It can be challenging, and often overwhelming, Desiree White said.
A foster parent for the last eight years, the former pediatric trauma nurse at Mary Bridge Children’s hospital told The News Tribune she knows exactly how difficult it can be to find the medical care that’s necessary when you bring a child into your home.
White has provided temporary care to medically fragile foster children and has two adopted kids, both with special needs. For parents like her, she said the struggle can lead to frantic phone calls, frustration and — in short order — burnout.
Without an obvious place to turn to for personalized medical attention for children in the foster system, White said Pierce County foster parents are often forced to piece things together, or drive to Seattle for such services, or rely on local emergency rooms when they’re in a pinch.
Meanwhile, for Pierce County’s foster children — many of whom enter the system with significant medical or behavioral health issues and histories of trauma — White said the lack of readily available services can carry an even steeper price, contributing to challenges that can last a lifetime.
That’s why White — who now works as an advanced registered nurse practitioner for Community Health Care — knew something had to be done. In a county with nearly 1,300 foster children, she was certain that a pediatric clinic designed specifically for kids in foster care would fill a critical need in our community.
So last month, on Hilltop, she opened one.
On Oct. 19, Community Healthcare Regional Health Center officially transformed an old radiology clinic on the building’s floor into the only clinic in the area that offers medical, dental and behavioral health care specifically for foster children and their families.
White championed the idea from the beginning, and for the last several weeks now has led a small staff at the clinic, serving as its lead primary care.
“One of the things that I recognized as an adoptive parent is that there were no resources available for me and my kids in the way that we needed them. And if I couldn’t navigate the healthcare system for my kids, and I’m in healthcare, how in the world do we expect families who are not in healthcare to do it,” White said from one of the new clinic’s exam rooms.
“It started with a conversation of ‘What if? What if I’m not the only one that can’t navigate the healthcare system? What if we, as a healthcare system, could impact the crisis of foster care in our community in a way that nobody else was impacting’?” she said.
It’s a conversation — or, rather, multiple conversations — that Community Health Chief Medical Officer Jeff Smith remembers well.
Smith acknowledged he was surprised when he learned about the lack of existing foster care-specific medical resources in Pierce County, particularly because the medical community is becoming increasingly aware of the impact trauma and adverse childhood experiences can have on a range of health outcomes, from depression and drug dependency to cancer, diabetes and asthma.
Smith said the clinic is unique in offering a “full spectrum” of medical care to foster children that’s mindful of the trauma they have undoubtedly experienced, right down to the design, which includes exam rooms that look more like play rooms.
This attention to recognizing and treating trauma is important when serving Washington foster children, according to Ross Hunter, secretary of the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families.
“Children who come into our care have often experienced extreme levels of trauma,” Hunter said, noting that “these kids need medical care that’s informed by science and research about the impacts” of these experiences.
On Thursday, Smith said he was enthusiastic about the potential of opening a specialized clinic because it was clear it would fill a huge void that was being ignored.
Smith also said the clinic aligns with Community Health’s long primary objective of helping under-served children in the area.
“When Desiree came to me with this idea, it was borne out of her own personal experience,” Smith said. “I think it was something that nobody had ever shone a light on. … So when she brought it to my attention and said, ‘What about this?’ it was like, ‘Well, yeah, let’s do it.’”
Erika Thompson, a Pierce County foster parent since 2008 who, with her husband, Brent, have provided a temporary home for more than 100 children during that time, said she hopes the new clinic will “help to alleviate the stress for caregivers” and “get the children the services they need as quickly as possible.”
Thompson also serves as the director of the Wishing Well Foundation, a nonprofit that helps to clothe more than a thousand foster children every year. Like White, she said that her experiences have made her well aware of the challenges local foster kids face and the toll it can take on families.
Finding a pediatrician, sometimes on short notice, can be “challenging,” Thompson explained, even for the health screenings and well-child checkups that are required in the days and weeks following a foster placement.
Ashley Harris, who works as the child welfare program manager at Comprehensive Life Resources, agreed.
Given the number of Pierce County children in the state foster care system — and the long-standing need for more foster parents — Harris said that any resource that makes it easier for a family to step up and house a child in need is a welcome addition to the community.
“When I think about prior to this, I just think about foster parents who are getting kids in the middle of the night, or basically with no information,” Smith said. “There’s such a huge lack of foster parents; we need so many more. Any service that’s going to support people who want to take children in their homes, and make that easier and healthier is essential.”
With her vision coming to fruition, White said she’s optimistic about what the small clinic on Hilltop will ultimately be able to accomplish.
She looks forward to a day when more foster kids in Pierce County are getting the medical care they deserve, and foster parents know they have a nearby resource they can trust when they need it.
The work is a passion, White said, inspired by a sense of obligation.
“I think we have a responsibility as adults, as professionals, as a community to do better by our kids,” White explained.
“We can do better. And as a healthcare provider, that’s what my role is.