Can you imagine…
Choosing to be “homeless” so that you can continue to attend your high school? And having the maturity and foresight to make that decision at age 15?
Can you imagine…
Moving into your first dorm room accompanied by relative strangers who took you in and took you shopping a night before you left for college so you wouldn’t be escorted to your first day at college by DCF staff?
Can you imagine…
Couch-surfing all summer after your freshman year at college because your only other choice is to go to a homeless shelter?
Can you imagine…
The only constant in your life being a pink lamp that you cherished and made sure to bring with you on every move despite the many other possessions you lost along the way?
Can you imagine…
Having no family to go home to on vacations, holidays and summers home from college?
Can you imagine…
Needing to possess the maturity at age 18 to realize that a DCF-subsidized education is your way out and you need to take advantage of this opportunity because “do-overs” and lazy semesters where you can fail because your parents are there to help you pick up the pieces and move on are just not an option?
Can you imagine…
Keeping the secret shame of foster care from your college roommates?
Can you imagine… The loneliness of living like this? Can you imagine?
Leaving for college is a rite of passage for many American high school graduates, an exciting time marked by one last summer spent celebrating with high school friends; shopping excursions with parents to purchase just the right “stuff” for dorm rooms; as well as some normal anxiety and giddy excitement about what the future will shortly bring. Imagine for a moment how different this is for a lot of American foster youth – 23,000 of whom age out of foster care every year. Many foster youth who plan to attend college spend their summer after high school graduation either planning their move from a foster home if they haven’t already aged-out of care; transitioning from a group home; or couch-surfing because they no longer have a place to stay. A few lucky ones have the comfort of knowing that they remain welcome at their foster homes through out their college careers just like any other “normal kid.”
In Connecticut, foster youth have the option of remaining in care until they are 23 years old as long as they attend post-secondary school full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA. (DCF Policy 36-94. No public link available.) Despite this protection, foster youth preparing for college may worry about many things that their non-foster peers have no experience with – like how they are going to budget for everything they need to begin the school year (sometimes with little to no adult support and guidance) within the $150 budget DCF provides them. Who, if anyone, will attend Parents Weekend? Where will they will stay during the times that dorms are closed over summer and during school breaks, as well as the very adult anxiety about fulfilling their contracts with DCF? That is what it is like for the far too few college-bound youth in foster care. That is what it was like for Lexie. (see DCF Policy and Regulations)
Lexie entered the Connecticut foster care system at age 15. This extremely bright Political Science and Women’s Studies major experienced at least 20 moves between shelters, group homes, and foster homes before she graduated from high school. Many of her moves were made primarily because she insisted on being educated in her home school district and DCF struggled to find her long-term placements within the district. Laws at that time limited her to two options: be housed within her district or become homeless to qualify for services in her school district. School was her oasis, a source of comfort and support as well as the only source of constancy and consistency in her life. She was not giving that up without a fight. And truth is she shouldn’t have had to choose between a safe and stable home and her school. No child should.
West Hartford Public Schools administrators worked hard to keep Lexie within their district. Showing maturity far beyond her years, Lexie asserts, “West Hartford believed in me. It made all the difference that they were willing to fight for my right to remain in my school. It made me believe in me.” Since Lexie’s graduation, CT education policies have been reformed and many more children in foster care are educated in their home school districts when placed in DCF care. (See info on the Education Stability Act enacted in 2011.)
For a foster youth, moving into a college dorm can be a challenging transition. Lexie took college classes much more seriously than did her dorm mates. She had to. She did not have a family and a home to fall back on, somewhere to go if college did not work out. In her eyes this was her opportunity to make something of herself. Lexie describes her first semester as a “shock, like I didn’t know how to deal, like a complete culture shock. My first year was very bad. No one [in my dorm] had been in foster care. I had no one to call.” Having roommates who grew up in typical middle class families was challenging. “How do I explain the circumstances of my life? How do I answer the question ‘Where am I from?’ How do I explain that I feel different? No one can understand how I am different. Kids asked lots of questions so sometimes I found myself lying to protect myself.”
