Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Death Rate in Foster Care

Is a child is four times more likely to die in the Texas foster care system than outside it?

Yes, according to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, when she released data last Friday on foster care deaths, poisonings, rapes and pregnancies, saying, "Many children are in more abusive situations now than they were before the state intervened."

-Between 2003 and 2005, the number of children in foster care increased 24%.

-Meanwhile, the number of deaths in foster care between 2003-2005 increased 60%. According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 30 children died in foster care in 2003, 38 in 2004 and 48 children died in foster care in 2005.

Strayhorn alleged that the Health and Human Services Commission and the governor tried to block her attempts to gather more information about children in foster care.

Strayhorn began her investigation in 2004 after releasing a report on the foster care system called "Forgotten Children." It was at that time that she noticed that an alarming number of poisonings, rapes and pregnancies were taking place within the Texas foster care system.

In 2004:
- 100 Texas foster children were treated for poisoning due to medications they had received while in foster care.
- 63 Texas foster children received medical treatment because of rape occurring within the foster care system.
- 142 Texas foster children gave birth while in foster care.

Death in foster care:
- Two young men died at the Star Ranch residential treatment facility near Kerrville.
- A 12-year-old died last December after being restrained by a staffer
- A foster child drowned in a creek during a May outing.

"The state is supposed to be protecting our forgotten children, but in all too many cases these children are taken from one abusive situation and placed in another abusive situation," said Strayhorn.

Representatives from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights Texas, Justice for Children and Judicial Watch are calling on the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to release additional foster care data.

-Hughes, Polly Ross. Comptroller reports foster care abuse; Data show deaths increasing but agency calls comparison unfair. Houston Chronicle, Houston, TX, June 24, 2006: pg. 1.

-MacLaggan, Corrie. Strayhorn: Foster care in crisis. Auston American Statesman, Austin TX: June 24, 2006: p. B1.

-Moritz, John. Strayhorn seeks changes in foster care. Star Telegram Austin Bureau.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Youth Presentation at Statewide Foster Parent Conference

I have just returned from a statewide foster parent conference at Deer Creek, Ohio.

My friend Gayle and I led two presentations each:
1.) She presented to foster parents and social workers, in a session titled "Independent Living is a Lie."

2.) We each presented a youth workshop. I took the younger youth, while Gayle worked with teens.

3.) I gave a lunchtime presentation to an audience of 175 people. It was very sweet, because two foster children who had attended my youth workshop came running up to hug me afterward, "You did a great job, Miss Lisa!"

Youth Workshops
In this posting, I will focus on the youth workshops. With the teens, Gayle led a dramatic workshop, based on a class in issue-based drama that she had taken at OSU. Her twelve teenagers broke up into smaller groups to act out the issue and risks of running away.

In my workshop, I had 14 younger children and one adult helper. I had created a powerpoint presentation, sharing my foster care story with the children, explaining the power of stories and inviting them each to write their own personal "mission statement," with their goals for the future.

Art first exists in the artist's mind. Books first exist in the author's mind. There would be no buildings without the architect's blueprint. I explained to the children that their futures would need planning and determination.

My college mission statement was to work my way through school and graduate school, and to learn how to love and be loved.

Acheiving goals is not a race. It took over 20 years for me to accomplish a family of my own. I was 26 years old before I had the money to buy my first car. I was 30 when my husband and I moved into our first house, which we designed ourselves.

Important goals often take years to accomplish. The first step is to make a plan for yourself and work towards it. The time it takes is a worthwhile investment. What could be more important that your future?

When the children heard that, they were excited to write down their personal goals. Education, house, family, permanency... Much was revealed by what they wrote. I told them to think big and aim high. I also reminded them that these goals change over time.

Attribution Theory and Foster Children
One thing that I found very interesting about my youth workshop relates to attribution theory:

-In a study, boys and girls were given two puzzles. The first was impossible to solve; the second was super-easy.
-The girls blamed themselves for not solving the first puzzle, and said the second was too easy.
-The boys claimed that the first puzzle must be broken. They were great at puzzles, as proven by their success at the second puzzle.

I wondered how foster youth might respond... and at this conference, I found out. Every one of the 14 foster children in my conference blamed themselves for both their failure to solve the first puzzle and their success at the second.

It was all up to them. Think of what a weight that must be to carry.

