Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lumping kids together doesn't create an atmosphere of safety

Today, I participated in a conference call, which was part of the ongoing training to be a virtual mentor for foster youth through the Orphan Foundation of America.

Three young people who are in the process of aging out of the foster care system were on the line, to share some of their personal experiences. One of them, I knew personally, having met her in October at the It's My Life conference. I recognized her voice right away!

Another young lady named Cherish mentioned that she had entered foster care at age 14, and was placed immediately into an emergency shelter. Why? Because she was older, and it would take time to find a foster care placement for her.

When I heard this, I asked her, "Did you feel safe? Who else was there in the emergency shelter with you?"

Cherish said, no, she definitely did not feel safe. Immediately after her entry in the emergency shelter, she was shocked by the behavior of other residents. One girl there went around breaking picture frames with her fists.

For the duration of time that Cherish spent in temporary shelter placements, she had to walk on eggshells. "There were locks on the doors and the windows -- but you have to share rooms in some of the group homes, and when your roommate is a shoplifter, you end up having to hide your most precious possessions or carry them around with you."

When Cherish entered foster care, it felt to her like her whole life had been turned upside down. "What did I do wrong? I had never been in trouble. I had never committed a crime. It was dangerous on so many different levels. I think there should be different group homes/shelters for different types of girls."

She continued, "Another thing that bothered me were the restrictions. Group homes usually operate by a point-system. Every day, you start out with no privileges at all. You have to clean house or copy out the dictionary just to earn privileges -- that's not how it works in an ordinary home."

Cherish talked about the stigma of being in foster care, "I had always been a good student. School was the one area where I felt safe, and where I excelled. But after I entered the group home, I had to bring notecards to school for teachers to sign. Other students notice things like that, and I was labeled as being a group home girl."

Cherish is currently in college, working towards her MSW. She works two part-time jobs; one of them as a behavioral health professional.

When one of the other participants in the teleconference asked Cherish what motivated her to enter college, Cherish answered, "Because I had been homeless two times. I wanted to be able to take care of myself and my family, and never have to worry about being without food or shelter again."

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