Thursday, April 26, 2007

Matching funds for foster care youth and alumni


Graphic from www.jimcaseyyouth.org

Young people transitioning out of foster care are at a higher risk for dropping out of high school, becoming homeless, going to jail and having children at a young age. They often lack a safety net to catch them if they fall.

What can be done to assist them with this transition?

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative includes:

- A personal debit account for short-term expenses

- A matching savings account, also known as an Individual Development Account (IDA), to be used for specific assets, such as education expenses and housing down payments/deposits.

In Michigan, the state folded the Michigan Jim Casey sites into the Department of Human Services several years ago. But they still offer matching funds through the Michigan Youth Opportunities (MYOI) for foster care alumni who are saving money for an asset like a car or college education.

The matching funds come from a Jim Casey grant backed by the Annie E. Casey and the Marguerite Casey Foundations. Youth in the program can receive money for participating in MYOI events like the youth board and other outreach programs. But the idea is for them to deposit earned income, not grant money.

My friend, Bill Schramm, drew on MYOI support to support his own disc jockey service. He is a full-time student, majoring in business administration, at Northwestern Michigan College. Currently, he plans to utilize matching funds to make a downpayment on a house for him and his wife Laura.

As a young person aging out of foster care, the matching funds initiative offered Bill just the help that he needed.

"The initiative has been a phenomenal amount of assistance for me in changing my life around. I used to do a lot of negative things and now I’m a successful person. I’m married. I’ve got my own business. I’m full-time in college, I went back and got my GED because I had dropped out of school. This initiative has helped me out with all those things."

For more information, please visit www.jimcaseyyouth.org

Sources:
Ellison, Garret. Foster youth program hopes to promote fiscal responsibility. Traverse City Records-Eagle, April 26, 2007.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Importance of college tours for youth in foster care

Photograph of Pinkie Thomas

Although 70% of 17-year-olds in foster care express a desire to attend college
, only 54% graduate from high school and only 2 - 5% earn a college degree.

Why? According to a 2002 study, barriers to college access for youth in and from foster care included:
-Multiple school placements
-Inconsistent social support
-Low educational expectations from caregivers
-Schools placing foster youth on vocational tracks
-Poor quality of education at group home and residential on-site schools
-Lack of access to college prep resources

Factors that helped foster care alumni to enter and succeed in college included:
- Information about financial aid
- Advice about college
- Attending college prep classes in high school

In a recent forum with Ohio foster care youth, two sisters shared their experiences with two very different social workers. One sister had a social worker who was willing to take her on college tours. The other sister had requested this assistance - and her social worker had refused.

When social workers don't expect their charges to succeed in college -
When they refuse to invest in youth people with whom they are entrusted -
When they don't share information about financial aide and ETV funding -
They are investing in the failure rate of foster care alumni.
Didn't they enter into their profession in order to build up the success rate?

Among child welfare personnel, it is the staff members who are willing to invest in young people who make the difference. College tours are a wonderful way to demonstrate that higher education is accessible to people in and from foster care.

Pinkie Thomas
, director of the Ohio Family Care Association, a statewide agency supporting foster, kinship, respite and adoptive parents, wants to increase the college attendance rate of young people in and from the Ohio foster care system.

She arranged for a group of teenagers in the custody of Franklin County Children Services to travel by bus on a series of college tours, led by college students and/or admissions counselors.

Destinations included Kentucky State, Central State, University of Toledo, Bowling Green University, Hocking College, Ohio University, Mount Vernon Nazarene and Kent State University.

I applaud Pinkie Thomas for her foresight and dedication. She's right -- foster care alumni can do a lot better than 2 - 5%.

It is the people in our lives who can make a positive or negative difference. I still remember Randy Mills, the admissions counselor at the University of Kentucky, and how I came into his office as a scared 16-year-old, and left as an enrolled university student.

He saw beyond my 'troubled' background and recognized me for my grades, ACT scores, and the letters my high school teachers had written on my behalf. He didn't view me as a victim or a statistic, but as a survivor. And, I proved him right. I made it through college and graduate school.