Book Giveaway
We did not have much of a budget this year. Ohio Family Care Association had planned the conference, and due to funding concerns, they had not budgeted in an honorarium for speakers or our conference supplies. Gayle and I shared a hotel room with the woman who planned the conference and her two adopted children.

Because of the lack of funding, I supplied my own equipment (powerpoint, laptop) and purchased books for children and teenagers out of my own money.

I went to Half Price Books, and purchased:
1 copy of "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson
3 copies of "Dicey's Song" by Cynthia Voigt
1 copy of "Hidden Talents" by David Lubar
2 copy of "Won't Know Till I Get There" by Walter Dean Myers
1 copy of "Where the Lilies Bloom"
2 copies of "Homecoming" by Cynthia Voigt
1 copy of "Solitary Blue" by Cynthia Voigt
2 copies of "Bud Not Buddy" by Christopher Paul Curtis
3 copies of "Anne of Green Gables" by L.M. Montgomery
1 easy-reader copy of "Anne of Green Gables"
1 copy of "Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1 copy of "Pinballs" by Betsy Byars
4 copies of "Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson

All things considered, I was very happy that the two Half Price Books I visited had so many options of juvenile books that deal with foster care and foster care-related issues. However, I would have been happier if there had been more multicultural options and more books with male characters.

Next year, I plan to seek funding myself, and strategically plan out my book purchases. I wish there were more Picture Books for foster children... (not just adoption).

Ohio Foster Youth Deserve Their Own Conference
Gayle and I have an ultimate goal, which is to have a concurrent foster youth conference. It would take place at the same location and time as the adult conference. We believe that foster youth deserve their own conference, centered in on their needs.

We discovered that there once was a separate foster youth conference in Ohio, but it "dried up, due to lack of funding." Gayle and I plan to seek funding for 2007. We might contact Foster Care Alumni of America, and ask if they would consider this as a pilot project for FCAA of Ohio.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Foster Children & Eating Disorders, Part 1

Children in foster care often have very serious issues around food. This might take the form of stealing or hoarding food, refusing to eat certain foods or exhibiting an eating disorder.

Behavior does not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it stems from personal experiences and thought patterns. People behave in ways that appear logical from their perspective, even if that behavior might seem strange or even harmful to other people.

Eating Disorders and Early Insecurity
Dr. Alfonso Troisi and his colleagues have recently published a study measuring the relationship between insecure attachment/early separation anxiety and a negative body image for women. The outcome was a strong association between the two.

Children who lack a safe and secure foundation in infancy are more vulnerable to eating disorders. They are more likely to have weight concerns and low self-esteem than children with secure attachments.

Insecure Attachment
According to attachment theory, if a child is secure in his or her relationship with a caregiver, that child will feel free to explore, because he or she is confident that a secure base exists, to return to in times of need.

The secure child explores freely while the mother is present, engages with strangers, is visibly upset to see mother depart, recovers and then is happy to see her return.

The insecure child lacks that self-assurance. When a primary caregiver disappears, he or she goes through a series of three stages of emotional reactions.

1.) Protest: The baby cries and refuses to be soothed by others.
2.) Despair: The baby is sad and passive.
3.) Detachment: The baby actively disregards and avoids the parent if the parent returns.

Attachment and Self Worth
Children who have been consistently loved by their caregivers develop a perception of themselves as "loveable," whereas children who are neglected and/or rejected by a caregiver often report feeling "unworthy of love."

Early connection with the caregiver makes it possible for a child to develop a model of themselves as loveable and valued. It reassures that child that there are loving, trustworthy people available and that the world is a safe place.

Interestingly, the most damaging style of attachment is neither anxious nor avoidant, but disorganized. Avoiding pain and worrying are both active strategies for dealing with the world. Children with disorganized attachment view human interactions as erratic and unpredictable. It's difficult to plan a response to perceived chaos.

Foster Children & Eating Disorders
I plan to contact Dr. Troisi, and invite him to do a study on foster children and/or foster alumni. My rationale is the following:

-Who has more first-hand experience with separation anxiety than a foster child?
-Sexual and physical abuse are also associated with both eating disorders and foster care placement.
-Eating disorders are often an issue of control.
-Is it surprising that some foster children might use eating disorders as a way to cope with change, trauma and stress?

