Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Home Within connects foster youth with volunteer therapists

Jefferson Award: Presented to Toni Heineman
Moody, Shelah. San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 24, 2008
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When Toni Heineman, a clinical professor in the pediatrics and psychiatry department at UCSF, realized that foster children in the Bay Area were not getting the mental health services they needed, she took action.

In 1994, Heineman founded a nonprofit called A Home Within, which connects foster youth with volunteer therapists in communities across the country.

"All of these children have been traumatized in some way," Heineman said. "Mostly, they come into the foster care system because they've been neglected, but they've been removed from their families - and that in and of itself is a trauma. Often, they've been removed from their families repeatedly as they go from one foster home to another. Everybody tries to make it stable, but it's really hard. It's often very difficult for them to trust people, because they have not had much experience with people actually being there day after day."

During her years of study, Heineman noticed that foster children had limited access to counseling and psychotherapy because they didn't have consistent parental care and their families didn't have much money.

"A lot of us see foster kids when we're in training as interns or residents," she said. "It's an interest that grew over time - it wasn't a sudden 'aha' moment."

After receiving a doctorate in mental health, Heineman became a licensed clinical psychologist and went into private practice in San Francisco. She chose to focus on the needs of foster children and later continued her efforts by founding A Home Within, of which she is executive director.

More than 300 therapists in chapters across the country volunteer to work with foster youths in cities including San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and Washington. Each chapter is maintained by a clinical director who organizes the efforts of volunteer therapists and consultants.

"The concept is very simple," Heineman said. "We ask senior clinicians in the community to offer their time pro bono to lead consultation groups. For the therapists who (work with us), each of them agree to take just one child weekly for (free) psychotherapy and to work with the kid in the same way they would if the child's parents were able to pay. In other words, they work until the work is done, not because of policy changes or funding cuts or all of the other things that go along with being part of a public system.

"We're really saying that the private sector is available to help; we are part of the system, too, and we should be helping out the public system that is charged with the care of foster kids. This is one small contribution that we can make."

Heineman, who has two adult children, said she feels privileged that her young clients are willing to share their stories with her. Her motivation is to help foster children lead happy, healthy lives.
An unusual aspect of A Home Within is that its therapists and counselors continue to work with foster children after they are emancipated at age 18.

"What we are finding is that these young adults who are emancipating from the system, who for years as teenagers said that they did not want any therapy, are coming back, calling and asking to have therapy," Heineman said.

She said that her long-term goal is to make A Home Within's services available to all foster children.

"Every single child needs one stable, caring adult in their lives in order to thrive," Heineman said, "whether it's a therapist, who can help the child form better, healthier relationships with other people, or a biological parent, a caregiver or an adoptive parent."

For more information about A Home Within, go to www.ahomewithin.org

Each week, The Chronicle features a Bay Area resident who has won a Jefferson Award for making a difference in his or her community. The awards are administered by the American Institute for Public Service, a national foundation that honors community service. Bay Area residents profiled in The Chronicle are also featured on CBS5-TV and KCBS-AM, which are Jefferson Award media partners, along with The Chronicle.

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