The Beginning of the School Year is Challenging for all Students, but especially for Foster Youth

The start of a new school year is an exciting and scary time for all children. However, for children living in foster care, the start of a new school year can be overwhelming.

First, foster youth move frequently, which puts them at least six months academically behind their peers. The frequent moves also mean that many foster youth are beginning the year in a new school, without the safety network of returning friends, familiar teachers or an understanding of the school culture.

boy with head down on chalk board

In addition, these students face enormous personal emotional challenges. First, is the abuse or neglect that put them in care, but there is also the embarrassment of being in foster care, being separated from siblings and parents and living in a strange home. All of these factors weigh heavily on these young people. It is imperative that teachers, administrators, foster parents and all of those in the foster youth’s life to pay special attention to how these students assimilate into the classroom and watch for any bullying or shaming that may occur. Any additional emotional trauma would devastate an already fragile situation.

Research shows that youth living in foster care are more likely to drop out of high school and are least likely to attend college. An organized effort to safeguard a smooth school transition for these youth is the key to a positive educational experience that can offset some of the damage done by the abuse, neglect and the barriers that these youth experience. Additionally, and most importantly, an improved educational experience will enhance the overall wellbeing of each student and provide a pathway to self-sufficiency and a successful adulthood.

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A CASA Child Advocate Talks About ‘Giving Back’

MCambridgeWhen I asked Margaret why she was a child advocate for CASA, she smiled and slid a sheet of paper, in child’s handwriting, across the table. It was a child’s poem, encased in a plastic sleeve. “I’m going to frame this”, she said.

Often, children living in the foster care system can be slow to trust or warm up to another new person entering their lives. This was Margaret’s experience when she first met one of her CASA children, a 9-year girl.  Seasoned CASA advocates told Margaret, “Just be patient”.

With consistent visits, the cornerstone of the CASA program, the little girl warmed up to Margaret. Margaret had asked for a poem. A couple visits later, her CASA child came running up to Margaret, arms wide, waving a sheet of paper.  The stranger who had entered a little girl’s life had become a trusted friend.

A CASA child advocate steps into the lives of children after they have been removed from their homes and are living with foster families.  This can be very disruptive and disturbing for these children.  Margaret, like all CASA advocates, is a trained volunteer who is committed to making a difference one day at a time, one child at a time.

Actually, Margaret’s background had its own very rocky start. As a 3-day old infant, she was surrendered by her biological mother. Margaret feels fortunate to have been taken into a loving and stable home. Having raised 2 children of her own, Margaret appreciates the open hearts it took for a couple in their 50’s and 60’s, with 3 adult children, to adopt her as an infant.

“I was fortunate and now it’s my turn to give back”, said Margaret.  “Some of my other volunteer work brings me to Family Court. It was there that I saw CASA volunteers and saw the work that they did.  I knew then that I wanted to be a CASA. I knew I wanted to be the Voice of the Child in foster care.

“One day, I told my 9 year old that I’m her voice and that she could ask the judge anything she wanted.”  She said, “Tell my mommy I said, ‘Hi!’. And tell the judge I said, ‘Hi’ too!” Margaret said she will never forget the day of the hearing, the judge asked me for my opinion and he called me up to read my court report. I told him that the little girl wanted me to say ‘Hi’ to him. He responded so positively that, “I was overwhelmed. I admire him and he inspired me. He cares. And he is for the kids.” I see how committed all the judges are to reunification wherever possible.” Margaret said.

“CASA has given me new life,” said Margaret. “They have given me a whole new non-judgmental vocabulary. But most of all, they’ve given me an understanding of these families who are struggling every day.  I view people differently since CASA.”

“My role as a child advocate keeps me busy and I like that. I also like that I can make my own schedule as a CASA volunteer,” said Margaret. “And I cannot say enough about the support I have gotten from Tina, my CASA advocate coach, and John from the CASA staff – they are always there for me.”