-Ainsworth, M. D. S., et al (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
-Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
-Hernandez, Jeanne (1995). "The Concurrence of Eating Disorders with Histories of Child Abuse among Adolescents." Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4, 3: 73-85.
-Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge;
-Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy; Brunner-Routledge;
-Miller, Katherine J. (1996). "Prevalence and Process of Disclosure of Childhood Sexual Abuse among Eating-Disordered Women." In Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders, ed. Mark F. Schwartz & Leigh Cohn, 36-51. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
-Troisi, A., et al (2006). Body dissatisfaction in women with eating disorders:
relationship to early separation anxiety and insecure attachment. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68(3): 449-5.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Foster Children and Hoarding

I would like to start this blog entry with an embarassing - but, in retrospect, rather funny - story... When the man who is now my husband and I were dating, he looked in my kitchen cupboards and noticed something strange.

I did not own dishes, nor glasses. Rather, I had shelves filled with plastic cups; the kind you get at fast food establishments. I also had a huge assortment of empty cottage cheese containers. Lots of cups. Many, many empty cottage cheese containers. This was what I ate and drank from, every day.

The man who would one day become my husband looked at me and said, "Lisa, you are hoarding."

I said, "What are you talking about? What is that?"

The clinical definition of 'hoarding' is: "the acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or of limited value."

Why Would People Hoard?
- Because the items are perceived as valuable
- The items provide a source of security
- Fear of forgetting or losing items
- Constant need to collect and keep things
- Obtaining love not found from people
- Fear others will obtain their personal information
- Inability to organize
- Self neglect
- Stressful life events

Children often communicate needs through behavior. A foster child might hoard food, for example, due to early neglect and a fear of being hungry.

The fictional book "Money Hungry" by Sharon Flake tells the story of a young girl who is obsessed by earning and accummulating money. What first appears as greed begins to make sense when the reader learns that the protagonist and her mother were once homeless. By hoarding money, this young lady is making certain that she can provide for her mother, if the situation ever arises again.

How to Deal With Hoarding
This behavior does not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it is an adaptive response to deprivation.

For a foster parent, who has just taken in a child who hoards good, a plastic bowl with a tight fitting lid may be the answer. As the child adjusts to the new placement, this will allow him to regulate his supply of food and assure him that food is available. The lid will keep out odor and insects.

As trust increases, the need to cling to an alternative food source might decrease.

Don't Overreact
Above all, I would encourage people not to "pathologize" the hoarding. I am a firm believer that there is a reason for behavior - it might not make sense to outsiders, but in some way it seems logical to the person displaying that behavior.

Do not rush to a diagnosis. Don't assume that hoarding indicates that the person in question has OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Try not to afix a label on a child, teenager or adult too quickly.

After all, compulsive hoarding was originally diagnosed as a psychological disorder that most frequently affects the elderly. It was described as "accumulation of useless possessions that clutter the person’s living space, often creates complex legal and social problems for the hoarder."

Think about it from the elderly person's point of view: What were they doing? Trying to hold onto memories. Attempting to relive the past. Treasuring momentos. Is that behavior pathological? Or normal?

Viewing behavior within the context of the person who is displaying it is vitally important. Empathy has been defined as "understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives."

If you were to visit my house today, you would see dishes and glasses. I no longer collect plastic containers. Yet I am as sane now as I was when my husband met me. What has changed is the fact that I am assured that I am financially secure enough that I can afford normal household items.

Hoarding fact sheet. Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Foster Care & Statutory Rape

I recently spoke with a former foster child, who is now a college-educated young woman. She revealed to me that, when she was 16 years old, her foster father raped her. He made a bet with her, and when she won, he "rewarded" her with alcohol.

I asked her if charges had been filed. She responded that her social worker knew that sex had taken place, but assumed that it was consensual. That was how the incident was documented in her case files.

I pressed on, "But it can't be considered consensual. That's impossible. You were sixteen and he was an adult. Legally, you were a child and unable to consent to this act with him."

In my opinion, that social worker should be held accountable for her severe lapse in judgement. I offered to help to legally pursue this matter. However, this young woman has not had enough time to heal. She is not now, and does not know if she will ever be emotionally ready to prosecute.

I told her that I would respect her decision, but remain available if she ever needed my support. Having had a similar experience at the same age, I found myself wanting to protect and defend her. But -- to tell the truth, I never pressed charges, either.

Statutory Rape
Rape is a charge that can be difficult to prove. If there were witnesses present, in most cases, the rape would not take place. Proving rape can be even more difficult if the victim is a foster child (remember the labels and stigmas discussed in my previous blog entry).

