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Every weekday, Stelana Burns leaves the home she shares with her dog Zoey and drives to a large white two-story house in San Antonio’s Monte Vista neighborhood where she effectively assumes the role of parent for every child living inside.
The home is run by Respite Care of San Antonio Inc., a nonprofit founded in 1987 with a mission to support families caring for a child with developmental disabilities. Since its inception, the organization’s mission has expanded to include care for Texas special-needs children in protective custody as a result of abuse and neglect.
Burns, the organization’s director of residential services, has no children of her own, but when she arrives at work, 25 children rely on her to make any medical decisions needed for their care, advocate for their needs at school, and even attend parents day holiday potlucks
“When you’re a parent, that’s your job 24/7,” she said. “I have to be there for them when things happen, whether they start running a fever in the middle of the night or they are hospitalized and need a parent there to consent for certain medications or procedures.
“Thankfully for me, I have people who help me a lot during the day, because I can’t make it to 24 doctor appointments.”
The Davidson Respite House, Respite Care of San Antonio’s facility at 605 Belknap Place, has been providing short- and long-term care for children with complex medical diagnoses and developmental disabilities who have been taken into protective custody by the State since 1997. Its adjacent Najim Family Respite Home opened in 2010 to serve additional children with special needs in crisis.
These homes are the state’s only two licensed emergency shelters dedicated to providing care for children with special needs.
Julie Buser, Respite Care of San Antonio’s chief development officer, said the organization initially set out to provide in-home caregiving to parents who had difficulty finding child care providers willing to work with children with serious medical problems such as butterfly syndrome (epidermolysis bullosa), a genetic skin condition that makes skin so fragile it can tear or blister at the slightest touch; Down syndrome; and cerebral palsy. Buser said its mission soon changed to include long-term care options.
“Respite Care of San Antonio evolved quickly once people became aware that an organization existed to help families with the often daunting and time-consuming task of raising a child with special medical needs,” Buser said. “As more people began seeking services and referring to our organization, it became increasingly clear that there was an even greater need in the community and throughout the state for services that extended beyond short-term help.”
One of the Davidson House’s current residents is a boy who arrived when he was only 2 days old and just celebrated his 1st birthday. He was taken from his parent’s custody because of their struggles with drug abuse and addiction.
“We have two parents right now that are in a drug rehab and we work with the lawyers to facilitate visitation and help them determine whether the parent is fit based on the level of care the child needs,” Burns said.
Burns works closely with Child Protective Services, families, and experts in childhood development to ensure that if a child is returned to their family, or a foster or permanent adoption placement has been found, the caregivers will be able to meet the child’s needs.
“I don’t like a lot of back and forth for the children – they do not need to be bouncing around. So if we are going to [move them] we need to get it right the first time and make sure parents are aware of everything that’s involved when it comes to their child, especially if it’s medical.”
Children might reside in the home for several weeks up to several years, and both the residential homes and the organization’s day care and day-out and night-out programming have had waiting lists for children in need of specialized care.
The early childhood education center operated out of Christ Episcopal Church, one block up the street from the Davidson House, operates on a sliding fee scale and is typically at capacity throughout the year, said Katrina Carter-Harris, Respite Care of San Antonio’s director of day services.
“There has always been a great need for child care programs for children with special needs because most typical child care centers and directors are hesitant to take those children because they lack the knowledge and training,” Carter-Harris said. “And sometimes parents of special-needs children are the people who are hesitant, because they worry about the care their child might receive in a typical care facility.”
When Elyssa Vogt was pregnant with her son Raiden and learned he stopped growing at 30 weeks, she quit her full-time job to prepare for what she knew would be many medical appointments and physical and occupational therapy. Vogt stayed home with her son, who was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, for his first year of life because she was “hesitant to just place him anywhere for care.”
“Some of Raiden’s needs include being sensitive to noises, large groups, and certain textures,” she said. “… I didn’t trust anyone with him.”
But when Vogt was ready to return to work, an occupational therapist recommended Respite Care of San Antonio’s early childhood education center because the on-site child care staff includes registered nurses to help with any medical concerns that might arise.
“They didn’t have space for him at first, but after we took a tour and saw how dedicated and [skilled] the staff are, and how each child has a binder that explains what their needs are and how to properly care for them, we got on the waiting list,” Vogt said.
The family now makes the 30-minute drive every morning to drop off Raiden, now 3, at Christ Episcopal Church.
“There are people from all over the city and all walks of life who travel to this particular location just to have the peace of mind that when they drop off their child with special needs, they will be cared for,” Vogt said.
One caregiver, Gloria Wallace, has been working for Respite Care of San Antonio for 31 years. She told the Rivard Report that she enjoys “trying to help each child achieve the best they can” while in the organization’s care.
“I just try to do my best to have everything be as good as it can be for these kids. Some of these kids are coming out of really bad situations, so I try to show up for them, give them stability, help them feel cared for,” Wallace said. “These kids struggle, and some might continue to struggle, but we do everything we can to help them to have a better life.”