If there is a single word to describe Margaret, that word would have to be “Grateful.” Adopted as an infant. “I was given a Norman Rockwell life. My father was a pastor. My mom worked hard cleaning homes and would bring me along. I was given piano lessons and Buster Brown shoes. My parents were very well respected in my community and instilled in me the importance of getting involved. We were taught to ‘stand up straight’ in church. I had rules to follow and parents who cared for me.”

Margaret had no idea the struggles other families were having until she began her volunteer ‘career.’ She feels blessed for the life she has been given. She is busy and committed to giving back to those less fortunate. She feels that CASA and her other volunteer work in domestic violence gives her a softer side, “It balances me out.”

We are so grateful to Margaret and all of the other CASA’s who give their time and hearts to children in need.

Volunteerism – Its’ Good for Your Health!

When it comes to volunteering, it is true what they say: “What goes around comes around.”  It looks like the positive actions of volunteerism, comes back to the volunteer in the form of improved emotional and physical health as well as longevity. 

In fact, if done for the right reasons, studies show that volunteerism contributes to lower mortality rates.

A number of independent studies (including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Duke) have been conducted in recent years that show a significant relationship between volunteering and the health benefits afforded the volunteers:

  • Greater longevity
  • Higher functional abilities
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower incidence of heart disease
  • Benefits beyond medical care for chronic and serious illnesses
  • Chemical releases that give the ‘Happiness Effect’

Studies show that the most benefit comes to older individuals.  It is suspected that this is because it provides sense of purpose to those who have lost major role identities, such as parent or wage-earner.  Older adults, over 50, realized 44 percent lower mortality rates over a 5-year period than older individuals who did not volunteer.  “Helpers High”, defined as, ‘The sense of elation and increased energy that often follows helping others’, is achieved by the release of same chemicals as from physical exercise.

Preliminary studies show a level of considerable commitment is required, 1- 4 hours per week.  However, going above and beyond the Volunteering Threshold does not appear to add additional benefits. Further research is being conducted on the Volunteering Threshold – exactly how much volunteerism matters. 

So, if it is happy, healthy and long you want to live, eat well, exercise and give from the heart by volunteering! 

A Bumpy Road Leads to a Happy Ending

Life is complicated. Life is really complicated with parents living apart, sharing custody of six kids, one works two jobs while the other is trying hard, but still self-medicating to cope with the stress. Yeah, it is complicated.

ibuI meet Ibu on his day off.  He rides up on his bike to meet me, eager to share the story of the day his children were removed from their home by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P). That was two and a half years ago.

This is how it all started…a fight between two of the boys, landed one in the ER. A well-meaning aunt took the boy from the ER to another hospital in Philadelphia, leaving a discord between the boys’ mother and her well-meaning sister and an open door for a DCP&P investigation.

When DCP&P showed up at the home, mom was, understandably frightened. Strangers were coming into her home to investigate the welfare of her children and potentially their removal – that would frighten and anger anyone and perhaps make you not very cooperative. Which was the case for Ibu’s ex-wife. Once the investigation was complete, all of the children were removed from her care. Another aunt took in Ibu’s two girls, the two older children went to live with their biological father and a foster family takes in Ibu’s two boys.

DCP&P, CASA and the courts, work hard to keep families together, that is always the first choice whenever possible. Cooperation from all parties, especially the parents, is the key to ensuring reunification. Ibu understood this immediately and made sure he did everything necessary to bring his kids back home. Ibu’s ex-wife took a little longer to understand the process and the importance of her cooperation, but eventually she did, entering a recovery program for her drug addiction.

At first, DCP&P only granted supervised visits with their children in public places. Next, DCP&P allowed supervised visits with Ibu, then sleepovers supervised by Ibu.  Then Ibu’s six and 10-year-old sons returned to him.

Still, challenges existed that needed solutions. Childcare was a big obstacle, Ibu had to work, but who would watch the boys? Luckily, DCP&P helped secure affordable childcare. Ibu’s two girls were unhappy living at their aunt’s home so DCP&P granted permission to stay with Ibu’s girlfriend – a week before a court hearing. The two younger boys had trouble in school, so CASA Merv helped get them into an aftercare programs. The children’s mom continued to struggle with her addiction so CASA Merv helped her get the services she needed that would bring her kids back home.  Even transportation was an issue – Ibu and his ex-wife had to take two to three busses every week to visit their boys in their foster home.