Laws vary widely in their definition of statutory rape and the legal age of consent. In Virginia, for example, carnal knowledge of a 13-14 year old is a Class 4 felony, while carnal knowledge of a 15-17 year old is a class 1 misdemeanor. (Strange distinction).

The rationale behind a statutory rape charge is that a young person, while biologically mature enough to desire intercourse, is not mature enough to make wise sexual decisions. This makes the young person vulnerable to an adult who tries to manipulate, deceive or coerce them.

It's also important to realize that minors are legally, economically and socially unequal to adults. They lack full legal rights. Typically, they are economically dependent wards of their legal guardians. Think of the implications for a young person in foster care.

Promiscuity Defense
The most common defense against a charge of statutory rape is the 'promiscuity defense,' demontrating that the girl has had other sexual partners.

Why would this make a difference?
As Michelle Oberman explains, "At its core, the promiscuity defense reflects a belief that, by virtue of multiple sexual partners, girls become less vulnerable to coercion, and in essence gain the capacity to consent to sex... (as if) there is no longer any compelling need for protective measures for the sexually experienced child."

In contrast, Oberman believes such promiscuity signals a history of vulnerability, rather than worldliness. She argues that, if it were true that girls were powerless until they lost their virginity, society would encourage them to have sex at a younger age.

The promiscuity defense also seems to state that, if a girl is not a virgin, any man alive has the right to have carnal knowledge of her. If she has willingly consented in the past, is she now denied the legal right to say no?

Coming of Age As A Young Woman
Michelle Oberman has asserted that, while both boys and girls share the crisis of adolescence, they experience it in different ways. Young men might seek pleasure and experimentation, while young women might be more motivated by a desire for emotional closeness and attention.

For young women, the physical changes of adolescences often represent a loss of control:
-Their body is changing before their eyes.
-Men around them begin to express desire.
-They begin to see themselves through the eyes of others.
-They measure themselves against impossible ideals.

To experience the physical changes of puberty within the instability of foster care is challenging for a young woman. It makes her vulnerable... emotionally, physically and sexually.

Sadly, there are older men in this world who take advantage of that kind of vulnerability.

Oberman, Michlle. Turning girls into women: Re-evaluating modern statutory rape law. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 85 (1994).

Virginia Department of Health website:

Friday, June 09, 2006

Sharing the Culture of Foster Care

Much of what I have been sharing lately has been inspired by my time at the FCAA summit, and this is no exception.

As foster alumni, we discussed the stigma of foster care.

Foster Stereotypes:
-Lack of credibility: foster parents /social workers assuming that we were liars
-Assumptions made at school that we were promiscuous
-Labeled as manipulators or troublemakers

Pathologizing Foster Behavior
In terms of mental health, what might be termed 'normal' behavior for a child growing up with family is often pathologized or criminalized for the foster child.

"Normal" Example: A parent dies. Child withdraws, shows grief. Parents take child to see child psychologist. Behavior is termed 'normal grief process." Child is given time to heal.

Foster example: Child loses entire family at once by entering foster care. Expressions of grief such as anger or sorrow are diagnosed as 'rage' and 'depression.' These labels follow the child throughout foster placements, because they are a permanent part of the case file.

Foster children deserve time to heal from entering (or even exiting) foster care. Survivor behavior looks strange, when viewed out of context. However, for many foster children, lack of trust (for example) is logical, rather than an issue of ingratitude.

Danger of Labels
Depending on how much time is spent with a child, or how the adult interacts with the child, their perceptions of that child can be skewed. In that case, the initial assumption is written down in the case file.

It then becomes a permanent stigma, when it comes to finding foster placements for the child. It can also evolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perception Becomes Reality
“Everyone told me I was bad, so I was bad.”

Actual Foster Care Experience
As foster alumni, we do not view ourselves collectively as victims. We are not, as one commercial portrays us, a cute little unwanted puppy in the window, waiting for a home.

Rather, we are resilient. We are survivors. Our lives have required us to be courageous. When you cannot escape the thing that you fear, you are forced to face that thing you fear.

Part of being a foster alumni means having to prove yourself. A familiar feeling to me, in high school, college and graduate school, was feeling that I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. Things that came easily to other people did not come as easily to me.

Things I Had to Work to Obtain
-A place to stay during the holidays. (Now that I'm married and have two stepchildren, I know I won't be alone. And I know I'll get presents. Those things matter deeply to me).

