By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor
Grace Akers worked with abused, battered and neglected children for two-dozen years when she was with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
And during her years there, she came to be familiar with the work of St. Joseph Children’s Home, how that once-upon-a-time orphanage had become successful in placing children with those very same issues into foster homes or, in some cases, back with families who have conquered their demons — addiction, PTSD, whatever.
So when she became aware of an opening for the executive director at St. Joseph’s, she thought it would be a natural fit.
“I received an invitation to interview and knowing that I loved what I did, and that I’d continue working in child welfare, I took the chance,” she said in a recent interview at the Frankfort Avenue facility.
Now she’s glad she did.
Akers officially retired from her state job on July 31 and began her new position at St. Joseph’s the very next day. In other words, she hit the ground running.
The former orphans’ home now provides three services for children. There’s the residential program that can house as many as 40 abused or neglected children ages six to 13 — “Some of the worst cases, most horrific cases you can imagine,” Akers noted. “In fact, most of the children referred here come to us directly from a hospital psychiatric program.”
It also has the St. Joseph Child Development Center, a day-care program that now serves 90 children. And its foster care program currently has 34 children placed with foster parents who have gone through a rigorous training program to qualify.
“When I was with the state, I knew the things that St. Joseph’s does really well,” Akers explained. “The residential program is tremendous and is staffed by tremendously dedicated people. The success of the foster care program is known by people throughout the state who work in this field.”
The success of the residential program, both Akers and St. Joseph Development Director Andrea Pridham noted, has come despite functioning in antiquated facilities. The 40 children now residing there live on the second floor of the building that was constructed in 1885.
“That’s why we’re building the cottages,” Akers said.
The cottages — there will be four of them just to the rear of the current building — will eventually house eight children and be staffed around the clock by social work professionals trained to deal with the children sent to St. Joseph’s.
“We have five masters-level social workers here,” Akers noted, “and we provide what in our profession is called ‘trauma-informed care.’ It’s intended to help the child come to terms with the trauma they’ve faced and so they need a truly caring care-giver, someone they can come to trust, someone who is there for them.”
By the time children are placed at the home, the parental rights of the parents have already been severed. So it becomes the job — the caring job — of the home’s staff to help the child recover from the nightmare they have lived through and be placed in either a foster home or returned to their parent or parents, if it can be accomplished safely.
In many instances, as Akers noted earlier, the best choice for the child is to return home.
“That’s what they want in the vast majority of cases; that’s what they hope for,” Akers said. So what’s best for the child after their time at St. Joseph often turns out to be a reunion with a parent — “sometimes it’s a parent who has faced generations of abuse in their own family,” she said.
But when the parent has sought help, been treated and recovered from their addiction or other problems, or when the offending parent has been removed from the home and the St. Joseph staff knows that the remaining parent can care for and protect the child, then the child is returned to “their home of origin.”
“It’s not always possible, but it is the preferred result,” Akers said.
Finding whatever is best for the child “is why I’m here,” she explained. “If we do our job right, the best result is for the child to be placed with their family. It’s a tall order.”
And when the child can’t be returned home, that’s when St. Joseph’s foster care program becomes so important. “The families who want to become foster parents go through a 10-week training class,” Akers explained. “And they are taught ways of dealing with the behavior of the children we serve.”
For the child who has faced a difficult home life, to put it mildly, change “is often terrifying for them, and their behavior can be all over the place,” said Akers. Their most difficult time of the day, she said, is usually from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. — they’ve returned from school and are facing the time when most families are sitting down to dinner.
“So our foster families learn about that; we teach them to engage the child in family-like activities,” she said. “We want them to take the child to the grocery, for instance, to engage them in an eating plan — let them eat by themselves on a TV tray, for instance, if that makes the child less tense at first.”
Having that bit of privacy is one of the things that makes the new St. Joseph cottages so important, Akers and Pridham both said. “Everyone will have their own room, and there’ll be staff 24/7 like the upstairs is now,” Pridham said.
And, though construction just began this summer, the goal is to have children in the new buildings before the next St. Joseph Orphans’ Home picnic in August.