Youth in foster care rely upon a system of caretakers for the things that a family normally provides.

The significant adults in our lives need to believe that we can succeed. They need to invest in school stability, provide us with a challenging curriculum and make sure that we have at least one adult role model who invests in our future.

Source:
Merdinger, J., Hines, A.M., Lemon, K., & Wyatt, P. (2005). Pathways to college for former foster youth: toward understanding factors that contribute to educational success. Child Welfare, 84 (6), 867-896.
Hines, A.M., Merdinger, J. & Wyatt, P. (2005). Former foster youth attending college: resilience and the transition to young adulthood. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (3), 381-394.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Third child dies in Michigan foster care


Photograph from myfoxdetroit.com


This is the face of a child whom foster care has failed.


Three-year-old James Bradley was placed in foster care, assumedly to keep him safe.



Instead, he became the third Michigan child to die while in foster care within the past nine months.

James Bradley's death has been ruled a homicide. Washtenaw County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that James died of blunt-force trauma to the head as the result of the illegal action of another person.

TIMELINE:
-August 16, 2006: Isaac Lethbridge died in foster care.

-August 17, 2006: Isaac's four-year-old sister was hospitalized. Bruises were found on her back, midsection, spine, thighs and ankles.

-September 21, 2006: Allison Newman was hospitalized, due to a traumatic brain injury. Her foster mother, Carol Poole said the child fell from a second-story loft onto the first floor while she swung the child by her feet over her head and between her legs.

-September 22, 2006: Two-year-old Allison Newman was removed from life support.

-October 2, 2006: Carol Poole, the foster mother of Allison Newman, was charged with felony murder, first-degree child abuse and involuntary manslaughter.

What's going on in Michigan?

In 2006, state investigators discovered:

- 26 out of 84 foster homes had expired licenses
- At least five investigations of abuse or neglect were never investigated
- Seven children were in dangerous or unacceptable placements


Investigators could not immediately locate or verify where 21 of the agency's 106 foster children were, though all were eventually found.

It's all about the money
This week, the Governor Jennifer Granholm proposed adding $35 million to the Michigan Department of Human Services' budget, in order to add staff members, conduct more staff training, get certification for family caregivers and subsidize permanent guardianships,

Meanwhile, the Michigan Senate subcommittee proposed cutting the department's budget by $20 million, slashing more than 800 staff members and privatizing most of the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Elizabeth Carey, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, which represents private nonprofit agencies, said, "It's not that Michigan doesn't know how to deliver good services to kids; it's that we're not delivering the scope of services and intensive services that we used to."

Shortcomings in resources and services hurt children. Even the efforts to reform the Michigan foster care system by suing the state only result in less money for the state to provide adequate services to children and their families.

The New York-based Children's Rights filed a lawsuit against Michigan's foster care system.

Among the allegations:
- 63,000 children available for adoption are being raised as wards of state
- 40% of children in foster care are living in unlicensed foster homes


The lawsuit listed by first name many of the children whom foster care has failed:
- Lisa, a nine-year-old sexually abused by her foster father
- Dwayne, a seven-year-old placed in eight different homes since he was a toddler

The 19.000 children in Michigan's foster care system need more money, not less. Why consider budget cuts while children are dying? And, even regarding the lawsuit, it is unfortunate that money is being spent on attorney fees, rather than on children.

Sources:
Death of child in foster care ruled homicide. Detroit: FoxTV, April 18, 2007.
From our readers losing Isaac: Blame goes all the way to the top. Detroit Free Press, Feb. 2, 2007, pg. A10.
Group Files Suit Against State Over Foster Care. WLNS, Feb. 16, 2007.
Judge to grant class-action status in Michigan foster care suit. Lansing State Journal, Feb. 15, 2007.
Kozlowski, Kim. Class-action status for foster care suit. Detroit News, Feb. 15, 2007, pg. B5.

