Getting Back On Track Indian Trails Foster Homes Turn Rebellious Girls Into Young Ladies
At 16, Sanya Wright was every parent’s nightmare.
Belligerent and uncontrollable, she hung out with a dangerous crowd, dated a guy who ruled her every move and repeatedly ran away from home.
Sanya was heading toward self-destruction and taking her family down with her.
Last Father’s Day she boarded a plane with her dad in New Jersey. She wasn’t told where she was going, only to pack enough clothes for seven days. When she landed, she was in Spokane and on her way to Indian Trails, a foster home for girls.
“I was upset,” said Sanya. “I put a lot of guilt trips on my parents about leaving me here.”
Sanya was angry when she arrived, said house-mother Marge Paxton, but she wasn’t as bad as some. Screaming “I hate my parents!” is a common curse from girls arriving at the home.
“They aren’t supposed to like it here,” said Paxton. “This isn’t a resort, it’s a workplace.”
It took weeks, but Sanya finally settled into the program, located in the Indian Trail neighborhood.
She worked at improving her attitude, learning respect, finishing her chores and cleaning her room.
Each of the eight girls at the Indian Trails homes on Osage Way and Arrowhead Court tell similar stories.
One spent time in a psychiatric unit, another almost died after mixing drugs and alcohol. Many were runaways.
The girls range in age from 12 to 18. They attend Mount St. Michael’s Academy or North Central High School. Most will remain in the $2,000-a-month program for a year to 18 months.
The goal is to return young ladies to their families.
“We’ve been doing it for 16 years,” said Jeanne Young, who runs the homes, under the non-profit organization Kids Education and Kare.
Young credits the program’s success to a strong support group that includes house mothers, counselors, doctors, a dedicated board of directors and an after-school tutor.
The homes are licensed by the state as foster homes and have never had problems maintaining their license, said Dean Lynch, with the state department of licensing in Spokane.
Over the years a few concerns have been reported, but all were “pretty standard, nothing serious,” said Lynch. “There were never any allegations of inadequate supervision.”
The homes, described in their brochure as being in an upper middle class neighborhood, are spacious, light, well-furnished and clean.
Young said the neighbors barely know they are there.
“The girls stay inside, they’re quiet, they don’t run up and down the street, and are chaperoned when they leave the house,” said Paxton.
“One winter some of the girls went out and shoveled snow off driveways for the neighbors. That was the closest contact,” said Paxton.
Kurt Wood has lived next door to the main home for two years. “They’re very quiet, you never hear anything,” he said.
The main house has seven bedrooms. A piano fills one corner of the pale pink and cream living room. An indoor swimming pool and hot tub are available for exercise and evening relaxation.
Dinners are catered. Girls take turns cleaning the kitchen. They are all responsible for keeping their rooms tidy.
The second house, which is smaller, is used to help the girls transition from the group home to returning to their own families.
Paxton, known to all the girls as “Aunt Marge,” anchors the main house. With sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks and a round face, she’s the essence of comfort. But she also commands respect and demands proper behavior from her girls.
“Aunt Marge has the neatest way of calming people down,” says one of the girls. “You just look at her and…” “She doesn’t yell, she just gives you this real disappointed look,” added another.
The girls are usually furious when they enter the program. Screaming and crying are typical reactions. Paxton is used to it.
“If they come in fighting and angry, we know we can help them,” said Paxton.
The more difficult cases are girls who come in thinking they can out-smart the program, pretend be be “changed” and go home quickly.
Either way, aggressive behavior isn’t an option.
“None of our girls are physical or violent,” said Young. “Our girls come from good homes; they are side tracked. We are here to remind them they are young ladies.”
Occasionally they slam bedroom doors in anger.
“Then we remove the door for a day,” said Young. “That stops them.”
Judy Hack is the housemother at the smaller house. She learned about the Indian Trails program when she enrolled her own daughter, Mindy.
She said the decision saved her daughter’s life.
“She was doing stupid stuff, she was mixing drugs and alcohol. I was afraid she would lose her life,” said Hack.
After months at Indian Trails, Hack had her sweet, smart daughter back. Her failing grades crept back up to honor-roll level.
To Hack, that’s the best proof the program works.
The secret, according to Young, is the structured, but loving home with a focus on family values. The heart of the program is the Token Economy System that rewards good behavior and punishes the bad.
Points are earned for finishing chores, respecting others, a positive attitude and following rules. A certain number of points guarantees privileges such as using the telephone and free-time activities like rollerskating, swimming or going out to eat.
Points and privileges can also be taken away.
Elissa Fairchild, 15, in the program almost four months, is still having trouble fitting into the new environment. Blowing up at her after-school tutor recently, on top of a generally bad attitude, cost her all her privileges.
She’s not allowed to talk to the other girls except at dinner.
Elissa, who came from California, admits the adjustment has been hard. “When I came here, I was in total despair,” she said. “I begged my parents, ‘Don’t do this, take me home.’ My parents were crying. I felt like I lost my parents forever.”
The going is slow, but Elissa said she’s learning responsibility for her behavior.
“Living with this many girls there’s no chance to get away with much,” she said.
Girls 16 and older are allowed to date. But the suitors have to be appropriate; dates are chaperoned and curfews respected.
“It’s easier to get a bank loan than a date with our girls,” said Paxton.
While the girls are at Indian Trails, the families back home are in therapy. The girls will remain on the Token Economy System when they go home.
“Everything at home will be the same, our family and our friends,” said Sanya. “We know we are going to be different.”
After almost eight months at Indian Trails, Sanya, now 17, said her outlook has changed.
“The guy I was dating was violent and obsessive,” she said. “It was really kind of freeing to be away from him.”
She relearned a joy in activities most girls her age consider normal: rollerskating, going to school dances, enjoying a movie, and even wading in a stream near the Spokane Interpretive Center searching for colorful beads dropped by Indians and fur traders long ago.
Each day she works on respecting others, respecting herself and building self-esteem.
Her goal is to leave in June. She misses her family, especially her 14-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister.
“I’d give anything to hear my brother playing that annoying music, or my little sister begging and begging me to play Barbies’ with her,” said Sanya softly.
She has developed bonds with the other girls.
“It’s hard to live with girls,” she said. “But we all have each other to lean on. It’s neat to see how close we can be.”
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