WATCH fights for sexual abuse victims

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 301 views 

Paula Riggs remembers carefully laying out the plastic across her car seats. It was a day about 15 years earlier when she agreed to transport a 14-year old girl in therapeutic foster care to Waldron for a family visit.

While most 14-year old girls were hanging out with their friends at Central Mall or holding hands at Friday night football games with their first boyfriends, the teenager riding in Riggs’ back seat was wearing a diaper.

Riggs remembers the child as “passive” and “easy to get along with,” but she also remembers how no average foster family could care for her because the girl had two afflictions most of the other children her age had already overcome.

Enuresis and encopresis, or urinary and fecal incontinence, were the child’s realities, brought on by “severe sexual abuse” from one of the men her mother had brought in to her life.

“It wasn’t a dad, who did this to her. Just someone, who’d cycled through,” said Riggs, who works at Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center in Fort Smith and helped initiate the WATCH Program, now in its 23rd year.

WATCH, or Western Arkansas Therapeutic Children’s Homes, has specialized in providing family care to children “when their own families are unable or unwilling to care for them,” Riggs said.

Children in the program experience emotional and behavioral problems that prove too substantial for the average foster home. The program has eight children and 10 therapeutic foster families, but receives “20 to 30 referrals from the state each month,” Riggs said.

Considering that most therapeutic foster homes are only capable of managing one child at a time, supply is not close to keeping up with demand. But Riggs and fellow team member Rusti Hice, a Licensed Psychological Examiner-Independent with more than 17 years of experience in the field, aren’t looking for just anyone to help with the problem.

Both women work closely with the program and understand the unique and varying emotional needs of the children involved. They are also aware WATCH isn’t for everyone.

“I think there does have to be more of an understanding of the breadth of it all, and that you just have to put forth the effort,” Hice said. “It’s a leap of faith, so to speak, but it all goes towards a process of better good. Still, there will be times when you’re not going to see the difference. You’re not going to be the one, who sees that change in them. We do want to build the program and recruit other therapeutic foster families. We just have to get the word out there, and be very honest about the challenges.”

Hice continued: “Children are in need of a therapeutic foster family in order to maximize their potentials for a successful and quality life, and I think it’s best for people to have as much of an understanding as they possibly can at the onset of what they may encounter.”

And from the professional perspective, a therapeutic foster family could encounter plenty.

Riggs points out one example where a child in the program tried to burn down his foster family’s home three times. Today, the “child” is grown and in jail, but “still keeps in touch with the family,” who continued to support him throughout the ordeal.

Another child is receiving treatment in a psychiatric hospital because he “became aggressive towards the foster family,” Riggs said.

Hice and Riggs will be the first to admit how challenging the job is — and it is a job, Riggs emphasizes.

According to Riggs, therapeutic foster families receive money to cover the child’s care and expenses along with a “salary” that could be anywhere from “$800 to $1,200” per month, per child, depending on experience.

The job responsibilities include “keeping notes every day on any kind of issues they experience with the child. If there are any incident reports, they have to fill out paperwork on that, and document all their doctors’ and dentists’ and therapists’ appointments.”

Homes are also subject to a check from WATCH “every 90 days” as well as an annual review by the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Riggs knows it’s a lot of work. In fact, she knows it better than anyone. After helping start the program in July 1989, she worked within the system for more than 10 years before taking a break due to “burnout.”

She rejoined the program in May.

“I missed it, and I’m glad I’m back in it. I like working with the kids,” she said.

Burnout is an understandable phenomenon within the program, according to Hice, who believes that Riggs’ experience “makes her so relatable with the people she is helping. When they get to a point that they are worn out and facing challenges, she really can relate and communicate to them and recognize their needs, teaching them to take care of themselves and to know their limits. I think that’s helpful.”

Some of those needs include respite care, which is made possible by the close contact therapeutic foster families keep with one another.

Hice continued: “Respite care allows many of the families a break until they can get their reserves built back up. These families are very cohesive. All these parents are in the trenches together. They’re all one big extended family, and know each of the foster children in the other homes. They stay in touch.”

Hice refers to Riggs as “an encyclopedia” for the database of cases that her co-worker keeps on-file in her head, and lightly chastises her for pointing out that her education level is “just a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Tech University.”

“Yes, just a bachelor’s degree and more than 20 years of hands-on experience,” Hice says.

No matter what credential Riggs has hanging in her office, the care she demonstrates toward children is obvious. Riggs has adopted three as her own, and is raising what she refers to as “an adopted granddaughter,” whose parent she had previously adopted.

Riggs explains that her adopted granddaughter’s mom “isn’t doing that well as a mother.”

“I’ve been raising the child, and she (the mother) comes around and decides she wants to be a mother for four or five months, then takes off again.”

In addition to taking care of the adopted granddaughter, Riggs also helps her brother take care of his five children.

Though Hice has not adopted any of the children from the WATCH program, she works closely with them, and is a mother to four of her own, plus one stepson.

Both women admit that it’s “hard not to take it home with you.”

Riggs catches herself psychoanalyzing the children under her own roof, and Hice tries to rely on her team members.

“But you can’t help but be impacted when you see a child’s life destroyed, and so damaged. I think we would be inhuman if it didn’t affect us on some level. But that’s what keeps us doing what we do: to feel like you make some difference on some level.”

And while the differences are not always there, it’s worth it to both women when they are.

Riggs proudly boasts of a child, who is now happily married with a “job and a nine-year old child of her own,” and another “who lives in Florida with her two children and husband and sends me Christmas cards every year.”

“There are similar stories from parents, who’ve helped a number of these children,” Hice adds. “It’s always so meaningful and powerful when they hear back from them. If you can touch just one child like this, it makes it all worthwhile.”