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.

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I saw your post on Booju Mooju and I just wanted to commend you on your work with foster kids. I had to place my nephew in foster care three years ago (long story, but I just could not meet his needs and knew that there were great foster parents who could) and I try to advocate foster care to people looking to be more involved with children since there are so many kids out there who need a good home, even if temporarily.
We struggle to not stereotype our kids. I think it has been easier for us because our kids are all so different. Sometimes I use generalizations because I have seen a common response (like the two polar resonses to sexual abuse), but I try to use child first language.

I do believe that kids need time to adjust, but I also know that some kids will stay in a rage-filled place. While the rage and anger may be totally justified, it still needs to be addressed so that the children may one day be functioning adults.

I love your site. I love that you have beaten the odds and hope that our girls will get to where you seem to be.

One thing that has really irritated me in my endeavors to help kids is when professionals (such as social workers and CASA's) say, "These kids". It's a subtle way of singling them out. It's a lot like saying, "You People". It's irritating. I don't know, maybe I need to get off my soap box, but it has just always crawled under my skin to hear, "These Kids", or "These people" when referring to the families.
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