Kozlowski, Kim. Settlement talks end in dispute over state's foster care system. Detroit News, April 12, 2007.
Kresnak, Jack and Tina Lam. Agency had lengthy list of alarming problems. Detroit Free Press, Jan. 29, 2007, pg. A11.
Kresnak, Jack. Death of foster child, 3, ruled a homicide. Detroit Free Press, April 18, 2007.
Kresnak, Jack and Tina Lam. Isaac not the 1st child center had failed. Detroit Free Press, Jan. 29, 2007, pg. A11.
Newman, Allison. Foster mother charged in death of 2-year-old. Associated Press, Oct. 14, 2006.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Human Resources at ChildNet did a poor job of screening out criminals

ChildNet has a $65 million contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide Broward County's child welfare services. It is one of 20 privately run child welfare agencies across Florida.

In September 2006, $8,000 in Wal-Mart gift cards intended for use by foster kids were stolen from a locked ChildNet office. A nearly identical theft occurred in February 2007.

When ChildNet hired two private investigators to look into recent thefts at their agency, two of their 430 employees were implicated. Both suspects, Brady Grant and Steven Williams,have felony records.

Williams' convictions include burglary and battery, while Grant has served prison time for manslaughter and a cocaine addiction.

These are the men that ChildNet hires to be in charge of facilities management and security?

Grant is also suspected of stealing a Dell laptop computer, containing Social Security numbers, credit information and fingerprints on 12,000 Broward applicants to ChildNet's programs, most of them applying to be foster or adoptive parents.

No one has been charged in any of the thefts, and the laptop remains missing.

Why were Grant and Williams hired as ChildNet facilities managers despite their felony records?

During the course of this investigation, more employees have been fired upon closer examination of their backgrounds.

Just this week, a ChildNet maintenance worker was fired, after the latest background check showed he has a criminal record.

Why hasn't Florida DCF severed their contract with this agency?

The state Department of Children & Families had issued a letter terminating their contract with ChildNet - but the contract was instated after ChildNet President and CEO Peter Balitsaris was fired and Chairwoman Virginia Miller stepped down.

It is not enough to fire Balitsaris. The business dealings of ChildNet inspire no confidence in their ability to protect the interests of children or foster/adoptive parents.

According to the two investigators:

1.) ChildNet has no inventory system for ''high-value items'' like computers and furniture. Therefore, no one has inventoried ChildNet's computers and it is likely that other computer thefts have gone unreported.

2.) Childnet computers are vulnerable to security breaches. Critical data isn't regularly backed up and a number of outside vendors have access to ChildNet computer systems containing sensitive information.

3.) There is evidence of illegal kickbacks and fraudulent billing: Peter Greenhough, ChildNet's chief financial officer, has been accused of having his employees falsify invoices so that the state would reimburse the agency for work that it normally wouldn't pay for.

4.) Broward foster children were transported in potentially unsafe vehicles. The auto repair shop utilized by ChildNet paid kickbacks to the agency in order to avoid making needed repairs.

If, as aDCF Secretary Bob Butterworth has stated, the number one concern is that the children are "safe," this priority is not demonstrated by DCF's decision to continue doing business with ChildNet.

The 1,043 foster children in Broward County deserve better than this.

So do foster care/adoption applicants, who now have to worry about identity theft because their personal information was stored on ChildNet's stolen computer. These families report that they've had trouble reaching ChildNet employees to get information on how to protect themselves.

One woman reported, "I tried to call them yesterday and I tried to call them today, and it just rings and rings and rings. They have my fingerprints, they have my passport information, they have everything. It's scary, I can't even begin to tell you."

FBI involvement:
Last Friday, the FBI shut down ChildNet's main office and seized documents. The investigative report against ChildNet includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and an organized scheme to defraud the state, and these crimes fall under federal juridiction. Not to mention that the federal government, through the state, provides about $30 million of ChildNet's budget.

I'll keep you posted as this case unfolds...

