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Staff at Lexington special needs homes overworked, struggling to keep up

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 4:59 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - We’ve heard many stories of how the pandemic has left businesses scrambling to hire workers.

We know hospital staffs are overworked and stressed by this latest surge of COVID-19 cases.

At a special home in Lexington, the teenagers who live there depend on adults for everything, 24-7, but, sadly, the staff is overworked and struggling to keep up.

Caitlyn Sass is a program manager for Key Assets, a company specializing in caring for teens and children under the age of 21 in residential homes, contracted by the state.

”Most of our children do have a diagnosis of autism,” Sass said. “They all have a co-occurring disorder, mental health disorder.”

Inside, you immediately notice fun play areas, loads of children’s books, games, a child’s bedroom looks fairly typical.

“We try to make our homes as much as a home setting as possible,” said Caitlyn Sass, program manager with Key Assets. ”And when they come to our program, we want them to feel like they’re in a home as much as possible. They’re just like all the other kids, they just want to be loved,” Sass said. “They just want to be taken care of.”

There are also signs, that this is different.

”We have like special pillows around in case there’s an episode. We have fire extinguishers, most houses don’t have on the walls, special locks so that our kids are safe,” Sass said.

“Our kids.” Two words we heard a lot during our visit to one of seven, residential treatment homes in the Lexington area.

”A mood disorder, say ADHD, or intermittent explosive disorder. Different things that would change their behaviors and make them maybe a little more harder to handle in a normal home setting,” said house manager Taylor Roy. ”A lot of our kids have to be taught, kinda to do the stuff that we just do every day like brushing our teeth, or bathing themselves.”

It can be very challenging.

“Some of them are not potty trained and, when they’re a little older, it’s not really fun to change a grown child’s diaper,” Roy said.

The children are in the custody of the state.

“Some aren’t with their families because they’ve been abused, and they’ve ended up in a hospital setting where they were being taken care of,” Sass said. “Some of them, their family just didn’t have the right tools to take care of them because of their behaviors.”

The homes must be staffed 24-7 and staff workers must be within sight or sound, so it can be very demanding.

”Pretty much all my staff are working at least one or two doubles a week. And they’re getting pulled to all the different houses,” Sass said. ”We have staff pulling 80-hours a week.”

COVID-19 took a toll on the program’s staff. Some left and never came back. Hiring has been difficult and it’s the kids, the clients who suffer.

“It doesn’t help with progress when we don’t have enough staff, to give that direct, one-on-one care,” Roy said.

Sass says pay has increased for the staff, but a job like this requires special qualities. Ashely Flowers, a therapist, believes in the mission.

”Everybody has done an amazing job with pulling together, making sure it works for the kids, cuz kids come first, but it’s been really challenging to see the stress levl and just the exhaustion,” Flowers said.

“They don’t always learn the way we do,” Roy said. “So, if they don’t have someone to teach them, they’ll never know. And I feel like this is the best opportunity for them to be in the community and living in a home, for normalcy.”

The children and teens at these homes go to public school. The goal is for them to learn life skills that will allow them to move on, into a more independent life.

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