Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Yes, Hello. How can I help?"

A single phone call to a 1-800 number can change everything for so many people.  One phone call and everything changes. 

That phone rang for the first time on May 9, 1990.  It was 27 years ago that a single person made a single phone call to report something she'd heard.  The chain of events that would ensue after just that one phone call would forever change every moment of the rest of my life and the lives of so many other people.

On that day, a social worker was told that she would need to a 6th grade girl some tough questions. On that day, a young girl had to share her deepest, darkest secrets with total strangers. On that day, a mother's world was turned upside down.  On that day, a brother was ignored.  On that day, a father had to answer for his choices.  On that day, a social worker had to make a decision.  On that day, a relative was asked to step in.  On that day, a family was forever changed. 

Nine days later, another phone call.  The relative was no longer willing or able to help. 

Another phone call.  A child is placed into protective custody. 

Each move made by a single phone call.  Each call symbolizing a crossroads.  Each call means the trajectory changes.  Each call, each decision, each moment turns the world on its axis and causes everything to be different.

As I sit here and reflect on the life path that has brought me to this current moment in time, I am reminded of the importance and incredible significance of just one single moment in time and that phone call.  I have spent much of my time this week asking myself the question "Why do I do what I do?" and thinking about the career choice I've made. I've wondered "What is the point?", "Is what we do really better?", and "Is this where I'm supposed to be?"  I've thought about why I spent 12 years persevering through college and graduate school to get the degree I knew I would need to really do what I wanted to do.  I've thought about the jobs I've held since I was 18 years old and how each of those jobs has brought me here, to this place, in this moment.  I've thought about all I've learned and the training I received from each of those positions.  I've thought about all the children, youth, and families I've worked with over the last 18 years and I've remembered so many of the stories I've read and heard. I've imagined the faces of so many young people who needed to be told, some for the first time, just how special they are and I've wondered what impact I've had on their lives.  I've imagined all the couches and kitchen tables that I've used to get to know families better.  I've thought about decisions I've made - decisions made with families and decisions made for families.  I've reflected on the guidance I've given to others in this work and I've wondered how, or perhaps, whether I've helped to shape the work of a  larger system.  All the while asking myself "Is it working?"

I've, thought, too, of my own family and my children. I've considered where I've placed them on my priority list and the investment I'm making in their lives each day.  I've thought about what I am teaching them and what I am modeling for them about their place in this world and the role of family.  I've reflected on  the example I am setting for each of them, my sons and my daughters, and about what sort of life they may have someday when they each become parents.

Essentially, I've been refocusing and realigning. 

Early this morning,  I found my footing.  I was reminded of that first call, 27 years ago.  I was reminded of my own journey and all the crossroads that existed within my own story. I felt drawn to thoughts of the person who answered the call and passed it on. I recalled the face of the people who came to the school and the people who showed concern.  I remembered how I felt in those moments and all the questions I had.  I remembered wondering what would my brother do or think.  I recalled the look on my mother's face when she was told what was happening.  I imagined my brother's confusion and even my father's nervousness.  My mind was flooded with the collection of faces of the social workers, therapists, group home staff, foster families, teachers, and court folks who would touch my life over the next several years.  I thought about each decision that was made and I considered how the outcome would be different if even one decision had gone another way.  I thought about each "call" that was made over my life and I remembered that I, too, had gotten a "call".

God placed me in this field.  God called me to be a social worker. God called me to serve in child welfare. God called me to use my voice to share a message of worth, value, importance to families and to children.  God placed me in a position of leadership because He equipped me to teach, guide, and encourage others.  God has called me to hold others up when they feel low and to recognize those who do this remarkably hard work, to be their encourager.  God uses each family's case to teach me something, and he used mine to teach me the importance of the "family" in child welfare.  He reminded me, today, to consider each case individually, to call each person by name, to remember that each person in each case is a person, not a case!  God reminded me that each and every decision means the trajectory of each individual life will change forever with every decision made.  I was reminded today that the circumstances which drive me nuts are doing so because those are the circumstances that should be driving me forward.  I need not to feel blocked by those obstacles and challenges that come up in this work, but I need to be fired up by them, encouraged to keep on persevering. I need to keep my focus fixed on identifying the obstacles and working to develop solutions.  Every obstacle can be overcome! This only seems to be insurmountable!