-Shared memories. (Not having people around to retell childhood and teenage stories together can leave a person feeling rootless and unsure of their own identity).

-Connections with other people. (Part of that was others; part was me. After leaving foster care, it's a process of learning not to view yourself as different. Self-isolation is common).

Consequences and Risks
In general, foster children and foster alumni operate by a different set of rules and consequences. And they have a lot more paperwork!

Here are two examples:

1. Let's say you're in college and you do a poor job of budgeting. Are you:
a.) Now homeless?
b.) Able to call Mom or Dad to bail you out?

2. Let's say you're a teenager and you act out. Will you:
a.) Be transferred to a totally different place to live?
b.) Be grounded for a month?

Foster teens in care learn that their mistakes have powerful ramifications. When they enter the adult world, they often don't know all the resources that are available.

What they do know, and what I knew at that stage in my life, is that there is no safety net for them. That is a scary way to enter the adult world.

Postcards: An FCAA Initiative
-“I reinvent myself daily to deal with my reality”
-“There’s more to me than just my case file.”
-“Group home is the new name for orphanage.”

All of the above soundbytes are quoted from postcards created by foster alumni. This is a creative way to share the culture of foster care. Here is the link to this resource:

My favorite one is:

We each have strengths and weaknesses -- and often they boil down to the same quality, viewed in different lights, working for us or against us. What do we choose to call them? It's a question of terminology: strong versus belligerent, emotional versus passionate.

Monday, June 05, 2006

From Fear to Fascination: Polar Reactions to Trauma

Foster Females & Sexual Trauma
A friend of mine wrote me recently. She had been working with two foster teenagers, both of whom had experienced a sexual assault. Their reactions seemed to be polar opposites. One frequently indulged in promiscuous behavior, and the other deeply feared physical intimacy.

My friend observed that, Marital intimacy is so complex; especially when you add in abuse and the foster care culture. I wish there were one simple thing I could tell them (and myself I suppose) to just have a "normal" view of intimacy and sex.

These two extreme reactions are very common.

Forged by Fire
Picture this painful scenario... A child is forever damaged by fire. This same terrible event happens to two young women. One reacts by avoiding fire at all costs. The other becomes inordinately fascinated by fire, leading some to speculate that she might be a pyromaniac.

Both survivors are ruled by their fascination and fear of the force that almost destroyed them. Neither of these two women can see the middle ground between the two extreme reactions. They might even bounce from one extreme to another.

(I apologize for the timing of this analogy. I have wracked my brain, and I cannot come up with any other comparison that captures the essence of sexual damage so aptly. If you think of one - please tell me).

A disruptive, traumatic experience, such as a sexual assault, wrecks double damage upon the adolescent female:

1.) It has the potential to deeply impact their understanding of sexuality, love and relationships.
2.) It has a profound effect on their adult behaviors regarding physical and emotional intimacy.

One external reaction is fear and avoidance. Sex becomes something to be feared. Sexual situations, and even humor, might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

Internally, the young woman is shouldering trauma-related guilt and shame. Was it her fault? Is she 'the sort of person' to whom these things are bound to happen?

Upon closer inspection, the 'fascination' response isn't that different than the response born of fear.

Sexual addiction also involves guilt and shame. By acting out sexually, the young woman might be reliving the guilt she experienced after the rape. What is she thinking? "This is how I can have power." "This is what I deserve."

Acting out in itself can be a form of emotion-avoidance. The fear can be experienced as a rush or a high. Sexuality can become a drug to escape painful thoughts or feelings.

Healing & Balance
What then? Is there hope for the female survivor of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse? Can sex ever be a way to connect with another human being, rather than to 'numb out'? Can that sort of intimacy be experienced, or will it forever be overshadowed by fear?

From my personal experience, I believe that progress in this area is possible.

It's not short and simple. It's not quick and easy. It requires time, hard work, honesty, and discernment in choosing trustworthy friends.

Here are some of the strategies that researchers (and I) have found to be the most effective:

Personal choices: Taking responsibility for unwise decisions. Choosing self-protection, rather than self-destruction. Finding liberation through forgiveness (of self and others), self-respect, self-control and by seeking insights and awareness.

Involvement with others: Seeking out a healthy group of people who can provide validation and acceptance. Experiencing love and nurturing. Having friends to encourage progress and celebrate accomplishments.

