By Anne Stanton
While most single women in their 20s are playing the dating game and
exploring the night life, Sara Caldwell took a different route. She
welcomed her one-year-old cousin, Cory, into her home as a foster
child and kissed her social life good-bye.
Overnight, her life revolved around nursing the sick toddler back to
health. Hospitalized as a baby for pneumonia and asthma, he still
heavily wheezed at night. When breathing attacks threatened
suffocation, shed rush him to the emergency room. She has two words
for that first year: sleep deprivation.
My life became pretty limited. I went down to three days of work (she
worked as a nurse at Munson), and Cory and I stayed home. My sisters
would help out so I could get groceries because taking Cory out in
public was not an easy task. When he first came to me, oh my goodness,
he was so sick. His poor hair was scraggly, he was so malnourished. I
didnt think that boy would ever have normal hair.
Cory was sick, in part, because his birth parents had exposed him and
his brother to the truck exhaust by putting him in a second-hand car
seat strapped into a pick-up truck bed with a bungee cord. It took a
nasty toll on their lungs, Sara said.
Sara adopted Cory when he was 2 1/2, and has since adopted two
othersRaven, 7, and her half-brother Gabe, 3. Shes also the legal
guardian for Tosha, a 17-year-old from Elk Rapids.
Caldwell has decided to take another step. She will be one of the
first families to accept an assignment from a Child and Family
Services program called Treatment Foster Care. This program helps
adolescents, ages 12 to 17, who are on court-ordered probation or are
either on their way or returning from out-of-town residential care to
get help for emotional problems. This program gives them a chance to
stay in their hometown.
Fortunately, Caldwell, 30, now has a partner by her side. Two and a
half years ago, she married Alan Caldwell, her neighbor in Suttons
Bay (they have since moved to a tidy home in Cedar). A Grand Traverse
County Sheriffs deputy, who has four adult children, Alan jokingly
calls himself Saras backbone.
The Treatment Foster Care program builds upon an existing program by
the same name. Under the old program, the foster teen would receive
additional visits from a treatment foster care social worker.
Now the troubled teen will move in with a specially trained foster
family from 90 days to twelve months, with a goal of returning home.
Each week, the teen will meet with all the people involved his or her
lifeparents, treatment foster parents, relatives and friends, as
well as teachers, counselors, the probation officer, the treatment
foster care worker, and court personnel, said Joseph Sanok, foster
The philosophy is that the teen accepts and takes control of their
life. When the teen hits certain goals, she or he is allowed to
The childs environment wont magically change, so we want the
meetings to continue even after they return home, Sanok said.
The program will accept referrals from Leelanau, Grand Traverse and
Mason counties. The foster family will receive a stipend about double
that of traditional foster care pay.
Treatment foster parents will receive 30 hours over twelve weeks of
specialized training that will instruct them on how to teach the teen
to replace negative with positive behaviors. Homes will also be
screened and licensed. The program, which has already recruited six
families, urgently needs six more families with the experience or
aptitude of caring for deeply troubled teens.
It might seem like an overwhelming challenge, but Sara and Alan said
their faith gives the family purpose and a sense of calm. They pray
together each morning, and the kids are often reminded of Bible
phrases, such as, A soft answer turns away wrath.
I think, growing up, I knew this is what God wanted me to do. I feel
very, very blessed. Youre here for a reason. When you touch someone
elses life, it touches your own life. You pay it forward.
The Caldwells have a chore board, and the family stands by it. We
emphasize Team Caldwell, she said.
Even so, she doesnt want to be seen as a perfect family.
There are fights, tantrums, and kids threatening to run away. One teen
girl, too troubled to cope, went to the hospital for psychiatric
Weve taken in kids who fully expect that were perfect and get upset
when we mess up. I tell them, we are a real family and real families
arent perfect, she said.
Sara and Al also expect their kids to act like real kids: We once got
to Avalanche Bay, it was 8 p.m., and we had a snack at Pizza Hut.
Everything was set against us. The kids were tired; I knew anything
would make them explode. And nothing happened. I thought, We can eat
in a restaurant! Were getting there. You put your time in, and you
Editors note: If youre interested in becoming a treatment foster
care parent, please email Joseph Sanok at email@example.com.