AURORA | Tyrell Thomas is in it for the toys.
“Miss Kristen brings me books, toys and Legos … and Play-Doh,” Tyrell, 5, says, while zipping around his home on East Ford Circle in Aurora. “We made lemon-lime Play-Doh.”
Those are just a few of the treats Kristen Boss, a SafeCare home visitor with the Arapahoe County Early Childhood Council, has brought Tyrell and his 8-year-old brother, Tyree, for their participation in SafeCare, an in-home parent support service for parents and guardians struggling to wrangle behaviorally demanding children.
But what the program has provided the boys’ great aunt and guardian, Donna King, has been much more valuable than a few plastic trinkets.
King enrolled in SafeCare nearly 18 months ago, which was when she lamented her struggles with the boys’ behavior to a social worker at a local Kaiser Permanente clinic. She said that she was at her wit’s end after singlehandedly raising the brothers for about three years while working full-time at Parent Pathway, a counseling service for parents of teens addicted to drugs or alcohol in Denver.
The demands of work, child-rearing and a constant need to bring the boys to appointments at Children’s Hospital Colorado and Aurora Mental Health caused King to lose her job and live off her Social Security payments.
King agreed to take custody of the brothers years prior at the behest of their attorney, who had reached out to family members who might be capable of taking the boys out of foster care. Their parents were out of the picture.
“Kristen came at the right time,” King said.
On top of partaking in the expected brotherly quarrels and climbing just about anything he can wrap his hands around, Tyrell suffers from pica disorder, causing him to eat garbage out of trash receptacles and off the floor.
“He runs all day long — it’s non-stop talking and non-stop running with that one,” King said. “I’m scared that if I get a job I might lose it because I still have a lot of appointments for (Tyrell) and when they say, ‘Take him to Children’s,’ I’m going to take him … because Lord knows he needs all the help he can get. I really am struggling.”
Through a series of in-home visits over the course of roughly six months, Boss helped child-proof King’s home with cabinet locks, outlet plugs and gates to corral the rambunctious brothers. She also walked King through pamphlets of pediatric health care information and alternative parenting techniques.
“We come in and we focus on health, safety and interactions and dealing with those challenging behaviors,” Boss said. “I’ve seen such a great improvement in the interactions Donna has with Tyrell.”
Funded in Colorado through the Department of Human Services Office of Early Childhood, SafeCare is now available to families, free of charge, in 39 counties and a pair of Native American reservations across the state, according to the CDHS website. The Department of Human Services works with the Kempe Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics on the Anschutz Medical Campus to facilitate the program.
More than 4,000 families have participated in the program since it began in the state in January 2014, with about 130 families in Arapahoe County using the program each year, according to CDHS.
The program was founded by researchers at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.
King, like a lot of SafeCare participants, was at first hesitant to act on Boss’ recommendations, as she was already well-versed in parenting after raising her own children, Nicole and Tracy, who also live with her, and grandchildren.
“When I first met Kristen, I thought that because I raised my own kids, worked with children and helped counsel kids through my work, I knew how to take care of kids,” she said. “But I learned a lot, I really did.”
SafeCare is essentially available to any families with children under 5, although home visitors do look for certain characteristics that would make a family a good fit for the program, according to Boss. She said that the Early Childhood Council gets the majority of its referrals for the program from the Department of Human Services Child Welfare division, local nonprofits such as Developmental Pathways and word of mouth.
Boss added that though many families can be iffy about jumping into the program, the results can be profound.
“People can be hesitant,” she said. “What we really stress with families when we are coming in and talking with them is to let them know that what they’re doing is not wrong, we’re just here to make it better.”
King, who still meets with Boss on a semi-regular basis even though her official time with the program has ended, said that she would recommend all parents to at least meet with a SafeCare home visitor like Boss. She added that if it were not for the program, she would likely be living with the boys in a local shelter.
“I’d be in a shelter somewhere, really,” she said. “After I lost my job I was really just down. I am so thankful. (Kristen) has helped me out so much.”