Newswise — Families who provide care though New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) to the approximately 6,000 children separated from their biological parents face unique challenges. Stress resulting from separation and loss, medical conditions, changes in household dynamics, ever-changing schedules and struggles with relationship building can affect the entire family.

To help ease the mental health burden of resource families, the Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC) Call Center and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families have launched the Resilience for Resource Families Peer Support Program to provide an empathetic ear and guidance for foster, kinship and adoptive families.

By calling the confidential helpline (844-747-6407), resource families can speak to a peer counselor – an experienced resource family parent or former DCP&P employee trained in UBHC’s nationally renowned “Reciprocal Peer Support” model – who can help alleviate the emotional burden that accompanies caring for children who are separated from their parents. They will also receive assistance, such as care assessments with licensed clinicians; invitations to resilience-building events; crisis intervention; and connections to a vetted network of statewide resources. Parents struggling with vicarious trauma or caregiver burnout may be referred to a licensed clinical professional or a network of therapists. Callers will receive follow-up contact from peer counselors for as long as they need.

“We say this helpline is ‘Committed to Support’ resource families,” says Cherie Castellano, who directs the program at UBHC. “These parents struggle with the paradox of having responsibility for a child’s care but little control over the outcomes.”

Starting in June, program staff will begin calling the approximately 4,000 active resource families to educate them about the program. 

“Our mission is to help families succeed and enjoy happy and healthy futures,” says Allison Blake, New Jersey Department of Children and Families commissioner. “That means taking care of parents as well as children. This helpline will help strengthen resource homes by giving these caring parents a place to turn when feeling overwhelmed.” 

Peer counselor Phyllis DiNardi of Manalapan, who has been a foster parent to 48 children over six years, understands how stressors – such as lack of communication and scheduling issues – can quickly erode the fortitude of even the most dedicated resource parent. Then, there’s the emotional toll. “It’s a big loss when children leave your home – whether they have been with you a few years, months or even just weeks,” she says.

Families as a whole need support, says program volunteer Patti Franchino, who has been a resource parent to six children over seven years. “When you take a child into your home, you never fully know their backgrounds and you sometimes experience tension from the biological family,” says the Roseland mother of two adopted children who has legal guardianship of a third. “You love these children and make them feel a part of your family for the period of time they are with you, but that puts a lot on your own children who form bonds with people who eventually will leave.”

Franchino and DiNardi consider themselves fortunate: They have spouses, family members and other resource families to turn to when times get tough. They decided to work for the program because they realize others might not have the same system of support. “Sometimes you feel like you can’t do this anymore,” says DiNardi. “But after talking with someone who understands and getting it off your chest, you acquire the strength to put all that stuff aside and remember that you are doing this for the children.”