Why push on and keep doing this work, when it seems to be so much more work than we'll ever be able to really accomplish?

The answer is because the phone will ring again.  There will always be a family in need.  There will always be someone to make the call.  There will always be someone who is reaching out.  The phone will ring again.  There will always be someone who can't find their voice.  There will always be more to consider. There will always be a reason why not to do it, but all of those reasons will never outweigh the one simple reason to keep do it.

The phone will ring again.

I want to answer the call.

May is #FosterCareMonth.  You may be feeling called to support a struggling or hurting family in your community.  You may be called to report a concern.  You may be called to serve as a foster care family.  You may be called to change your career and join us in the work. Whatever the call you're receiving, please be willing to answer!  Families and children need you!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Inescapable Clouds

The sunshine, warmer temperatures and spring storms of May once brought me both into and out of some of my life’s most intense storms.

Until I was 12 years old, I’d lived in a storm of abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, and negativity that was my home - my family.  I’d been introduced to sex too early in far too many experiences. I’d witnessed my father crack my mother’s head on a kitchen cabinet and tip a table full of our dinner over for one too few pork chops. I’d heard of my own worthlessness and stupidity more than I could count, and had become very familiar with the sound of a cracking belt or the whistle of a fly-swatter, as it flew through the air.  I’d felt the sting of my parents hand and the burn of their words.  It was like the storm sirens were going off around me every day and I couldn’t escape…I could only survive…find a shelter, dig in, and be determined to make it through. 
In May 1990, I found myself entering a new storm season…unfamiliar and uncontrollable. It was like a strong and ferocious wind that would blow me around like a leaf that couldn’t find a place to land. It seemed like I was watching a tornado that kept changing course, a hurricane that twisted off course, a flood that would fill every crack it could find.  I was entering a major storm that would completely change the destiny of anyone who could survive.

I was in foster care. 
I would spend the next six years of my life blowing in the wind, at the whim of my case workers, my therapists, the court, the group home staff, and anyone else who felt they knew what was in my “best interest.”  Over the course of my stay in foster care, I would experience 7 moves, each with a big trash bag full of my belongings.  Each with good-byes and “we’ll keep in touch” that never really did and each with strange and uncomfortable “hello” and “we’re glad you’re here.”  Each move brought new rules and new expectations, with very little regard for who I really was and I really needed.  Each new home introduced me to new and unfamiliar traditions, roles, and relationships.  Each move meant I had to change…like that little leaf was being chipped away and beaten against the trees, losing little tiny pieces with each flip of the wind.

The scariest clouds, however, were in the faces of those that looked down on me because I was “a foster kid”; the faces that seemed to scream “we know where you’ll end up.” There were many eyes that looked at me with pity – piercing my heart and my spirit. There were eyes completely devoid of encouragement.  Perhaps, worst of all, was the judgment, especially as a teen in foster care, when people asked “what did you do?” like I had done something to cause the storms in my life. 
Storms, however, are always followed by sunshine and my time in foster care was no different.  The sunshine would come when I’d finally feel like I fit in or belonged. The warmth would show up in the hug of a loving foster family or in those moments when I felt “normal”. At times, I could breathe in and the air didn’t smell like rain was coming.  I was lucky to find some safety and security in high school – a place that never had to change even when the storms around me were so unpredictable.  I could feel confident, competent, and successful.  I could believe that I had value and I felt worthy.  I belonged.  I knew I had a place.  I was connected. I knew something else was waiting for me, beyond the clouds, and I could reach for it.  I could survive this storm!