Sources:
ChildNet agency's stolen laptop issue warrants FBI coverage. NBC-6, April 13, 2007.
FBI investigates non-profit child agency. United Press International, April 14, 2007.
Haas, Brian and Bill Hirschman. FBI seizes ChildNet records; CEO fired as more allegations mount against nonprofit. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 14 2007.
Miller, Carol. FBI targets child care agency. Miami Herald, April 14, 2007.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

My friend Lupe speaks out


Photo of Lupe from www.fosterclub.com
Below is Lupe's guest opinion, as published in the Tuscon Citizen on April 13, 2007.


Guest Opinion: Don't shortchange Arizona's foster kids

At age 5, I entered Arizona's foster-care system. That was the beginning of a series of childhood separations - from my sister, my home, my culture, from everything that mattered.

I was one of the more than 9,000 Arizona children who, at any given time, are in foster care.

Although foster care was intended to be temporary, Arizona's foster children spend an average of two birthdays in care, and more than 40 percent move more than three times while waiting for a permanent family.

I spent 19 years in foster care. During that time, I lived in 10 places, including state, private and residential foster care. I attended five high schools.

The most difficult placement was when I was a junior in high school. The foster family I had been living with moved across the country, and no placements were available for me then.

I was sent to a large institution with locked units. Soon I realized I was the only foster youth there, and the only reason I had been placed there was because I was without a home.

Waiting for a loving family, I ended up in a facility designed for young people who had broken the law.

My experiences led me to become an advocate for foster-care reform. I don't want any other child to experience what I did.

Along with other current and former foster youth, I went to Washington, D.C., to participate in an event sponsored by "Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now," a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A new guide to the U.S. foster-care system, "Time for Reform: Too Many Birthdays in Foster Care," was released at the event.

Wearing T-shirts that read "Kids Can't Wait," we delivered birthday cakes to each House member in honor of the 513,000 foster children who will spend their birthdays in foster care this year, waiting for a family.

We wanted to let Congress know how important it is to reform foster care. We have waited too long for changes to a system that is designed to keep children safe, but instead separates them from their parents, brothers and sisters, and places them in limbo.

Just changing the way the federal government pays for services could help prevent some children from being placed in foster care and help others to be placed in safe, permanent families more quickly.

Because of my experiences, I am waiting for all foster children to be able live permanently with a loving family.

Frequent moves - common in foster care - can be upsetting to children who never know how long they will stay or where they will go next.

About 20,000 children each year "celebrate" their birthdays by aging out of foster care. I was one of those children. I grew up with no lifetime connection with a family. When I was in care, all I hoped for was to be wanted.

I hope Congress will allow more money to be used to keep families together and children out of foster care in the first place or to limit the time they spend in the system.

This flexibility would also create and support permanent, loving families through reunification, adoption and guardianship.

The need to reform federal financing is urgent. Today, more than half a million foster children are waiting, as I did, for a permanent family to love, nurture and protect them.

They have waited long enough.

Guadalupe Ortiz-Tovar of Tucson spent 19 years in Arizona's foster-care system. She is currently a coordinator for In My Shoes, a peer mentoring program.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The link between foster care and chemical dependency

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services;
- 11 percent of American youth live with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol
- Substance abuse is a factor in 7 out of 10 cases of child maltreatment
- Individuals are often reluctant to enter treatment programs

Sadly, women with children are most apt to resist entering treatment programs for chemical dependency.

Why?
- Because they are embarrassed about needing help
- Because they don’t have childcare
- And, most of all, because they are afraid of losing custody of their children

So, what can be done to help?

Here are some promising initiatives:

1.) At some agencies, substance abuse facilities and child welfare agencies work together (sometimes even residing in the same building) in order to sustain families affects by substance-abusing parents.

2.) Some family drug courts are choosing to mandate substance abuse treatment, in lieu of punishment for parents who use drugs. One example is: http://www.courts.state.ri.us/family/familytreatment.htm

3.) Mother-child residential drug treatment programs keep the family together, and help mothers both overcome their addiction and learn better parenting skills. For more information, please visit: http://www.childwelfare.gov/famcentered/overview/approaches/substance.cfm

In some cases, the parent cannot or will not end their addiction to drugs or alcohol. For this reason, many agencies do concurrent planning. I think this is the best strategy in terms of the future safety of the child.

