Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Dad who doesn’t have to be

Colton stay-at-home dad is ideal role model for troubled teen boys in foster care.

(COLTON, Calif.) Teenage boys can prove to be the most difficult to place in foster care. Unfortunately, they are the ones who often need the most help.

That’s where Ritchie Howard of Colton comes in. The 56-year-old grandfather is the uncommon stay-at-home dad for children in foster care in San Bernardino County. Often, he is called upon by the agency he works with – Knotts Family and Parenting Institute – to care for teenage boys who are temporarily removed from their home due to parental abuse or neglect. Though not always, some come with emotional and behavioral challenges that are compounded by having changed homes, schools, neighborhoods and routines numerous times.

The institute sees Howard as a role model for teens, many of whom come from households with absent fathers. The need for male foster parents is on the rise. The need is also urgent because males can serve as role models and mentors for teenage boys as they enter adolescence.

“One of the most critical roles a foster father can provide is assisting a teenage boy in role identity as well as being an inspiration for future endeavors,” said Dr. Lewis King, training and program director for Knotts Family and Parenting Institute in San Bernardino.

“That doesn’t mean a mother can’t be a role model for a teenage boy,” said Dr. King, who is also a psychiatry professor at UCLA. “But her challenges are more difficult. Situations in which there are two parents in a foster care home are ideal, since they can provide extra resources by assisting each other in parenting a teen.”

“You just have to have more resources in the household,” Dr. King said. “When we identify and train foster parents, our task is to lend complete support. Our social workers frequently check on the families and intervene if there are problems. Still, one parent can get overwhelmed by the responsibility.”

It was his wife’s idea for Howard to become a foster care parent in 2005. Howard, an adult and adolescent mental health worker with five biological children, went along with the plan.

He and Christina joined the cadre of specially trained foster parents at Knotts, and received three children through the agency right away. Christina is a licensed vocational nurse at Patton State Hospital and had complications in her hours for work.

This meant the primary parenting fell to Howard. He reduced his hours at Canyon Ridge Hospital in Chino to care for the children. So far, 14 children who have since come through their home, some for a few days, others for as long as 18 months. The family plans to adopt at least one of them.

Howard wants to make it clear the family task was sometimes tough, but extraordinarily rewarding. Teenage boys can be especially headstrong and disrespectful, he said.

One 14-year-old boy arrived at his house wearing gang colors. Howard immediately put a stop to that.

“The boy needed a man to care about him and guide him. He had no father that he knew. He was trying to fill this void with gangs and it’s impossible.” He also liked to fight and he picked on other boys in Howard’s house. “You have to have a lot of patience to deal with them. You’ve got to show them tough love. With love and support the turn around is marvelous.”

Knotts Family and Parenting Institute provides Howard with support and resources through weekly visits from a social worker and monthly meetings that involve the other parents. The institute provides counseling, referrals, tutoring and weekend activities for the children. “They do everything they can to enlighten you on foster care for teens and managing combative behavior,” Howard said.

The Knotts Family and Parenting Institute is all too aware of how critical it is to involve fathers such as Howard in foster parenting. He is one of 30 fathers who have worked with the Knotts Family and Parenting Institute over the past five years, compared to 400 mothers, many of whom run single parent households. The under-representation of dads in foster families mirrors American society, where fathers are absent in the lives of one in three children.

In keeping with this, the Institute has specific training programs geared toward fathers in two-parent homes. Very few foster parents are single dads. One of the programs assists fathers in developing skills for life and job opportunities.

Because of teen behavioral problems, “Foster parents tend to be more interested in opening their home to younger children,” said Gwen Knotts, CEO and president of the Knotts Family and Parenting Institute. “It takes a special parent to care for teens, made more difficult (as we insist) when siblings need to be kept together,” Knotts added.

Howard has taken in as many as three siblings at once and understands firsthand the importance of keeping brothers and sisters together. The oldest of nine children, Howard grew up helping his mother care for his younger siblings while she worked nights as a certified nursing assistant. His father was a foundry worker in Los Angeles who struggled with alcoholism and died of the disease at age 57.

Double pneumonia killed Howard’s 36-year-old mother when she was pregnant with her tenth child, who also died. Sixteen-year-old Howard urged his grieving father to keep the entire family together and let him take care of his siblings.

“My dad felt overwhelmed that he couldn’t take care of all his children.” An aunt and uncle in San Bernardino took in three of his brothers and sisters, said Howard, who stayed with his father. Four other siblings entered the foster care system.

Howard grew into adulthood in the 1970s and did what he could to help his fractured family. At one point, his 15-year-old brother needed his help.

“His foster parents hit him with sticks and garden hoses,” said Howard, then a 26-year-old post office worker. He drove his Dodge van to San Bernardino to pick up his brother. “ I took him back to LA to live with me.”

Some of Howard’s siblings failed to cross successfully into adulthood. One of his brothers went to prison, another had a mental breakdown, a third died in a shooting. Howard weathered family tragedy by pursuing a career in mental health.

When he became a foster dad, Howard brought a special love and understanding to boys from troubled homes. He recalled three brothers who came into his care, ages 11, 7 and 5. This was their third foster home.

The first words out of the 11-year-old’s mouth were: “I don’t talk to strangers.” Same for the middle child: “I don’t talk to strangers,” he repeated. But the little one warmed to Howard. “I’ll talk to you,” he said.

“Since then, they called me Daddy as long as they stayed with me,” Howard said. “Their dad was in prison. For a while, we were one family.”

Since 1982 the Knotts Family and Parenting Institute has provided foster family services for the children, parents and foster parents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

For more information or to become a foster parent call the Knotts Family and Parenting Institute at (909) 880-0600.