According to Casey Family Programs: “About 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education. Only about 2 percent obtain bachelor’s or advanced degrees, in contrast to 24 percent of adults in the general population.” These dismal statistics mean that students like Lexie are rare. Unless colleges make special efforts to connect foster youth with other foster youth on their campuses, (and some do provide these supports) many of these youth will remain unaware that there are other foster youth who could become their natural support systems. And for many of them, this means they will drop out before graduating with any kind of degree finding the college culture too difficult to navigate and the classwork too challenging. Lexie knows firsthand how spending much of her adolescence in group homes affected her. “Social skills don’t come easily when you don’t live in a family.”
Lexie describes her second year at college as another challenging year especially around dorm life. During that year she experienced a loss that was really difficult for her. Her two dogs from her bio family died. In addition, she changed roommates twice. And she tried to work out living back at home (during holidays and school breaks) with her parents which made her feel more like the other college kids. Despite the fact that living at home did not work out, Lexie does not regret having tried one last time to live with her parents.
This past summer Lexie was one of 16 college students from across the United States participating in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program. (Link: http://www.ccainstitute.org/our-programs/foster-youth-internship.html). Through this internship, she spent the summer working in the office of Rep. Jim McDermott, of Washington State. She worked on a policy report, which she presented to Congress this past July 30, working to ensure that changes are made to educational policies affecting children in foster care. Lexie speaks with great passion and obvious pride of her experiences this past summer, “I’ve always been inclined towards politics. Back when President Bush came up with “No Child Left Behind” I wrote a letter to him. This opportunity was a perfect fit for me. We learned from the best of the best. We had unparalleled access to Congress. We lived at George Washington University where we were completely spoiled. We had life skills coaching and were exposed to art and culture. We each had a personal stylist work with us to choose appropriate clothing for working in a congressional office within the budgets we were granted. We practiced interviewing skills through mock interviews with political leaders. We were afforded opportunities to network and were mentored by Senator Landrieu.” Because of this experience, Lexie came to the attention of Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura through her internship with Rep. McDermott. He spoke to Rep. DeLauro on Lexie’s behalf and on her last day in Washington, DC, Rep DeLauro offered her an internship in her Connecticut office.
So here is where being in foster care and residing in group homes continues to impact this resourceful young lady. She still does not have her driver’s license, an all too common issue for aging-out youth. With no opportunity to obtain a license while residing in a group home during her last year in high school, Lexie still has not been able to obtain her license or raise the funds to purchase a vehicle. Which means she needs to rely on others to provide her with transportation whenever public transportation is not an option. Which means that someone has to give her a ride to her internship. Another hurdle foster youth commonly face that most other youth their age may not.
This year is Lexie’s junior year at Quinnipiac University. She is doing well. She is busy and loves her internship. She is ahead of schedule to graduate but will remain at school and on campus through May of 2015 when she will graduate with her class. Her long term goal is to someday be Governor of Connecticut.
About DCF, Lexie says, “CT DCF is better than any other state’s foster care.” And she feels she can say that after having spent this past summer with youth from other states. She says she tells her story not as a ‘woe is me’ tale but because, “I went through this and other kids go through this. I want everyone to remember the kids. I don’t want the spotlight on me when it should be on the children. I want to be sure I use my resources and gifts for the children still in DCF care.” Indeed, she is right about Connecticut. CT DCF spent over $4 million on financial assistance for 494 former foster children attending college in FY 2011, money well spent. According to DCF’s Annual report Concerning At-Risk Children and Youth, April 2011: 81% of youth who decline continued DCF services are unemployed. Researchers all agree that aging-out youth have high rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unintended pregnancy. Encouraging higher education can mitigate the incidence of these difficulties. And DCF does this. But there is still a long road ahead for all child welfare agencies regarding policies and practices that impact adolescents. And the most challenging of these is the lack of foster families for this age group. The most powerful gift these youth can be offered is the gift of family – whether kin, adoptive, foster or continued connection to any other “family” in whatever form that that takes, these youth need relationships meant to last a lifetime. Because it is in relationship that healing takes place and in relationship where we all find our “safe place.”