In concurrent planning, professionals work to reunify the family – while simultaneously preparing a back-up permanency plan for the child, in case reunification efforts fail.

The bottom line is that children need and deserve permanent connections. If one or both parents has a serious addiction, that’s not the child’s fault. Substance-abusing parents often exhibit erratic and abusive behavior, putting a child’s emotional and physical well-being at risk.

Children living in that type of situation often have:
- A diminished ability to concentrate
- Nihilistic or fatalistic orientations toward the future
- Difficulty forming / maintaining emotional attachments
- A proclivity for risk-taking behavior, including the use of alcohol or other drugs later in life.

I have a very dear friend who is 15 years old, and has been in foster care since she was a baby. Her parents simply will not get their act together. If the agency in charge of my friend’s case had utilized concurrent planning when they first took her from her parent’s household, my friend would not still be languishing in foster care today.

Sources
Fenster, Judy. Substance Abuse and Child Welfare: Promising Practices and Ethical Dilemmas. National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning, Spring 2007.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rhode Island Governor is prepared to sacrifice foster children for money

In his effort to close a $360 million budget deficit over two years, Governor Donald Carcieri is willing to sacrifice the futures of teenagers aging out of foster care.

Governor Carcieri has proposed that his state might save approximately $9 million by eliminating services to children in state care when they turn 18.

If passed, a Rhode Island proposal to cut foster kids off of care at age 18, will have serious consequences. Former foster children between the ages of 18-21 would no longer receive the aid that helps them pay for things like school, rent and health insurance.

The Governor has defended his proposal by claiming that teenagers aging out of foster care are less vulnerable than children or senior citizens, because teens will be able to accommodate these service reductions.

Statistics tell a different story.

Casey research has revealed that, four years after leaving state care:
- 25 percent of youth have become homeless
- 42 percent have become parents themselves
- Fewer than one in five is able to support him/herself


Gary Stangler, Executive Director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, reports that teens who age out of foster care are almost three times as likely as their peers to be disconnected for work or school -- and less likely to receive medical and psychological care.

Half of young adults ages 18-24 in the general population in the United States live at home with their parents, according Children's Rights. Most young adults in the general population rely upon their families for assistance with a place to live, financial support and other guidance as they transition to adulthood.

If children from stable homes and loving families are unable to leave home at age 18 and live independently of their parents, the Governor is being callous and unrealistic to expect more from foster care alumni.

One foster care alumna who has spoken out about this issue is 18-year-old Amanda Addison. She has been bounced around in various placements, including intake centers to short-term foster care homes since childhood, and is now barely scraping by on a $100 a week while preparing to attend community college.

But she worries her plans could be jeopardized if the state lowers the cutoff age for foster care services to eightteen. "It would change everything. I wouldn't be able to go to school. I wouldn't be able to follow my dreams."

Sources:
Baron, Jim. R.I. urged not to drop foster kids at 18. Pawtucket Times, April 4, 2007.
Cook, Nancy. Rhode Island considers foster care cutbacks. NPR, April 12, 2007.
Norton, Justin. R.I. ponders future of foster care. Boston National News, March 16, 2007.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Statewide support groups for resource families

Resource families is a term that can apply to adoptive, foster, kinship and respite families. Most states have a statewide organization to support such families.

Or... at least I thought they did.

I was recently asked to help redesign the website for the statewide support group for foster, adoptive, kinship and respite parents in my state. My first step was to look over each state's web site, one by one, compiling a list of the best and worst features of each site.

Out of 50 states, only 35 have web sites. Two of those sites are not operational. Many were difficult to navigate, or had other design problems.