The process was slow and difficult, but it was working and support came from all corners.

CASA Merv said, “The first time I met Ibu, he stood up in court, and clearly stated his intentions to reunite his family. I was so impressed with Ibu. We became friends.  Ibu did everything.”

In time, mom became more and more cooperative. She too, began to do what needed to reunite her family.  One by one, the children returned to their parents’ homes. Ibu has his two boys.  The others are with their mom.

Ibu finished our talk with on a positive note, “In the end, good came out. My kids never had Godparents. Through my visits with my kids while in their foster home, I came to know this wonderful couple. During a phone call, after the boys returned home, the foster parents asked if they could maintain their relationship with my boys. They asked if they could call the boys once a week and sleep over once a month to see the friends that they had met in the neighborhood. They also asked if they could be the boys Godparents.” Ibu responded to this heartwarming request with, “I’ll check with their mom.”  The kids now have Godparents and monthly sleepovers with their new friends.

Ibu said his relationship with CASA Merv continues with calls once a month to check in to say, “If you need anything at all, just ask.” Ibu said, “CASA Merv’s role was instrumental in getting my kids back home. He cared, was always there, and gave us the resources we needed.”

CASA Merv and DCP&P told the judge that this foster family has fostered many children but Ibu’s children, “are the best kids we’ve ever had, they were kind and respectful and well mannered.” As a parent, those are the best words that you can ever hear, especially with the challenges that this family faced.

We all know that life is complicated, but helping each other over the bumps in the road makes our journey together a little lighter.

Holiday Traditions Create Strong Family Bonds

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The holiday season is upon us and it’s such an exciting time! With so much to do! We get to see friends and family we’ve not seen in far too long. Don’t forget the food shopping, baking and feasting. The parties to attend, decorating to do, gift buying and wrapping…the list goes on and on!

Yes, the holidays are a busy and exciting time that are full of family traditions. Through the ages, in primitive and modern societies, our customs anchor and connect us to each other. Rituals and shared practices are the glue that binds families and social groups together. Traditions form our group identity and give us fond childhood memories.

But what if you’re the new guy? What if you’re a newly adopted or foster child invited into a family’s long history of shared traditions but these traditions only make you feel like an outsider? What if you’re a newly adoptive family and this is your first holiday season with your child and you realize that your traditions have no connection to him?

It’s important to bring your adopted and foster child into your holiday traditions, so they feel included. Be sure to discuss how and why your family started each tradition and what it means to each of you. Ask your child how he feels about the holidays and discuss his own traditions. Then create new holiday customs that are meaningful to your newest family member.

Some ideas for new holiday traditions could include:

Craft day – Make homemade gifts and cards to send to friends and family

Baking day – Someone chooses the treat and leads the baking

Music time – Everyone shares their favorite holiday song (any talented members?)

Holiday skit – Each family member plays a role in a holiday themed skit

Holiday story time – Each night a family member reads their favorite holiday story

Candle lighting – Light a candle as you think of someone special you may miss

Find a new holiday tradition that fits your family’s personality. It’s a way to celebrate the season, your family and its newest member. You can be sure these traditions will be treasured throughout the years.

CASA wishes all families a happy and joyful holiday season!

It’s Thanksgiving!!

So much food! A house full of family and friends! So much laughter and all those hugs! There’s just so much to be thankful for!

“But this is not my family. These are not my friends. They are all strangers. The food looks yucky. These people are all so noisy. And, they all look so happy. I miss my mom and dad so much. I miss my sisters. I just want to be in my own bedroom. In my own house.”

If there’s a foster child sitting at your Thanksgiving table for the first time, this may be their experience. As a foster parent, you have generously opened your home to a child. You want to share your traditions with her and welcome her into your family. But instead of a happy child, you see a sad child.

