Program Offers A Home, Family To Adults With Developmental Disabilities

by Pam Kragen, The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS | August 31, 2021

SAN DIEGO — At the top end of a sunny street in Lakeside lives the Cox family. There’s mom and dad, Paige and Dan Cox, two friendly Rottweilers and three adult men with developmental disabilities who live harmoniously as siblings.

Trent Cox, 28, was adopted by the Coxes as a baby; Nathan Wilhelm, 28, moved in seven years ago as a foster “son”; and Bruce Kopstein, 58, arrived with his Wurlitzer piano nearly five years ago. For Trent, whose two older sisters moved out when he was in his early teens, having two “brothers” to share his life with in recent years has been a big plus in his life.

“I would say it worked out pretty decently, if not epically,” he shouted happily one recent morning over Kopstein’s spirited playing and singing of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Wilhelm and Kopstein are among 14 adults with developmental disabilities now living with 11 San Diego-area foster families through Home of Guiding Hands’ (HGH) adult foster home program.

The El Cajon nonprofit is one of just three local providers funded by the San Diego Regional Center to offer in-home adult foster care services for those with developmental disabilities. The other two are the Mentor Network, which serves about 50 adults in foster homes, and Independent Options, which serves around 25.

It’s a unique segment of the caregiving industry that Mark Klaus, who has served for the past 11 years as president and CEO of Home of Guiding Hands, said he could see growing in future years, if there’s enough demand and homes available. Earlier this month, Klaus was named the new executive director of San Diego Regional Center, which serves about 34,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities in San Diego and Imperial counties. He will assume his new position Nov. 1.

Klaus said care options for adults with developmental disabilities have continuously evolved in the 54 years since Home of Guiding Hands opened in 1967. Back then, the organization’s 200-person institutionalized campus setting was cutting edge. Over time, the standard became community-based homes with four to six residents. Then independent living arrived, where a couple of adults could share an apartment with external support services. Adult foster care is one of the more recent innovations in housing for this population.

“The adult family program is fulfilling the needs and desires of many individuals who don’t want to live alone and don’t want to live in a group home,” Klaus said. “My take on it is that everybody wants the same thing, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. We all want to be part of a family and part of a community.”

For Paige and Dan Cox, doing adult foster care has been life-enhancing for their son Trent, and it has made their lives more entertaining and enjoyable, both at home and away, like family trips to Disneyland, Hawaii and Alaska in recent years.

“They give us more than we give them,” Dan Cox said. “It gives more purpose to our lives. If no one was here, it would be really boring.”

The Cox family

When the Coxes married more than 30 years ago, they were both already parents. He had a daughter from a previous marriage and she was raising her niece, whom she adopted. Paige couldn’t have children of her own, so they decided to become foster parents instead. Trent was their third or fourth foster baby. Born three months premature to a drug-addicted mother, he had hydrocephalus and mild cerebral palsy and was later diagnosed with autism.

Paige, 53, said she and Dan, 60, knew when they adopted Trent that he’d never be able to live independently like his older sisters, but the Coxes were both comfortable with their lifetime commitment to his care. Trent, they said, has been a joy. He has a sunny, outgoing personality and he loves getting out into the community.

“He’s a people-pleaser and he’s really smart and into physics,” Paige said. “No matter where we go, whether it’s out in the community, Comic-Con or the Santee fireworks show, people always come up to Trent because they know him and love him.”

Seven years ago, the Coxes heard about HGH’s adult foster home program. They liked the idea because they thought Trent, then 20, could enjoy the experience of living with other people, without having to move away from home. And with their daughters moved out, the Coxes had two empty bedrooms.

Wilhelm moved in that year. Born with intellectual disabilities, he had aged out of the foster care system, had no surviving family in the area and wanted to live in a family environment. He now looks upon the Coxes as his parents and Trent as his brother. He works at a local HomeGoods store and is interested in computers, gaming and technology.

