Having worked in child welfare now for 13 years, I often think back to my early days in the field. I was totally clueless about the challenges that foster children and youth, and those who work with them, face.
My introduction into the field was through being a case manager for kids whose goals were permanency outside of the parental home. Most often, this meant that an adoptive home needed to be found for them. I learned a great deal from the kids on my caseload. The job was deeply challenging, but equally rewarding. It was also quite humbling.
From this experience and insight gained through the years, I have learned ten things that everyone should know about kids living in the system.
1 – Every age, gender, and race are represented in foster care, although there may be differences in the ratios of these characteristics from community to community. Children as young as newborn babies to young adults (up to age twenty-one) are in foster care.
2 – Siblings groups of three or more are difficult to place in homes, and are at great risk of being separated upon placement into care. There are not enough homes that are able or willing to accept what is considered a larger sibling group. Because of this, siblings groups are split up into various homes and settings. Although efforts are made to reunify siblings in one home, it can be challenging, and sometimes sibling groups, if not reunified with birth parents, achieve permanency in separate adoptive homes.
3 – Foster children and youth are at greater risk of having adjustment, educational, emotional, and behavioral issues. Before I go any further with this, know that just because children are in foster care, it does not mean that they automatically will struggle with these issues. However, the trauma of abuse and neglect, along with separation from birth parents and/or significant people in their lives, can have potentially devastating effects on their development.
4 – Foster children and youth desire to have contact with people in their lives who are important to them. I was often asked by kids on my caseload to be able to visit friends from their “original” neighborhoods, teachers, or relatives they were close to. Many of the school-aged and older youth wanted to live with their birth parents, despite what they had been through. Efforts should always be made (when safe and appropriate) to keep these connections for kids.
5 – They want to have a life with sports, activities, family celebrations, and other opportunities. When I asked a child or youth about the things they wanted in an adoptive family, more often than not, they wanted families that were active, celebrated special holidays and traditions, and would allow them to explore their interests. In many respects, they were typical in their desires of what is considered a “normal” childhood.
6 – Foster children and youth have developed coping skills that have enabled them to survive. The coping skills may not always be socially acceptable ones, and have the potential of causing greater strife, but they are still coping skills. Adults who work with foster children should make efforts to teach new and healthier coping skills that will enable them to successfully develop into adulthood.
7 – They are aware of the hardships of life, well beyond their years. In many respects, the kids I worked with were just like any other. They had their favorite superheroes, bands, and other interests. However, they were also too familiar with issues like drug abuse, alcoholism, adults disappointing them, and the realization that their lives had been severely interrupted by abuse, neglect, and the subsequent removal from their biological home.
8 – They are not happy to be in foster care. Kids who enter into foster care may have been removed from abusive and neglectful situations, but they don’t want to be “a foster kid.” I have heard people say things like, “They must be so relieved to be out of that situation” when referring to kids who come from hard places. From our perspective, of course, it makes sense that one should be happy to be in what is considered a safe place. However, the kids are not happy to be in the system and carry a tremendous amount of worry about the unknowns of their futures.
9 – Foster children and youth may blame themselves for being in foster care. One of the saddest things I heard from a young adult who had spent time in foster care before being adopted by a wonderful family was that he still blamed himself for being in care, even though many years had passed. He had many “if only” thoughts that coursed through his mind when retelling the moments that led up to him and his siblings being found locked out of a home without food, shelter, and parents.
10 – All foster children and youth deserve stability, protection, and the love of a family without condition. The expectation of growing into adulthood and being a productive member of society carries great weight when considering the plight of kids in the system. Youth who age of out of care without any form of permanency and supportive adults are at a higher risk of homelessness, substance abuse, and potential of criminal activity. Do all youth who age out of care end up homeless, addicted, and involved in criminal activity? No, but there are far too many who age out of care without the essential things families provide.
My experience in the field of child welfare has provided me with knowledge that no book or college class could provide. Each day I walk away from the office with the realization that there is much more we can learn and do for these kids. What are some important things you feel others should know about kids living in foster care?