Seeking accurate perceptions of self and others: "As a man thinks in his heart, so he is."
-Self-perception: Having a sane, healthy view of self.
-Perception of men: I could write an entire blog entry on this issue.
-Perception of sexuality.
-Perception of relationships.

Some people might find what they need to heal in a support group. Others might work through painful issues with a trusted counselor. Still others find a church group or a close-knit community that meets at least some of their needs.

As my friend observed, foster care exacerbates the wounds from this type of traumatic experience. Repetitive abandonment and displacement increases self-blame. She, I and several of our fellow foster alumni would like to see more research and therapeutic progress in this area. In the meantime, we are committed to supporting those within our circle of influence and seeking health and balance for both them and ourselves.

Kaltman, Stacey, et al. Psychological impact of types of sexual trauma among college
women. Journal of Traumatic Stress; Oct2005, Vol. 18 Issue 5, p547-555.

Street, Amy, et al. Impact of childhood traumatic events, trauma-related guilt, and
avoidant coping strategies on PTSD symptoms in female survivors of
domestic violence. Journal of Traumatic Stress; Jun2005, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p245-252.

Woodward, Clare, et al. Positive change processes and post-traumatic growth in people
who have experienced childhood abuse: Understanding vehicles of change. Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice; Sep2003, Vol. 76 Issue 3, p267-283.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Erikson & Foster Care

While I was at the Foster Care Alumni of America's May Summit, I mentioned the challenges inherent in trying to establish a movement by foster care alumni.

Specifically, we are asking people who have learned distrust, independence and isolation to trust, connect and commit. As foster alumni members discussed policies, strategies and best practices for FCAA, we had to learn to listen to one another with an attitude of openness.

It was a difficult transition from being the "Lone Ranger."

This applies also in the area of marriage. By making a 'lifetime commitment,' a former foster child who has learned not to trust is required to entrust their very soul to another person. A person who might betray them, abandon them or abuse them, as their parents did...

Erikson's '8 stages of man' has significant relevance to foster care:
Stage 1, Trust vs. Mistrust
Stage 2, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Stage 3, Initiative vs. Guilt
Stage 4, Industry vs. Inferiority
Stage 5, Identity vs. Role Confusion
Stage 6, Intimacy vs. Isolation
Stage 7, Generativity vs. Stagnation
Stage 8, Integrity vs. Despair

Regarding foster alumni, I am going to focus on the sixth stage: "intimacy vs. isolation." Several participants at the Seattle FCAA summit, including myself, agreed that this stage is particularly challenging.

Several of us mentioned that, after experiencing problems early in our marriage, the simplest option appeared to be, "Why not just leave?" Leaving is what we know; what we are familiar with; what we have experienced throughout our entire lives. So, why stick around?

One participant confided to me that on her ten-year anniversary, she told her husband, "I've finally decided that I'm in this for keeps." He was quite relieved to hear it. I have a similar story of my own.

Can marital intimacy be enjoyed by the former foster child?
Many barriers often impede this:

1.) Fear and confusion regarding physical intimacy. If the person has experienced abuse, particularly sexual abuse or rape, physical intimacy can be overshadowed by fear or a deep sense of shame.

Or, the person might try to face their fears by heading in the opposite direction: sexual addiction; using sex to "numb out" rather than to connect with another person.

2.) Fragile sense of self. Foster alumni are often plagued with a sense of self-doubt. We truly haven't had the freedom to make mistakes because the consequences for those mistakes were often blown out of proportion. What might be viewed as 'normal' teenage risk-taking for other teens often sent us reeling into a different foster placement.

In addition, moving around frequently makes it difficult to build a rock-solid identity. To please foster placement #5 might require different tactics than pleasing foster placements #2, 3 and 4. Staff or foster parents might perceive you differently, and you find your behavior changing as a result.

In foster care, adapting to each new placement is vital to survival. But, along the way, you might wonder, "Who am I, anyway?" And, as we know, dating someone else when you don't know who you are is fertile ground for codependence.

3.) No roots or safety net. Let's say a young woman ages out of foster care. She's confused about intimacy. She has a fragile sense of self-worth. The first guy she attracts turns out to be abusive. They enter into a codependent relationship. What then?

Will she leave? What if she has become emotionally or financially dependent on him? If she summons up the courage to leave him, where will she live? If she is isolated, who is there in her life to give her wise counsel and say, "Leave this jerk. You deserve better - whether you believe it or not."