The best sites had the following functional features:

1.) Simplicity of design: A plain, white background with use of a few primary colors
- Rhode Island 'Fostering Futures' site is beautifully designed: http://www.rifpa.org/

2.) Succinct and well-organized text:
- Arizona Association of Foster & Adoptive Parents: http://www.azafap.org/

3.) The Welcome page featured the organization's mission and vision:
- Foster Parent Association of Washington State is a perfect example: http://www.fpaws.org/

4.) Navigation made possible through the side bar and/or top bar:
- Foster and Adoptive Family Service (NJ): http://www.fafsonline.org/

5.) Maps and calendars that were interactive:
- Families Helping Families in Pennsylvania State hosts an impressive map: http://www.psfpa.com/
- Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association has a nice calendar: http://www.mfcaa.org/

In addition, the best sites addressed the needs/questions of resource families:

1.) Membership page answered the questions: Why should I join? - What are the benefits? - Where does the money go?

- Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association: http://www.ifapa.com/

2.) Moderated message board, and other opportunities for resource sharing in order to create a supportive online community.

- New Hampshire Foster and Adoptive Parent Association members support one another by sharing items like cribs, clothing and strollers, http://www.nhfapa.org/

- Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parent Association subscribes to the Secure Information Exchange (SIX). Their state requires them to use this protective email re: children in state custody. http://www.nfapa.org/

3.) Supportive Services:

- Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, Inc. has a Buddy System and a 24-hour hotline: http://www.cafap.com/

- Adoptive & Foster Parent Association of Georgia has an advocacy hotline with an 800-number: www.afpag.org/advocacy.html

- Adoptive & Foster Families of Maine, Inc. has a lending library, audio archive, discount cards and e-learning programs: http://www.affm.net/

4.) Current legislation affecting foster/adoptive/kinship families:

- North Carolina Foster and Adoptive Parents Association does an excellent job of creating legislative updates (I also love their logo!) http://www.ncfapa.org/

- Sierra Association of Foster Families has respite forms available for download: http://www.saffnn.org/

- Colorado State Foster Parent Association http://csfpa.org/ - Their legislative link includes information about Adam Walsh legislation.

5.) Sharing of news and newsworthy initiatives

- Hawaii Foster Parent Association features fabulous articles and resources: http://www.hawaiifosterparent.org/

- Oregon Foster Parent Association http://www.ofpa.com/ is involved with "A Camp to Belong," which reunites siblings.

- Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parent Association creates 'Kits for Kids, with items for foster youth to take with them on their travels: http://www.nfapa.org/

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Link to State Fact Sheets on Foster Care


Kids Are Waiting:
Fix Foster Care Now
is a national campaign to help children in foster care find the safe, permanent families they deserve.

Their goal is to reform the federal financing structure that governs our nation's foster care program.


Check out your state's fact sheet, to learn more about the demographics of children waiting for homes in your state.

http://kidsarewaiting.org/reports/factsheets/

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Jeannette Walls, author of Glass Castle





Jeannette Walls, author of the memoir Glass Castle, is just as amazing in person as she is on the page. I met her this weekend, during a special presentation that she made to social workers, foster parents and foster children in Dayton, Ohio.

Jeannette did not grow up in foster care; she lived in a home that some have described as abusive or neglectful. Jeanette does not consider her parents to be abusive. Daredevils, yes. Quirky, eccentric and elective, yes to that also.

But to accusations that her parents might have been abusive, Jeannette says, “No.” She grew up always assured of the knowledge that her parents loved her.

For me, the most powerful scene of the book came at the beginning. Three-year-old Jeannette is roasting her own hotdogs, with her parents’ knowledge and approval. She catches on fire, and ends up being hospitalized with skin grafts.

As I read the book, I wondered how Jeannette’s scars, both physical and emotional might affect her today. During her presentation, my questions were answered.

Here are some quotes from Jeannette Walls’ presentation:
- “Don’t ever apologize for your scars. They are a sign that you had survived.”

- “Growing up means facing down your demons.”

- “There comes a point in your life when it’s okay to stop fighting. You had to fight to survive, but now you need to be prepared for the love and kindness that people are ready to give. The world becomes transformed from a place of potential enemies to a place of potential friends.”

