now they are trained to spot signs of abuse and neglect. The company hopes to do an annual refresher course.

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