Foster care is an issue that is dear to us at Embark Behavioral Health because many of our clients have gone through foster care and adoption experiences. We work hard to help them navigate the emotions, the trauma, and the complicated relationships that these experiences bring into their lives.
There are over 430,000 children in foster care, according to the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families. Helping them can make their present more comfortable and their future more promising.
What’s Happening When a Child Enters Foster Care?
Being torn away from everything you know and placed in a new home and school with strangers can be terrifying.
The child’s future is up in the air from that moment as well. Will they return to their parents? Will another family adopt them? Or, will they “age out” with sealed files and nowhere to go?
The foster parent is the one who takes that child (or sibling group) into their home and tries to give them a safe place with as much stability, structure, and love as possible. But, unfortunately, they often don’t know much about the kids who come into their homes, unless the children have been in the system for some time.
Is there a correlation between being fostered/adopted and needing additional mental or emotional support?
“At any given time, about 30 percent of our program’s population is adopted, so we have a lot of experience with these students. While many adopted kids are well-adjusted, research has shown that they do experience a higher prevalence of substance abuse and other mental health issues,” says Kelly Elliott, MSW, LCSW, a social worker, therapist, and medications manager who works with Embark Behavioral Health’s Dragonfly Transitions program. Dragonfly Transitions is a residential program that works with young adults (18 to 25 years old) with mental health and/or substance use issues.
While adoption gives the gift of a new family, there are unique losses that children will have a hard time processing, like self-esteem, self-concept, and identity formation. In addition, when a child or teen experiences these disruptions at ages when they’d typically be building up life skills, they need additional help learning how to navigate young adulthood.
Foster Care is Complicated, So How Can You Make a Difference?
While becoming a foster parent isn’t for everyone, there are still ways you can help improve the wellbeing of those in foster care and those who care for them.
1. Listen and try to understand the challenges
Everyone involved needs support. When a child or teen is anxious, depressed, and/or traumatized, it typically is expressed through behaviors. Kids can move quickly from fear and sadness to anger, and they don’t often have the words or tools to express these feelings, so they act out.
Sometimes, there are other factors.
Elliott is not only a professional working with our young adults at Dragonfly Transitions, but she’s also a foster and adoptive parent. “I think foster parents get shamed. People think, ‘What’s wrong with you that you can’t manage this cute little person with fetal alcohol syndrome or this other challenge?’ They have certain behaviors, and it gets rough.”
2. Donate money or supplies
Work with area organizations to find out what foster families need. Care packages are a great idea because kids don’t get a chance to pack. Their needs might be as simple as blankets, pajamas, school supplies, toothpaste, and shampoo.
Students and those aging out of the system have an urgent need for computers to do their schoolwork, attend classes, look for jobs, and submit resumes.
Organizations also need reliable cars to get kids to their visitations, appointments, and jobs. So if you have a vehicle that you’re replacing and it still runs well, consider donating it and getting a tax deduction.
3. Attend or host an event or fundraiser
Find a local foster organization (this search from ChildWelfare.gov can get you started) in your area and set up a gathering at your work, church, or school. Host a charity softball game, tea party, garage sale, etc.
Or, host an online event or fundraising drive using resources like GoFundMe, Facebook, or Instagram. Your chosen organization might also have a service in place to help you coordinate the event.
4. Share your time and expertise
As we’ve shown, you don’t need to be a foster parent to help foster children. Instead, just a portion of your time can make a difference. Here are a few ways to use your time and expertise to help:
Be a mentor
Arrange to spend time with a foster child. Share your skills, provide volunteer opportunities, or even give a teen a job. These opportunities for support give purpose and a chance to build caring relationships to help children feel more connected to their community.
Be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)
CASAs and GALs are court-appointed volunteers who speak for the child’s interest. The title usually differs between states, but a GAL may also be an attorney or other professional.
CASAs and GALs form relationships with the child and represent their interests in court hearings. In court, the county and the parents have lawyers to represent them. CASAs/GALs receive training and have small caseloads – often just one child or family group. You can learn more about how to join this unique group of people via the National CASA/GAL Association for Children.
Be a respite care provider
Foster parents are on duty 24 hours a day. However, they sometimes need to travel because of family or business needs, or they just need a break.
There’s a shortage of respite care providers if you’re looking for a more hands-on way to be involved with foster care.
Respite care is a career that is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. Trainees go through specialized training and background checks to take foster children for short periods, typically weekends or one to two weeks. You can read more about how to become a respite care provider via the Board of Child Care.
Elliott emphasized how necessary this particular training is: “We had a child, and we couldn’t find anybody to do respite, and because of certain behaviors, it wasn’t safe to leave him with just anybody.”
Being a respite care worker is also an excellent way to get real-world experience to learn whether being a foster parent or adoptive parent is the right choice for you.
Keep an Open Mind and an Open Heart
If you have the interest and drive to help foster families in little or big ways, seek local organizations or national ones where you can make a difference. Capitalize on your knowledge and passions, and spend a little time helping a child who could use some extra care and attention.