“Nathan is super sweet, and he’s such a help to Trent when it comes to technical things,” Paige said.

Then just under five years ago, the HGH team asked the Coxes if they’d consider taking in another foster adult. Kopstein was having conflicts with his roommates at the group home where he lived because they didn’t like him playing piano all day. The Coxes moved Kopstein and his piano into the back bedroom on the ground floor, and he’s been happily living — and tickling the ivories at least two to three hours a day — ever since.

Born on the autism spectrum, Kopstein is a musical savant. He can’t read music but can play any song he hears from memory after hearing it just one time. Earlier this month, he was named a finalist in Autism Society San Diego’s annual “Autism’s Got Talent” fundraising show.

“I know billions of songs,” he said, before launching into a mini-concert that included “American Pie” and “The Love That I Found.”

Despite their age difference, Trent and Kopstein have become good friends. Three days a week, they go out together on social outings like bowling and Bible study.

Paige said she has found that sharing her life with people with disabilities builds empathy. Her daughter Heather, now 35, studied social sciences in college and taught special education for six years. And while caring for Wilhelm and Kopstein is a full-time commitment that includes cooking, cleaning and driving them to activities, day programs and doctor’s appointments, Paige loves her “job.”

“They both have huge hearts and are very caring individuals. They also make us laugh daily,” she said. “As you can see we went into this thinking we could enrich the lives of an individual, but I believe that we are the ones that have had our lives enriched daily by them. They’ve both become a part of our family, and I can’t imagine not having them in our lives.”

Making the foster home choice

Liane Wilson, vice president of community services at HGH, said that demand for adult foster home services now outstrips the supply of qualified homes. She said she could use another 50 family homes each year to meet the current need.

Wilson said the individuals referred by the Regional Center to HGH for family home placements typically come from four situations: Their biological parents are aging and no longer able to care for them; they’re looking to move away from home but aren’t ready or able to live independently; they’re transitioning from their parents’ home or a group home and this is a stepping stone to independence; or they’re aging, but not ready for nursing care.

Most of these adults moving in with foster families are in their 40s and 50s, although Wilson said some are in their 20s and there was one man in his 80s who found a forever home with a family about five years ago.

“We had a family in the program who was moving away but they fell in love with this man,” Wilson said of the senior. “They told him, ‘We’re moving to Texas and we’d love to have you come with us.’ So he did. He felt like this was his family.”

Screening host families is a lengthy process, Wilson said, because HGH wants to make sure the family will take good care of the client, and HGH wants to find matches that will endure. The typical adult foster home placement is about four years. Some are much shorter and some are longer. Wilson said the most enduring match in the 13-year-old program’s history has lasted 11 years, and counting.

Because HGH has a waiting list for the program, Wilson said she’s now seeking families from all walks of life to create placements that match the diversity of its clients.

“We’re looking for people who are single, couples, families, LGBTQ people, people who are faith-based, people who aren’t, people of different political leanings and different ethnicities. We want a good match for every person out there to suit their unique needs and desires,” she said.

Every client of the program receives Social Security that pays for their rent, which is usually about $1,069 a month. The clients also receive additional money from the Regional Center for a stipend, which generally starts around $1,800 a month, Wilson said.

While there is financial assistance provided to the families, many of them got involved for the emotional and psychological payback. Wilson said one of the families who signed up for the program in its first year had two teenage sons of their own when they took in a client. Recently one of those sons, who is now married and owns his own home, took in his first client.

“It’s a family legacy kind of thing,” she said. “I love those kind of stories.”

Wilson said meeting and working with these families has been rewarding, because these are people willing to make a 24/7 commitment to nurturing these individuals and helping them grow.

“They’re incredibly loving people that want to give back and just make the world a better place,” Wilson said. “What we hear over and over is they feel like they have gotten the gift. They feel like this experience has changed their lives and they now see the world in a different way. The reward really goes both ways.”

© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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