When I was 8 years old, I attended a neighborhood summer camp and became friends with a girl there. We spent the summer together discussing boys, exchanging music, and sharing our dreams for the future. I began to notice whenever I discussed my family she would become quiet and/or change the subject, but one day out of curiosity, I decided to ask about her family and I was surprised to hear her reply. She told me that her parents died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 and so she came to Jacksonville to live with her wealthy aunt. After this she became very open and began to tell me elaborate stories about family members, most of which were hard to believe initially, but I later overcame my skepticism.
About a month after the summer camp ended, I was walking with a friend in the neighborhood when I saw the girl from camp coming out of a house. I was happy to see her and asked her what she was doing there and she admitted she lived there. A woman came out of the house and I introduced myself to her. The woman smiled and introduced herself as my friend’s foster mother. For many years I wondered why she would hide something like that and it made me want to know what kind of affects foster care has on our youth.
My grandmother Carrie Kincade earned her degree in Social Work from Tennessee State University in 1961, began her career shortly afterwards. When asked if she regretted choosing such a demanding job, she replied, “I could not have asked for a more rewarding career”. She went on to say that social work was her “calling”. After years of providing compassionate service to her clients as a field social worker she became a foster care supervisor; a position she held for 11 years. The foster care system is one of the most complex and rarely discussed systems in our society. When a living environment is deemed unsafe to the child’s physical or emotional health, they are removed from their current living situation and placed in a foster home. In most cases this is necessary to protect the child, however, this confusing and often painful uprooting affects the child on an emotional level. Mrs. Kincade realized early in her career that regardless of how chaotic the child’s living environment may be, most, if not all prefer to remain where they are. This is their reality and it is all they know.
I believe that every person has a slight fear of the unknown and prefers to leave things as they are out of a sense of comfort and familiarity. Being taken away from one’s parents is traumatic and installs a sense of inferiority in the child, such as thinking,“If only I had been better” or “ If I had been smarter”. When placed in an unfamiliar environment children will sometime regress in development. Examples include not speaking and being unable/unwilling to perform everyday tasks of basic hygiene. This is a result of extreme stress, mental overload, and separation anxiety. Foster parents are often confused, disturbed, and/or afraid of this behavior which in turn causes many to request the to be child be removed from the home. “A child can go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning being told they have to leave and that they are moving to a new home”, says Mrs.Kincade. This hurts the child further as they are uprooted once again and placed in another strange environment with people they do not know. In the book, Foster Care of Children, Nurture, and Treatment, the authors, Draza Kline and Helen-Mary Overstreet say, “Ego functioning is adversely affected by feelings of panic reactivated from earlier traumatic experience”. Mrs. Kincade believes that the more placements a child has, the more emotionally traumatized they become.
The children feel as if they are unworthy of the love and become distant as they begin to believe that they can only rely on themselves. Another problem children might face is the family dynamics between the child and the extended family of the foster parents. Foster parents and their families often unknowingly show favoritism to their biological children. This includes buying gifts for biological children and failing to provide gifts for the foster child, taking family vacations and leaving the foster child behind, and praising the achievements, academic or developmental, of biological children while ignoring or belittling those of the foster child. Therefore, the child suffers from self esteem issues and starts to view the world as a cold and unfair place. Self harm is another possible coping method a child may use to handle stress and anxiety. The pain caused from self harm reminds the child that they are still alive and that they are in control. Everything in the child’s life has been controlled and in most cases they have no say in anything that is happening to, or around them. I believe it is important to allow the foster child to make as many decisions as possible, within reason. Even simple decisions such as choosing meals, activities for the weekend, and which household chores they would prefer will give the child a sense of control and healthy independence.
Foster children, like all children require love, nurturing, and a stable support system. Although the foster care system is necessary there are ways that it can be improved. Foster parents should be provided with more recognition, an increase in financial rewards, and more support services. Mrs. Kincade suggests that the ideal situation for a child is to be placed with relatives, although this is unlikely for a number of reasons. Most times the social worker is unable to find an extended family member, family members have an unwillingness to take the child, or a family member is elderly or deceased. The next best solution is to focus on providing the child with a compassionate foster parent. Ones who are properly and extensively screened and are foster parents for the right reasons, such as wanting to give a child a stable and loving environment to grow in versus being interested in self gain. They must be realistic in their expectations of what it means to be a foster parent and possess the ability to calmly evaluate and understand a foster child’s perspective and feelings. She also suggest that if more people are willing to become foster parents that will reduce the amount of overcrowding ,which is a problem in the foster care system. She believes that placement help is vital to the well being of a child.
This will allow the child to know exactly what is happening, where they are going, who their foster parents will be, as well as a little about them as a person. Children have time to prepare and mentally adjust to their situation if they know what to expect. Another important suggestion she has for improving the system is offering the foster parents with help and support. Providing foster parents with support helps diffuse situations where a foster parent becomes frustrated with the foster children’s complex behavior. If foster parents and children have support it will reduce the number of times a child has to be removed from a home, gives them a more stable environment and in return reduces the amount of stress a child feels when they are constantly being uprooted. This system has saved countless young lives and produced many success stories, but as with everything else, there is room for improvement. If we can stop thinking of foster children as “those kids” and begin thinking of them as “our kids” we can protect and nurture our youth.
In writing this, I hope that we can encourage the children of tomorrow and the adults of today to get involved, so that the foster children will no longer be the forgotten ones.
image by: Vitaliy Velikodniy