This week's article is by guest author Lisa Dickson. Lisa is a beloved colleague and friend to Athens CASA and a fierce advocate for teens in the foster care system.
Foster care youth and alumni operate by a different set of rules and consequences, than kids who grow up with their biological parents. And our actions are accompanied by a lot more paperwork! Let’s think about these magnified consequences - and how they impact the safety, security, well being, and long-term outcomes of foster care youth.
I’m a former foster youth who works behind the scenes to improve outcomes for the next generation. I have created several workshops for foster parents, caseworkers, CASAs, GALs and others who work with foster care youth and young adults.
One of my workshop activities is for participants to think about the worst thing they ever did as a teenager. They are invited to write it down and turn it in anonymously. Each action is read aloud, and diagnosed by participants as to how they might be documented in a case file for a current foster care youth.
1) “I went to my friend’s house, and didn’t tell my parents where I was going.” Teens like to hang out with their friends. They don’t always think to keep their caregivers informed. But for a young person in foster care, going to a friend’s house without notifying your foster caregiver is called going AWOL (“absent without leave”). Your foster parents might notify the agency, and the agency might call the police.
2) “I had sex.” Teens are awakening to attraction and romantic interests. Being intimate with another person can be summed up in a case file with the label of “promiscuity.” Even if it was just one person, or just one time.
3) “I drank a beer.” Teens are vulnerable to peer influence. “Hey, try this” and being tempted to experiment with drugs or alcohol can easily, and prematurely, be described as “substance abuse” or addiction in a case file.
For teens in foster care, these momentary actions lead to labels that sadly tend to stick in the long run. But this is only the beginning when it comes to the magnified consequences.
4) Let's say you're a teenager and you act out. Will you be grounded for a month? Or, if you’re in foster care, will you be transferred to a totally different place to live? Think about how traumatizing it is to make a mistake, and then be rejected so completely as to be removed from a household and never returned to it again. How does that impact self-worth?
5) Let's say you're in college and you do a poor job of budgeting. Are you able to contact your parents or ask for their help? Or are you now homeless? And if you do experience homelessness after foster care, who is going to be there to help you? Former foster youth are at risk for being trafficked, for participating in survival sex, and for getting in with the wrong crowd while on the streets, which can lead to incarceration.
While children are in foster care, the Children’s Bureau measures each states’ success in caring for them by three categories: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being.
If we care about the safety of foster youth, we need to advocate that a transition plan is written for teens, with youth input. And that the plan includes both a housing plan and a back-up housing plan whenever possible. And we need to utilize Permanency Pacts as a tool for young people who 'age out' of foster care, so that when they struggle, they have someone to call.
If we care about permanence for foster youth, we need to recognize that being moved from one placement to another is painful and youth need and deserve support in adjusting after experiencing that loss. Children and teens don't "just get over" being removed from placements or having disrupted adoption. It takes time and supports to heal. Ignoring this need can lead to young people accidentally self-sabotaging future relationships.
If we care about the well being of foster youth, then we need to acknowledge that the magnified consequences that children and teens in foster care face are traumatizing, and how they negatively impact their self-worth.
Lisa Dickson serves as Communications Chair for Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now (ACTION Ohio) and co-facilitator of the Ohio Youth Advisory Board. She was a founding member and former chair of Ohio Reach, a statewide initiative to increase the number of foster care youth who enroll in and graduate from college. All of these positions are in a volunteer capacity.
The artwork below is from Foster Care Alumni of America's "Culture of Foster Care" Postcard Project. If you'd like to get involved with Athens CASA and work on behalf of the best interests of a teenager in the foster care system, now is the time to make a difference. You have the power to make sure that every word is heard and that teens in the foster care system are seen as teens first. Please apply to volunteer by clicking here.