Not her father, she doesn't have one. Not her brother, they were separated. If she is very lucky, she might have established a safety net of trustworthy friends. If not, she is on her own.

Foster alumni are at a disadvantage due to their lack of roots. If you were uprooted from living with your parents, separated from your siblings and shuttled from one placement to another, with whom can you share your stories?

Even now, listening to my husband and stepdaughters, I am amazed at the shared history between them. It is something that I have never had.

4.) Distrusting their partner. If you are a former foster child, must your partner win your trust over and over again? At what point will you stop testing him or her?

Perhaps the distrust comes from something your partner has done. You just found out that the love of your life is imperfect. What if his fallibility leads him to do something horrible - like betraying you?

Maybe you think this person must be crazy for loving you. Over the years in foster care and afterward, you've developed a sense of inferiority about yourself. Perhaps your low sense of self-worth manifests itself in body dysmorphia or eating disorders. Or, maybe you just dump the other person before they get the chance to disappoint you.

Intimacy versus Isolation for Foster Alumni
Foster children grow up feeling powerless. After aging out of foster care, independence offers us power. Think of what first comes to mind when you hear the word "emancipation." No one can hurt us anymore. No one can dump us anymore. We are on our own authority.

To entrust yourself to another person requires a leap of faith that the person will love you. It assumes the fact that you realize that you are loveable. To give that much power to another person, after a lifetime of rejection, is scary.

Remember the scene in the movie "Good Will Hunting" where Matt Damon sabotages his relationship with Minnie Dryver? Where might he have ended up if he hadn't chosen to take that rat-trap of a car and drive out to reconcile with her at the end?

Several of us at the summit could relate with Matt Damon's character. But most of us had one thing in common - we were married. We had taken the risk... and with that leap of faith, we found out that we did have (relational) wings.

Attachment patterns, once developed, tend to persist. Patterns only change if experiences change. One of my follow-up plans from the FCAA summit is collaborate with others to develop and lead presentations on this topic for teenagers and young adults aging out of foster care.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

In My Shoes: Assisting Teenagers in Foster Care

Another participant in the FCAA Summit was Christa Drake. She has been part of the alumni movement since 1999, when she was the first former foster child to participate in the Casey Family Programs' community resource council.

In My Shoes
In July 2003, Christa assisted in launching "In My Shoes," the first foster care alumni project in Arizona. This nonprofit organization was created to help foster teenagers (16 and17 years old) successfully transition to adulthood.

Youth in care are matched with foster alumni, who assist them in attaining the skills and information that they need in order to live independently. Participants are empowered to advocate and become leaders within their communities.

To find out more about "In My Shoes," please visit:

Stones in the Road
Christa Drake is very passionate about her work. From talking with her on a personal level, I was able to ascertain that she has faced concerns and obstacles along the way...

Some of these challenges have included:
-Liability for foster youth behavior when she is transporting them from one location to another. Teenagers in general are prone to risktaking behavior, and foster teens no less so. Christa is very conscientious about this, since one error in judgement could jeopardize the program.

-Feeling that her presence as a foster alumni is desired at meetings, but that her voice is not always welcome.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the credo of foster alumni is "Nothing About Us, Without Us." Including foster alumni in discussions means more than just having them present when decisions are made.

Foster alumni are not "mascots" to represent the existence of foster children. Rather, we are insightful individuals, whose experiences and knowledge can be valuable to social workers, judges, attorneys, educators and behavioral health clinicians.

Talking with Christa affirmed some of the challenges that I have been facing in my state. When I meet with social services representatives, too often I hear the sunshine story:

-"We have no problems finding homes for foster children. Most of our children end up in kinship care."
-"Our foster teenagers are equipped with independent living skills before leaving care."
-"Our social workers are doing a wonderful job."

Yet, when I meet with actual foster parents and communicate with youth-in-care, I hear a different story:

-"My foster son has had five different social workers within the past five months. When the last social worker came to talk with us, he freaked out - because he thought this new stranger was coming to take him away."

-"Our neice was sent to a foster home out of state, rather than allowing her to be adopted by family."

-"We have over 30 teenagers in our school who are getting ready to age out of foster care, and they are unprepared - and scared."

I work at a job myself. I know what it means to "toe the party line." However, because the lives of children are at stake, I am going to have to insist upon hearing more honesty.