Ellis was born with autism and developmental delays, and his mother did not want to raise him. At 7, he ended up in foster care. Ten years later, with the state of Georgia under a lawsuit for letting children linger in foster care, Youth Villages began working for the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services to bring children like Ellis home.
Ellis was Angela White’s first Youth Villages case – and her toughest so far. Ellis had spent 10 years in foster care and his behavioral issues were severe. Still, Angela had hope. A Youth Villages family counselor, it is her role to reunify children in foster care or residential treatment with members of their birth families whenever possible. Like so many children who have spent time away from their families, Ellis’s reunification began with an intense effort by Angela to find family members. She looked for any relative who could and would want to take Ellis in – or at least consider it.
An aunt referred Angela to Ellis’ cousin Tiffany, a family-minded young woman who owned a house and who had already invited other family members in need to stay with her temporarily.
Tiffany was pregnant with her second child when Angela called her about Ellis. The things Angela could tell the young mother about Ellis were sparse and not very promising: Ellis was brittle, his teachers and caretakers said, and aggressive, and he needed to be tied to his bed at night. Someone had to watch his every move.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh, my God,’” Tiffany said. “They had me thinking he was way different from how he is.”
Still, Tiffany said she wanted to see Ellis – she had not seen him since he was 3 or 4 – and at least give him a chance.
The Ellis Angela and Tiffany saw was different from the picture painted by others. The tall 17-year-old was much like a shy little boy with some definite behavioral issues but also a sweet, loving side.
Angela arranged for short passes from Ellis’ foster home to Tiffany’s home, to the park and other places. There, Angela and Tiffany observed his behaviors and looked for ways to modify them.
Ellis easily got frustrated and angry, and would scream and holler. He also could curse like a sailor. In fits of anger, he threw himself against walls. At other times, he used anything he could find to punish himself, hitting himself with hair brushes and leather belts. He also frequently tore things up to get attention.
But Tiffany let Ellis live at her home to see how it worked out.
“He was family, and I always take in family,” she said. “He had been in foster care so long, and I wanted for our family to be his family too.”
Ellis immediately took to Tiffany, whom he calls “my Tiffany.” On visits to her house, he started following her around everywhere she went. He loved hugs and going to McDonald’s.
There were many things Ellis needed to learn to successfully live in his new home. To help him learn to better deal with situations that made him angry, Angela and Tiffany came up with a simple and consistent behavior plan. They explained to Ellis what the consequences were for not following rules and for showing undesirable behaviors. They also told him the rewards he could earn for following directions and better managing his anger. Even as things started getting better at home, there were daily calls from Ellis’ school about his behavior there.
“Consistency is key,” Angela said. “And Tiffany did an amazing job with Ellis. She worked so much with him.”
So did Angela. She went to Tiffany’s home and Ellis’ school more often and spent more time there than she has ever needed to do with any other child and family.
But it was worth it.
After 10 years away from his family, Ellis returned home. He stopped hurting himself and cursing, and managed his anger in better ways. He learned to walk through the house to calm down or take a time out. His rewards for good behavior were frequent trips to “my McDonald’s,” where he always orders the same thing, the double cheeseburger meal.
Even though people had doubted it, Ellis showed he could live in the community and do well. Besides going to McDonald’s, Ellis loves drawing, sitting on the porch to look at the green trees, being the first up in the morning and wishing everyone a good morning, helping out around the house, sweeping the floor and wiping the table.
Most of all, Ellis loves being home, at “my blue house” with “my Tiffany.”