Children in foster care need our extra nurturing. Feeling cast aside through no fault of their own, they are at risk for physical and mental health issues in childhood, teen years and well into adulthood. Though one might think that a “quick” placement in the right home will change everything, that is a naïve view of a harsh reality that needs a lot more attention. Let me discuss two examples.
Francine Cournos, MD, a psychiatrist and author of CITY OF ONE, A MEMOIR, endured the loss of both parents by age 11 and subsequent placement in foster care. She assumed that her family (aunts or uncles) would take over as the guardian for her and her siblings. They did not. At age 13, she was placed in foster care until she moved out on her own at age 19.
In foster care, she describes some of the humiliating processes that she had to endure. First, she had to be “processed” – going from one office to another, from one stranger to another, as different information about her was collected. Then she had to get a physical examination from a local physician. This step was particularly humiliating, being examined in an unfamiliar environment by a stranger. Finally, she had to meet her new foster parents. Since this placement was not permanent, she and her siblings had recurrent cycles of attachment and desertion.
In her book, she notes the various mental states that she went through. On the surface, she acted like a miniature adult “but underneath…was a very needy child who suffered from depression, self-hatred, distrust of adults, an inability to make any intimate connections, and a tremendous loss of a sense of structure. In short, I was not what I appeared to be.” Dr. Cournos knows (from personal experience) that children placed in foster care might not articulate their needs like adults but “they watch, worry, observe the behavior of the adults around them, perceive that they are being left out or underestimated, [and] contain their feelings they judge too dangerous to express. They pass judgment, censor their speech, feel powerless and powerful at once. They take responsibility for, and feel guilty about, developments in their lives that are in fact out of their control. They invent theories to explain what is happening to them, and believe that whatever happened before, however unlikely it may have been, is bound to happen again.” Finally, she realizes that “it is unrealistic to believe that children who have had no solid grounding in the first place can suddenly become capable adults simply because they have reached the legal age of eighteen.”
Josh Shipp, a former at-risk foster kid turned youth advocate, poignantly describes his youth in foster care, actively trying to get kicked out of foster homes. His early rejection from his own family “destroyed” his sense of well-being. Rejection and moving from home to home seemed his destiny and supported his sense not belonging. His last foster family “refused” to accept his acting out or efforts to be rejected.
Josh’s mantra now is that “Every Kid is One Caring Adult Away from Being a Success Story” as he professes his love and undying devotion to this couple (check out his website at www.joshshipp.com). His new children’s book, NO MATTER WHAT: A FOSTER CARE TALE, is a carefully crafted tale with wonderful illustrations to remind us all of the good that we can do for each other and especially those children in need.
Hearing Josh’s story at a recent meeting was a real emotional experience for me as I realized the hardship and heartbreak so many foster children go through, and Dr. Cournos beautifully and dramatically articulated the trials and tribulations of this era in her life. I have heard other presentations about the plight of too many children that end up in foster care because of a variety of family disruptions. I now realize that more children are in foster care than I appreciated. These children have special healthcare needs (physical and psychological). These needs have not been adequately addressed by our society, especially some governmental policies (state and federal) that often short-change the services needed by these children and their families. The magnitude of the problem is substantial.
We need to provide extra support and services to a particularly vulnerable group of children, foster children. These children need our special attention to become productive citizens. By demonstrating the important lessons of caring, loving, sharing and helping, we can enhance their chances for the present and future.