Asked what Lexie would like other youth in foster care to know: “I am beating the odds. Kids – education is a lifeline. Take advantage of that. No others from other states have what Connecticut offers in terms of college. Education is the key to get out of your situation. College education changes you as a person. It exposes you to culture. It’s invaluable.”
When asked if there is anything else she would like folks to know, Lexie looks out the window and quietly reflects, “I have everything in life but a family. If someone had taken a chance and opened their home to me I imagine I would be even more successful than I am today. It would have made me a more well-rounded person and developed that part of my soul.” She turns and makes eye contact, “I am not a unique case. There are plenty of other “Lexies” out there.”
The Child Welfare Information Gateway describes this Factsheet for Families as:
As discussion of the adoption process becomes more open and accepted in American society, and as more Americans have experience with adoption, there is also more attention focused on those involved in adoption—the adopted person, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents (often referred to as the adoption triad or the adoption constellation). This factsheet examines the impact of adoption on adopted persons who have reached adulthood.
“You may be a current or prospective foster or adoptive parent of a child with a known or suspected history of child sexual abuse. In some cases, you may not be certain that abuse has occurred, but you may have suspicions based on information you received or because of the child’s behavior. You may feel confused, concerned, and unsure of the impact of prior child maltreatment, including sexual abuse.
This factsheet discusses how you can help children in your care by educating yourself about child sexual abuse, establishing guidelines for safety and privacy in your family, and understanding when and how to seek help if you need it. Reading this factsheet alone will not guarantee that you will know what to do in every circumstance, but you can use it as a resource for some of the potential challenges and rewards that lay ahead.”
The four video links below provide a good reference for understanding how trauma influences and shapes the behaviors of children who have experienced complex trauma.
Supporting Your LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents
From The Child Welfare Information Gateway:
This factsheet was written for foster parents to help them learn about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) youth in the child welfare system, the unique risks they face, and the important role that foster parents can play in reducing those risks. The factsheet outlines specific actions that foster parents can take to create a welcoming home for all youth in their care and to promote youths’ health and well-being in the community.
Also included are links to many resources for more information and support.
Untangling the Web: The Internet’s Transformative Impact on Adoption
From the Donaldson Institute’s Report:
It is difficult to describe the extent to which the Internet is changing the everyday realities ofadoption – and the lives of the millions of people it encompasses – without using words thatsound hyperbolic. But a yearlong examination of the effects of this very new technology on avery old social institution indicates that they are systemic, profound, complex and permanent.
Social media, search engines, blogs, chat rooms, webinars, photo-listings and an array of othermodern communications tools, all facilitated by the Internet, are transforming adoption practices,challenging current laws and policies, offering unprecedented opportunities and resources, andraising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues about which adoption professionals,legislators and the personally affected parties, by their own accounts, have little reliable information, research or experience to guide them.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s research for this report affirmed that substantive information about the Internet’s impact on adoption is scarce in the scholarly literature – or anyplace else – so there is little reliable knowledge to inform policy and practice, or to guide families or professionals. To begin filling this gap, the Adoption Institute has embarked on a multiyear, firstof-its-kind study of the Internet’s impact on all aspects of adoption. Because there is a dearth of evidence-based information, most of the content of this report was derived from searching the Internet and getting input from the affected parties through a variety of means, including interviewing them and setting up a special email address to which they could send their input.
One key goal of this initial report by the Adoption Institute is to stimulate a national discussion about the Internet’s impact on adoption and how to regulate Internet-based adoption services to assure that they are legal and ethical, and that the interests of all those affected –particularly children– are protected. This report provides an overview of the evolving landscape; an explanation of the scope and impact of the changes; resources (albeit limited ones) to inform, protect and assist all those affected; and preliminary recommendations on legal, policy and practice reforms intended to better respond to adoption’s new realities. Our ultimate intent is toidentify and promote policies and practices that enable this powerful technology to best serve the millions of children and families for whom adoption is part of everyday life.
Helping Youth Transition to Adulthood: Guidance for Foster Parents
New publication (April 2013) from the Child Welfare Information Gateway that provides foster parents with guidance on how to help youth and emerging adults build a foundation for a successful transition to adult life outside of foster care. This factsheet for families includes eight tip sheets that provide specific guidance on topics related to self-sufficiency.
