April 21, 2021, 11 a.m.

Burke County Organization Has State-Wide Impact

A Burke County foster community and child advocacy organization is celebrating the opening of its 11th Children’s Advocacy Center in North Carolina.

The Ashe County CAC began operating in March and currently operates as a satellite office of the Blue Ridge CAC in Boone. It joins centers that service Burke, McDowell and 12 other rural counties.

A Children’s Advocacy Center is a coordinated child abuse response that brings multiple agencies together under one roof to provide abuse victims with the legal, medical and therapeutic support they need.

Southmountain Children and Family Services has been a fixture in Burke County for more than 85 years. Originally founded in 1913 as the Shortoff School, the organization was a specialized school for children ages 5 to 25 who didn’t have any other access to schooling. After the influenza pandemic of 1918, the school began expanding to include group home services for children who needed a place to live. By the 1930s, it had become a group home and relocated to its present location in Burke County.

For the next six decades, South Mountain operated as a group home.

“It was very dorm-style, cafeteria-style, very institutional,” Beth Willard-Patton, community engagement specialist for Southmountain, said. “They were housed in a way that was very typical at that time. The children would dig rocks from the local river, they did laundry, they did dishes and they cut fabric squares for the furniture industry. They learned but they also worked.”

According to Patton, there was a significant push to improve the living environment at Southmountain in the ’90s. This began the transition from a group home to a foster community. The new community opened in 2003.

“It is eight houses around the corner from the old rock building,” Patton said. “We have professional parents now who live in those houses. … They have kids that live in the houses with them. It’s 24/7 care.”

Patton called the foster community a hybrid between a traditional group setting and a foster care setting, saying that it offered children the best of both models.

“This model is really cool in that you get the benefits of a true foster family — children in a home with two parents,” Beth Bruder Dagenhart, children’s advocacy center program director for Southmountain, said. “You get that benefit, but you get all the support and the parts that come with group care like the therapy and all the other supports that come with it.”

Patton added that another benefit of the hybrid model is that siblings get to stay together, which does not always happen in a foster care setting.

The foster community consisted of eight single-family homes in a neighborhood-style setting with adjacent state-of-the-art facilities, including a gymnasium, alpine climbing tower, indoor pool, playground and miles of hiking trails.

According to Patton, one of the highlights of the program for children who live at Southmountain is the facility’s recreation program.

“We have an amazing rec program,” she said. “The activities that the kids are exposed to there are so unique and so beneficial and really speak to the dedication to children that our organization has.”

Patton said as part of the recreation program, children travel out into the community for fun outings as well as to participate in community service projects. That helps children who have experienced trauma to know they are still able to give back to the community, despite their adverse circumstances.

“Your situation might be dire, but that doesn’t mean you’re in this alone or that other people aren’t experiencing hard times, too,” she said.

Ultimately, Patton said the goal of the program is to provide the best possible care for children until they return to their biological parents or are adopted.

“We call this Journeys Home,” she said. “The goal is to get these kids back with their biological parents or adopted.”

At Southmountain, Journeys Home involves three components: reunification, adoption and independence. When possible, Southmountain works to reunify children with their biological parents. In situations where reunification is not possible, the agency supports adoption, helping to match adoptive parents with children and working with and supporting families during and after the adoption process.

“In either one of those cases, there is ongoing therapy that happens, either with the child and the adoptive family or with the child and their biological family to ensure that transition is supportive, positive and long-lasting,” Patton said.

Some children transition into adulthood while living at Southmountain. For these children, Southmountain works to prepare them for life as an independent adult.

In 1998, Southmountain added a child advocacy arm to its operations. A Children’s Advocacy Center is a comprehensive center that works with the Department of Social Services and law enforcement, providing legal, therapeutic and other forms of support to children who have been victims of abuse. Patton said the advocacy center was a natural outgrowth of the organization’s work with children in the foster care system.

“The care provided at the foster community shed light on the severe abuse and neglect children in Burke County were experiencing,” she said. “The Children’s Advocacy Center expanded the work of the organization beyond foster care.”

In recent years Southmountain has opened CACs in counties across North Carolina.

“Across the state we saw a need in other communities and had that expertise and were willing to take that on,” Patton said.

For information on Southmountain Children and Family Services or Children’s Advocacy Centers, visit southmountain.org.

Jason Koon, Staff Writer for the Morganton News Herald

Published April 15, 2022

Foster Community