Determination became my lifeline.  I developed a determination to prove the clouds and the faces wrong…to clear away the storms…to change my life.  I became focused on a larger goal – making the storms mean something and to chance the world.  I set goals and I learned what I had to do to get to the other side.  I worked hard and I accomplished something amazing. I married my high school sweetheart and had four amazing kiddos. I went to college, the first in my family to do so, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology & Family Counseling and went on to earn a master’s degree in Social Work.  I am changing my family tree and creating a new season of life.  I’m proud of myself and I am happy with my life.  I have dedicated my life’s work to improving foster care and to being an example to all those children, youth, and families of the sunshine after the storm.
So, why are the clouds inescapable?  Why do I still see the faces of judgment and question? Why do I still hear the discouraging words and feel the sting of doubt? Why do I still have to prove myself?  Why do people still question if I’m good enough, worthy enough, or strong enough?  Why do people assume that you have to come from a good family to be a good person, capable to great things?  What will it take to prove those people wrong? Is it even possible?  There are days when I wonder.

Unfortunately, there are those who will never be willing to recognize the sunshine in our lives.  There will always be those people who will always see us as “foster kids” and will put us in that box.  There will always be people who believe we aren’t good enough, strong enough, or worthy enough. 

The sunshine in this storm is that THEY don’t matter!  WE MATTER!  We are strong. We are courageous.  We are determined. We are capable. We are competent. We are survivors. We are encouragers. We are proof that good things happen after the storm.  We are accomplished. We are changing the world. We are changing our family trees.  Keep fighting the clouds. Keep digging in and hanging on! Eventually, the clouds will break and they’ll see the sunshine.


Every Month is Foster Care Month (from May 2013)

The purpose of National Foster Care Month in the United States it to bring attention to the issues of foster care in this country, to focus on the hundreds of thousands of children in out-of-home care, who have been affected by child abuse & neglect, to prompt discussion of the issues facing our families and to serve as a call to action for communities and professionals.  A call to step up, to do more, to speak out, to intervene, to make a change, to impact the life of a child and a family in a very real way.  Did you know National Foster Care Month directly follows Child Abuse Prevention Month?  Seems interesting to me that we spend one month a year calling on the prevention of the very issues we then must turn around and confront through the intervention of the “system”.

According to the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, there were 400,540 children in out-of-home care on September 30, 2011. Analysis of the data shows an average of 21, 027 children and youth entered the foster care system during that year, while an average of 20, 438 exited foster care each month during the same year. 

Yet, we focus in on the issues only one month per year? 

For these children, youth, and families, shouldn’t we call attention to these issues every month of every year?  Do these children, youth, and families not deserve our focused efforts, interventions, and calls to action each month?

As a social worker, I’ve devoted my life to foster care and adoption issues for over 15 years. As a former foster care youth, I’ve lived this system, and I can tell you that “foster care” never starts and end with the change of calendar page.  Foster care is a way of life and has an immeasurable influence in the destiny of anyone, and everyone, who encounters the system…positive or negative.  The choice is ours, as a community, and the choice is yours.

Foster care children and youth live with the consequences of another’s actions every day they are in the system (and beyond!). Birth parents fight against forces that seem unbearable – addiction, dangerous relationships, and generations of family histories filled with abuse, neglect, and struggle.  Foster parents care for these children when their parents cannot and are faced with the stress of loving someone else’s child. Workers give up countless hours with their own families to answer the late night crisis calls, to transport children to and fro, to ensure safety of the children while they are in foster care, and to develop real, workable plans, in an effort to give every family a fighting chance and to give each child the attention he/she deserves.   The courts do their best to ensure every family has a just experience, under the law, and must hold everyone accountable to the standards set forth in the law.  Finally, communities are paying the bill through tax dollars and support of both government and private, non-profit programs that support the children, youth, and families during the darkest of days.
No one really wins in this system, do they?

So, why are we forced to designate 1 month a year to focus our attention on these issues?  What can we really accomplish in 1 month, besides getting people to think about it a little more during May?  Come June 1, is the impact of Foster Care Month still as strong?  Will we still pay attention?  Will we still use our voice to speak up for these vulnerable people in our community?  What will we do in August, October, and beyond?
We can do so much more!! Our children and our families deserve more!

