The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed

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Kaleidoscope, Inc.

Persistence That Builds Stronger Families

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Insisting that there are few lost causes, Kaleidoscope, Inc. prides itself on assembling comprehensive service packages designed to help families and children in even the most daunting circumstances. Where others may retreat, Kaleidoscope persists in providing supports that knit families together.

"One thing that distinguishes Kaleidoscope is its operating philosophy-'no reject, no eject'." says Dr. Ira Lourie, a child psychiatrist and former head of the federally funded Child and Adolescent Service System Program who first worked with Kaleidoscope in 1983.

"They never give up on a kid or a family, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Another distinction is (executive director) Karl Dennis's role as the father and voice of 'wraparound' policy," Lourie adds. The "wraparound" concept entails providing in one package all services appropriate to a specific situation, rather than slicing and dicing duties among different providers. In the case of Kaleidoscope, it also involves availability of staffers at all times for crisis intervention designed to keep families functioning. text

Kaleidoscope lore, since its founding in 1973, is rich with accounts of persistence making the critical difference in changing behaviors that seem intractable. One teenage boy who had been through 16 placements-repeatedly put out because of aggressive behavior-was referred to Kaleidoscope as a last resort. The youngster then promptly started a fire that damaged Kaleidoscope's headquarters. But Kaleidoscope refused to give up on him. Another teenager for six years had bounced from one psychiatric facility to another in several states before she returned to Illinois at the age of 18. Placement in a hospital in her home state failed because of her continued hostility.

So Kaleidoscope found her an apartment, where for three years staffers provided psychological counseling, vocational guidance, assistance with household expenses, and companionship. This was a classic example of the "wraparound" approach-multiple services, designed to fit the strengths of the individual, outside an institutional setting. During the three years this young woman was with Kaleidoscope, it became clear that she had talent in drawing. She was encouraged to develop that aptitude. Today she supports herself as an artist. She also serves on the national advisory board of a group that assists children and families.

Most of the 500 people helped by Kaleidoscope's 115 staffers at any given time are in families, and it strives both to keep them together and to address all of a family's problems simultaneously. Whether the issue is substance abuse, mental illness, AIDS, or tangles with the law, Dennis argues, "We need to support the entire family. For example, the traditional juvenile justice model removes children from their homes and families, 'treats' them, and then returns them to an environment unchanged since they left. Failure to take a child's context into account leads to high recidivism rates."

Conventional approaches usually focus on a client's most obvious weaknesses. Kaleidoscope attempts to discover strengths, either in an individual or a family, on which to build a better future. Sometimes that amounts to nothing more than showing friendly concern and assisting in mundane tasks. Years after one client had completed treatment at Kaleidoscope, her steady job was in danger because she could not cope with difficult logistics. So a Kaleidoscope staffer drove her to work for five months.

In other cases, the quest for assets on which to build is more elaborate. A single mother of five young children was a dutiful, caring parent, except during periods of mental instability, when she suffered hallucinations. One option was to place the children in foster homes indefinitely. Instead, Kaleidoscope chose to capitalize on the family's strength-the loving relationship between mother and kids-by providing comprehensive services in their home for five years. Eventually, the mother's condition stabilized. And the children had escaped separation. Rather than abandon a loving, but troubled family relationship, Kaleidoscope went the extra mile to make the family as strong as possible.

The practice of providing innovative and often long-term services-particularly to the hardest cases-poses a huge challenge. Dennis observes that current trends in government policy have the effect of discouraging caring for children in their homes. The fact that most of Kaleidoscope's funds come from government sources with strings attached inhibits flexibility. Ironically, foster care placements or institutionalization usually cost more money than supplying services in the home.

Assistance from organizations such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation is especially valuable to a group with Kaleidoscope's philosophy because it provides "flex-dollars." For social workers willing to follow up with clients years after the official connection has ended, or to supply a quick loan when a family faces a sudden emergency, such discretion is critical.