Alternatives for Families: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway: “This issue brief is intended to build a better understanding of the characteristics and benefits of AF-CBT, an evidence-supported intervention that targets (1) diverse individual child and caregiver characteristics related to conflict and intimidation in the home and (2) the family context in which aggression or abuse may occur. It was written primarily to help child welfare caseworkers and other professionals who work with at-risk families make more informed decisions about when to refer children and their parents and caregivers to AF-CBT programs. This information also may help parents, foster parents, and other caregivers understand what they and their children can gain from AF-CBT and what to expect during treatment.”
March is National Social Worker Month. Just about every person reading this can probably name a social worker who has made some sort of impact on you – from a social worker at your high school; one who assisted your family with an elderly loved one; a clinical social worker who helped you or a loved one through a difficult period in life or maybe a social worker is a member of your family. One thing the best social workers have in common is they love what they do – they are passionate advocates for the families and individuals they are charged with helping. They radiate a special internal light that some might label a “calling” or a “mission.” And one thing those of us whose lives they touch can say is we are blessed for having them in our lives. Below is the story of one such social worker.
Lighting up a room is a specialty of Arlene Velazquez, social worker with the New Britain office of the Department of Children and Families. This is a woman with two speaking speeds as she is the first to laughingly point out – “fast and very fast.” Born in Puerto Rico, Arlene’s family moved to the north end of Hartford when she was 7 years old. At the time, she only spoke Spanish. Despite the challenges of learning a second language while acclimating to a different culture and a new school Arlene aspired to more than what she experienced in her family – a family she admits that while very loving and committed to one another was “very poor” and struggled with feeling disenfranchised. She quickly adapted to life in Hartford and “became involved in everything.” She learned to love public speaking. She was even named Prom Queen of her high school class! The oldest of three siblings, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first to graduate from college. Because of a required sociology class in high school she turned her attention to sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University where she attained her undergraduate degree. At the time Arlene thought she would pursue a legal career because of her interest in Civil Rights and interestingly enough, celebrity law. One thing was certain; she definitely wanted to work with people. But life has a strange way of intervening.
After graduation from Eastern, Arlene went to work as a counselor at a halfway house for men. She began to think about wanting a family and children and decided that she needed to change course. Law school would have meant many more years in school and much more debt. Looking through available positions, she spotted a job opening at DCF and submitted her resume. “I had all of the things they were looking for. And I spoke Spanish.” She believes that being bilingual really made a difference. She got the job.
Arlene is one of the first DCF staff a prospective foster parent meets during the licensing process. Now a 12 year veteran at DCF, Arlene’s current assignment is as a PRIDE trainer and licensing worker. Initially hired as a trainee working in the Waterbury office, Arlene found social work was a really good fit for her. “I was starting to see the difference I could make in people’s lives. It was such a high. And it was so humbling. My first removal was so surreal. I went home and cried. We have so much power over people’s lives.” Arlene has obvious respect and humility regarding the power afforded social workers at DCF. She states, “I have been blessed to have good supervisors,” people whom she feels have provided her with astute guidance and sage advice that have made her appreciate and understand the positive ways she can help change the direction of people’s lives.
Arlene applied for a transfer to the CPS Unit in New Britain in 2003 and was delighted when the position was offered to her. She was pregnant at the time and thought she would be transferred upon her return after maternity leave. No. They wanted her right away. So, she jumped at the opportunity. After stints with Child Protective Services (CPS), Investigations and Permanency Units, Arlene now works with the Foster Adoptive Services Unit (FASU). Her unbounded enthusiasm and genuine passion for her work, the families she teaches and the kids she teaches about are likely some of the biggest reasons families love to attend her PRIDE classes – that and her knowledge base. Arlene genuinely knows what she is talking about and she communicates honestly and effectively with “her families.” All of her experience prior to her current position prepared her well. She learned a lot of good assessment skills. Arlene explains, “I’m a writer. I like to write about the strengths and challenges of a family. I like to make my family come to life. It’s important for them to have a well-written home study. Especially for adoptive families – this is their marketing tool.” She feels a real obligation with adoptive families to portray them accurately so that a good match can be made when the time comes. In fact, you get the impression that Arlene always puts forth extra effort for every family she comes into contact.