For ways to get involved, and to make every month foster care month in your life and in your community, check out these great resources:
·         Prevent Child Abuse America
·         National Foster Parent Association
·         Foster Family Based Treatment Association
·         North American Council on Adoptable Children
·         Adopt US Kids
·         Dave Thomas Foundation
·         Foster Care Alumni Association of America
·         US Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families Child Welfare Information Gateway
·         National CASA Association

President John F. Kennedy once said “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”  
Will you accept the challenge and help make foster care a focus during every month of the year? 
Challenge your loved ones to join you in making a difference. The impact you make will be not be measured in words, but in the numbers of children and families who will be touched by those of us who take this challenge and vow to do something each and every month to keep foster care in focus.


It's Time for THE TALK

Have you talked with your pre-teen/teenager about sex yet?  Is it too early? Too late? Nope.  Now is the perfect time!! 

According to a 2008 study of college age youth, approximately 26% of the boys and 10% of the girls reported first seeing pornography between the ages of 11-14 years.  []  According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, 9% of boys and 11% of girls aged 14-15 years report having vaginal intercourse and 12% of boys and 10% of girls aged 14-15 years report receiving oral sex.  []. 

While these statistics can be scary for middle school parents, we don’t have to lock our kids up and throw away the key to protect their innocence. We can arm ourselves with tools and information and we can open a door of communication that will last well into their adulthood. If we are honest with our students about relationships and sex, we are more likely to be the one our child will come to with questions or when they’re faced with life’s big decisions. Don’t be scared!  Be prepared! 

Tip #1: Consider the youth’s past experience. Let’s begin by considering the childhood victim of sexual abuse/assault. While not all victims of childhood sexual abuse/assault will react in the same way, it is important to be prepared for the child victim/survivor to respond to sexuality anywhere along a sexual continuum.  If you are parenting a child that has been prematurely introduced to sex, you will want to consider the re-learning that may need to occur.  For example, the previously victimized young person may have a skewed response to boundaries, right and wrong, and will know more about the physical aspects of human sexuality than a child unexposed to sexual behaviors.  Sex, in its purest form is a pleasant experience and is intended to feel good. Sometimes, though it may be difficult to accept, a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault will have had very natural, biological, and physically positive responses to sexual stimulation of their body. Once those sensations have been awakened, it may be more difficult to abstain from premature sexual activity.  Couple those bodily reactions with emotional misconceptions about love, trust, and relationships, and you may be parenting a young person who is more open to sexuality.  Perhaps the most important tip for this parent or caregiver is to bring a new level of openness, honesty, and support to the relationship with the young person. It will be critically important for these young people to receive accurate information about sexual health, preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, positive decision making.  It is also beneficial for these young people to explore the concepts of healthy and appropriate boundaries in all types of relationships. Be willing to have very frank conversations, answer all sorts of questions, and to address topics you may not need to approach for several years with non-victimized children.

Tip #2: Be willing to share your family values about relationships and sex in an honest but non-judgmental manner.  Present the reasons why your family believes what it does about these important areas of life and don’t shy away from answering questions. Regardless of where your family falls on the “values continuum”, your adolescent will want the chance to “decide” for himself.  This is a critical component of adolescence and the journey to self-understanding and self-discovery.  It doesn’t mean that your pre-teen will totally disregard your family’s values or belief systems; it simply means they’re going to want to understand it on a new and deeper level.  You will want them to know you’re willing to engage in the conversation. You also want your child to feel comfortable coming to you when their struggling to figure it all out.  There are a lot of other places they can turn – friends, the media, Hollywood, the internet, etc. You want to be first on that list!
Tip #3: Approach the topic from a place of honesty and reality.  Don’t be afraid to share some of your own experiences with your pre-teen…good and bad, within reason and keeping it age-appropriate. If you’re a foster parent, you will want to document your conversations and what pieces of your story you have shared.  You may even discuss this particular tip with your family foster care worker or agency to determine their requirements in this area.  Youth will likely respect your willingness to be honest with them, and it will likely open their minds to what you’re trying to teach them. If your experiences haven’t all been great, tell them.  If you’ve made decisions you now wish you hadn’t, tell them.  If there have been consequences, positive or negative, share them. Your child needs to see you as “real” in this area…especially at a time when they’re getting so many “not-so-real” influences. 