Consider this. It may be her very first Thanksgiving dinner. Ever. Instead of being thankful, she may feel that she has nothing to be thankful for. She’s never seen so much food at one time. Her family never had this much food all at once. Many days, they couldn’t even feed themselves. She feels guilty that there is so much food in front of her and she knows that her family has none. In fact, she never celebrated Thanksgiving with her biological family. Ever. Beyond making hand-single-mom-thanksgivingprint turkeys and talking about the Pilgrims at school, she never really understood what Thanksgiving, or family traditions, meant.

All of a sudden, this little girl is thrown into a celebration that she doesn’t understand, with people that she barely knows, without her family. And none of it is familiar.

If there’s a foster child joining your family this year, please take the extra time and care to make them feel welcome and a part of your family’s Thanksgiving tradition.

1. Before the big day, tell her what your family does for Thanksgiving and what it means to you.
2. Let the child know how many guests will be coming and that it may be noisy.
3. Give her an exit plan if she finds herself overwhelmed and needs to take a break.
4. Take the time to tell each of your guests a little something about your foster child so they can engage her in conversation. That way she’ll be able to make new friends and feel a part of your family.
5. Ask her what some of her favorite foods are and how her family prepared them – and make sure that food makes it onto your table.
6. And most important of all, let her participate. Let her mix, chop and help set the table. Because even though you may not be her biological family, being a part of a family celebration, and the traditions that go along with it, is something that everyone can be thankful for.

CASA’s wishes all families a happy and joyful Thanksgiving!

 

The Effects of Foster Care on Mental Health

The path to sound mental health is really quite simple. Over an extended period of time, a child needs a nurturing home that’s safe and secure, loving and responsive caregiver(s), and stability. In this environment, strong bonds are built, a sense of self worth is developed and a joyful life is possible. However, the complex trauma experienced by most youth in the foster care system often sets these children on quite a different path for their mental health.

Their mental and behavioral health is affected by what can often be a long history of abuse and neglect. And that’s before they even enter their first foster home. Broken family relationships, multiple transitions, and inconsistent access to mental health services along with poverty are all contributing factors.

Exacerbating the problem is the risk of unresponsive care once placed in a foster home. If physical needs are met, but caregivers are insensitive to attachment signals and emotional needs, the child is at a high risk for attachment disorders as well.

Young children removed from their home who experience attachment disorders are more likely to exhibit oppositional behavior, crying and clinging. As time goes on, severe disturbances in their relationships with caregivers can occur.Any of several disorders can manifest in adulthood.

In fact, up to 80 percent of children in foster care experience significant mental health issues. When compared to the general population of approximately 18-20 percent, it’s clear that children in foster suffer greatly in terms of mental health.

The chart below, taken from the Casey National Alumni Study, demonstrates clearly the differences between those with foster care experiences compared to the general population. As can be expected, the PTSD and panic disorder rates are especially high and disproportionate to the general population. Drug dependence and bulimia are also quite disproportionate.

Microsoft Word - Casey_Natl_Alumni_Study - Mental_Health_OutcomePlease Note: Chart republished from The Foster Care Alumni Studies Stories from the Past to Shape the Future. For more information on the mental health outcomes  in the Casey National Alumni Study visit http://research.casey.org (enter username: researchguest and password: caseyguest).

Another component of this complex issue is medication. The propensity to medicate is of particular concern in this population. Psychotropic medications treat behavioral and mental health problems. These medicines include anti-anxiety, stimulants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. It is estimated that youth in foster care use these medicines at significantly higher rates (13-52 percent) than the general population (4 percent). Often, multiple medications are prescribed without any conformity.

Finally, it appears that there is no significant delivery of mental health care services to these youth. The majority of services rendered are referrals to mental outpatient treatment centers.

Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Is there any good news? There is some. That these mental health studies are now being performed, sheds light on the important issues facing foster care youth and foster care alumni with regards to their mental health. Other than PTSD, once in recovery, foster care alumni recover at the same rates as the general population. And, since 2011, over half of the states have enacted legislation regarding the use of psychotropic drugs. It’s a start.