In addition to her professional passion, Arlene also identifies with foster families in a very personal way. A number of years ago, her 2 year old nephew was removed from his mother’s care and Arlene and her husband became his foster family. The young boy was living down in Florida at the time and had been placed in a group home. Arlene immediately flew to Florida to take custody of him as soon as her family found out about his situation. She cared for him for 4 months until he was reunified with his mother. When he was 7 years old, he was again removed from his mother’s care this time in CT. Her nephew lived with her family for 3 months until it became clear that he needed a higher level of care. Although he was moved to a congregate care setting, Arlene and her family visited him at least monthly. They wanted to be sure he knew that his family cared about him. Family situations can be complicated, though, and whenever he was reunified with his mom, her family rarely got to see him. This experience has made Arlene very insightful about the feelings foster families experience. She sounds thoughtful when she says, “It is not an easy thing to do, to become a foster parent. I’m big about commitment. This was hard for me and my family.”
Arlene says that she is very honest with her classes. “I’m very strict with my class. They need to take it seriously. The first sign of their commitment – to me – is coming to class. How will you ever deal with the kids if you cannot keep this commitment?” Pausing for a minute, she collects her thoughts and continues now talking about birth family contact, “We all need to remember that we are doing this for the kids. FOR THE KIDS. It’s so important for them to have relationships with family. Eventually you understand where they are coming from. Compare it to a divorce. Would you talk bad about the other parent? Prevent them from seeing the other parent? YOU might have issues with the other parent but you don’t let that interfere with the kid’s relationship with their parent. Ask yourself: Can I deal with all these? DCF? Appointments? Issues? Birth families?” She is very clear with families. This is not for everyone but – if it is for you – she will prepare you well.
Another of Arlene’s passions – which every family who attends her PRIDE classes can attest to – is teenagers. Her eyes sparkle and her speed jumps to very fast as she discusses these youth that are often not the first choice of families going through the licensing process. “People think that our kids are all bad and that’s so sad because they are not. When I worked in other units I had teens on my caseload, really good teens. Back then I had no idea that there was such a shortage of foster homes for this age group. I just didn’t know it was that big. I thought that some of the kids might have chosen not to be close to a family.” Arlene becomes sad at this point. “It could have been any one of us. They’re just like we were except a little higher degree. Hearing the stories – yeah, the babies are cute – but what about the other kids? And I think about my nephew.” She sighs, “These kids don’t get to experience all the things we all experienced like prom and other rites of passage. It’s just not right. So, yes, I have a passion about teens. If I don’t think something is right I want to change it.”
To rectify the lack of homes for teens, Arlene came up with a plan – this is not a woman who sits idly by when she identifies a problem. Arlene approached her Program Manager, Dina Kelly, and asked if she could add an additional class onto her PRIDE training. Arlene describes Dina as “incredibly supportive and open to trying new things.” Dina told her to “go for it” so Arlene did the research and added a 3 hour training dedicated to helping families understand the needs of teens in the hopes that more families might become comfortable parenting kids older than those they had originally identified. Arlene’s new class starts with a fun “icebreaker” which gets families thinking about their own behavior as teens; a section on brain development and a panel with social workers who are adolescent specialists, foster families who parent teens and teens in foster care. It has been a smashing success!
Someday Arlene hopes to adopt. She says, “I plan to wait until I can give them what they need. You should hear my husband. Initially he was not willing but now – now – he sounds just like a social worker when he talks about the kids and us adopting.” She laughs. Her eyes sparkle. You know some kid, someday, is going to be really lucky.
-written by Deb Kelleher for Foster Adoptive Mission, all rights reserved.
Realistic Expectations for Fostering Families
“Deciding to foster is a huge commitment and leap of faith. The best foster parents share that being prepared and connected with other families like theirs is a step on the road to successful placements.” (from guide intro) This guide is a powerful resource for you to use to help you understand better the commitment you are choosing by fostering/adopting or caring for kin. It also provides valuable insight as to the thoughts and feelings of children and youth affected by foster care.