- “If someone tells you that you’re not a good kid, it’s not a reflection of you. It’s a reflection of them.”

Sometimes when you read a book and then meet the author in person, they fall short of your expectations – but Jeannette Walls exceeded mine. Her insights were savvy and on-target, and I plan to share them at a workshop that I am leading this summer about foster care alumni and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Two of my favorite postcards from Foster Care Alumni of America


















Foster Care Alumni of America www.fostercarealumni.org invites current and former foster children to create postcards to express one aspect of their time in care. These are two of my favorites that relate to my most recent blog posting about Samara, Beverly and Melvin.

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Too eager to label foster children


Photograph of Samara from CBS.com
This weekend, I watched Leslie Stahl's December interview titled: Lost and Found. The topic was reuniting foster foster children with their biological families.

As a former foster child, I watched the interviews with mixed emotions. I began to feel deep concern for the children being interviewed.

There can be a thin line between news reporting and exploitation. I call it 'the Drew Barrymore' syndrome. Most adults learn to define the boundaries of their levels of self-disclosure. But young people are more transparent - and that transparency can make them vulnerable. (Are there any incidents from your life as a teenager that you would not like for strangers to watch on TV?)

The first teenager to be interviewed was 13-year-old Samara, who had been in foster care for her entire life, and felt depressed (wouldn't you?) Every holiday that went by that she didn't have a family to spend with was painful for her.

Samara has recently been reunited with her mother through "Family Finding." They showed a clip of Samara and her mother on Oprah. The mother had a look of joy and rebirth on her face. Why not? She had been given grace; an unexpected gift, a lovely young daughter, a second chance.

But Samara's face was clouded by skepticism. Understandably. Over the years of spending holidays alone, of not having a mother around her, Samara has taught herself not to cry, not be vulnerable.

As the clip from Oprah is shown onscreen, Leslie Stahl comments on the fact that Samara seems to be finding it hard to look at her mother, how she keeps looking away. Stahl attributes it to Samara's "mental problems."

Mental problems? Not necessarily. Too often teens-in-care are pathologized by the "professionals" in their lives.

Try this: Have you ever found it difficult to look at someone whose actions have hurt you? Can it be hard to trust someone who has let you down? Rather than labeling Samara as a troubled young teenager, I see her as a person of strength and courage. She has made the choice to forgive her mother, and their reconciliation will be a process. Life is not a Hallmark movie. The credits have not yet rolled. She is 13 years old and it troubles me that for the first 13 years of her life she has been given drugs and labels, when all she really needed was a family and love.

On to the next two teenagers in this interview, siblings Beverly and Melvin. They were reunited with their father -- only to discover that he was an alcoholic, their mother had died from a drug overdose and that their father has a total of 10 children, none of whom he has cared for.

In their interview with Leslie Stahl, Melvin begins to label himself as "defiant" because of his reluctance to build a relationship with his long-estranged father. But the look on his face, and that of his sister, is not a look of defiance. It's disappointment.

Imagine if you had built up hopes about your long-lost father. How he would come back into your life with a reason for being gone for so long. He was... abducted by aliens... in the Secret Service... stranded on a desert island.

But, all the time he had been thinking of you, right? He had always been thinking of you. In that dream, your father isn't off fathering other children. He's not drowning his sorrows in a bottle.

When dreams die, we feel sadness and anger. We feel disappointment. That is a normal reaction to facing the rift between what is ideal and what is reality. Teenagers are idealists; they want adults to display perfection. It is hard to face our frailty, our humanity.

Melvin listened to his father's promises to "be there for them always" with an impassive expression on his face. That's not mental illness. It's emotional survival. There is a very real possibility that their father will be unable to fulfill his promise to Melvin and his sister, and they will be left alone again.

Source:
Stahl, Leslie. Lost and Found: Leslie Stahl on Efforts to Place Children Back With Their Families. CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, Dec. 17, 2006.

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