An Enriching Blend Kathy Dow-Burger had no idea how much she’d rely on her skills as an SLP to care for 20 foster children over seven years. In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   August 01, 2018
An Enriching Blend
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Development / Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / Special Populations / Early Identification & Intervention / School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Speech, Voice & Prosody / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   August 01, 2018
An Enriching Blend
The ASHA Leader, August 2018, Vol. 23, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.23082018.28
The ASHA Leader, August 2018, Vol. 23, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.23082018.28
Name: Kathryn Dow-Burger, MA, CCC-SLP
Title: Associate Clinical Professor, University of Maryland
Hometown: Hyattsville, Maryland
In 2004, Kathy Dow-Burger was running a speech-language private practice out of her home when she and her husband made the pivotal decision to become foster parents. They applied, trained and readied their home to foster the young child of a family friend. However, by the time they finished the eight-month process, the friend’s child was already placed with another family.
When explaining the situation, a social worker also pleaded a case for the many other foster kids in need and asked the couple to consider fostering other children. Although Dow-Burger and her husband had approval for only one placement at a time, they always fostered multiple children to keep siblings together. Their first placement included two siblings, and their last was a group of five (the oldest of whom was 16 and pregnant and gave birth while living in their home).
Fortunately, Dow-Burger had experience working with children of all ages in a variety of settings—including early intervention and a middle school for students with severe emotional and behavioral issues. Once the social workers realized she could handle more extreme cases, they didn’t hesitate to place older children with more involved issues.
Routine support
Before becoming foster parents, the couple had already been blending their three young children—two of hers and one of his—into a family for two years. A year after they married, they had their son, Luke. Everyone in the family knew how to love and welcome children with another set of parents.
Dow-Burger immediately established routines and found ways to give the foster children their own space. Foster children often live in a constant state of transition and trauma, Dow-Burger explains, so giving them some certainty helps them find their place in a new home. Setting up those expectations—along with creating positive reinforcement systems, scheduling and recording visitations with biological parents and social workers, devising individual enrichment plans, and working with local schools to get the children services—all required Dow-Burger to draw on her speech-language pathology background.
She also automatically began documenting everything, which turned out to be one of the best strategies she used.
“There’s definitely a lack of historical information about foster kids, and I learned quickly how to collect some,” Dow-Burger says. “I documented with detail and followed up when needed. I realized this was really important, because if you don’t have written versions of events, the judge will only hear what birth parents and social workers tell them.”
Many foster children experience gaps in education as well, so Dow-Burger worked with the children at home on social-emotional and communication skills and identified other types of support to bridge those gaps. She held unofficial, but well-organized summer reading and communication skill-building camps.
“I didn’t sit down and assess them, but communication is embedded everywhere and our foster kids were all behind,” Dow-Burger says. “I could help them catch up in this big way.”
Her professional knowledge even came in handy when chatting with friends or school staff, because she knew what confidentiality rules allowed her to share—or not—about the children.

“Communication is embedded everywhere, and our foster kids were all behind. I could help them catch up in this big way.”

Charting progress
Once social workers realized the depth of Dow-Burger’s expertise, they began turning to her for children with more intense needs. The SLP faced issues including bed-wetting, shoplifting, head banging and running away—and one nonverbal toddler who’d walk out of the house without warning.
“I had experience with all ages and so many behaviors as an SLP,” Dow-Burger says, “so I knew how to systematically establish a behavior-management program based on positive discipline.”
Dow-Burger also trained everyone in her family how to provide positive communication and behavior reinforcement, much like she’d do with a new client’s family. Once she assessed what issues needed attention first, she devised a functional and generalizable plan. She always started by establishing rapport, just like with clients. Then she would identify the child’s strengths or interests and use those to set up a structured activity to build confidence while incorporating new skills.
One oldest child in a sibling group was accustomed to taking care of her younger siblings. Dow-Burger let the teen maintain some responsibility by going with her to the grocery store and cooking meals. As the two shopped or cooked, the SLP would ask the girl questions about what she enjoyed making and what her siblings preferred. Another child was always singing, so Dow-Burger dusted off an old keyboard, bought beginner piano books, and helped him start reading and creating his own music.
Of course, there were lots of charts! Smiley-face charts for the younger kids and job charts for older children. Even the smallest step earned a sticker or a quarter. Brushing teeth, putting clothes in the hamper, sitting at the table throughout meals, reading a book—all these achievements were worthy of adding a sticker or check-mark, a high-five, or an “I’m proud of you!”
Foster parents aren’t updated about the children’s outcomes or allowed to contact them, so Dow-Burger and her family typically don’t know the results of their efforts. However, the SLP does know how her expertise affected one child.
One of the final placements—and the reason the family stopped fostering—was a 14-year-old boy they subsequently adopted. Their most recent addition to the family made honor roll, varsity football and wrestling team captain. He was accepted into college, but instead joined the military, where he thrived and was honorably discharged. Now a married father of two, he enjoys his career as an aircraft electrician.
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August 2018
Volume 23, Issue 8