Tip #4: Don’t be afraid to ask your child what he already knows, or has heard, about sex.  You might be surprised! Many kids know a lot more than we like to think, and not all of their information is incorrect.  On the flip side, they may be quite clear on some points.  You want the chance to make sure your pre-teen has correct information.  For example, your pre-teen may believe there is no risk in oral sex and you will want the chance to tell them about the risk of STDs that may be passed through oral contact with genitalia. 

Tip #5: Keep it natural.  Don’t sit your child down on the couch in a big, formal “Let’s Talk” scenario.  He’s likely to tune you out and not fully receive the wisdom you’re trying to impart.  Instead, take your student out to lunch, go on a weekend getaway with her, talk while you’re in the car driving somewhere, etc.  Remember, it may be just as uncomfortable for them as It is for you.

Tip #6: Remember, you don’t have to say it all at one time.  In fact, engaging in several conversations, over time, is better because it’s less intimidating and gives your child time to process all that you’ve shared.  It also allows him/her time to think of questions they may want to ask.  Your goal is to remind your child of your willingness to be available to them, over the long haul. Too many families have “the talk” one time and think it’s done.  You should never be “done” addressing this all important topic with your child. 

Tip #7: Do your homework.  For many adults, it’s been a long time since we brushed up on our STD information.  Ask the school nurse for some current information or check out the local health department for some great brochures and pamphlets.  Don’t give these to your kids, though! They’re likely to toss them aside and not read them.  Instead, be prepared to share the information without the pamphlets. Remember, you’re going for a natural flow.  Spending time on Google could prove a little more intense than we may hope for, so opt for searching reputable websites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at Don’t forget to read up on teen pregnancy and teen fatherhood, too!  If you’re completely overwhelmed or intimidated by the factual information, have a conversation with your family doctor and see if he/she can help explain the medical facts to the teen, or give you some tips on how to tackle the topics.

Tip #8: Take advantages of the opportunities that present themselves.  You might be watching a television program or movie with your child that has an interesting relationship dynamic.  Recognize these program story lines as an opportunity to ask your child what direction the story will take, how she feels about the character’s decision, etc.  It’s non-threatening and impersonal, so your pre-teen is less likely to put his/her guard up. 

Tip #9: Relationships are about more than sex, so talk with your child about more than sex.  Engage your adolescent in a conversation about what to look for in a relationship. Characteristics like honesty, loyalty, positive decision-making, respect, and kindness are all important.  It’s important for you to encourage your child to pay attention to the person, above and beyond the appearance or the sexual attraction.
Tip #10: Talk to other parents of older teens to find out what worked and didn’t work for them.  Seek out sources of support and encouragement for yourself, too. Parenting is hard, but we don’t have to do it alone.  Others have paved the way for us and we don’t need to totally re-invent the wheel.  There are a zillion books at the library and book stores to help you figure out how to tackle the conversation. 

Whatever you do, please, don’t put it off.  We owe it to the next generation to provide adequate and accurate information so they can make the best decisions possible.

Tips for Working with Children of All Ages

Are you a new case manager, social worker, resource parent or CASA?  Here are some tips for visiting and developing relationships with children and youth of all ages you may find helpful. 

Visiting with Infants and Toddlers (ages 0-2 years)

The key goal in visiting infants and toddlers will be to make observations of their development and interaction with their world. You’ll want to review child development stages and processes to remind yourself of developmental milestones.  Be watching for your kiddo meets these life stages.  A good website to reference is

It is very important, however, to remember these milestones are simply a guide and are not steadfast rules.  A child missing one milestone by a month or two may not signify a developmental delay, but may prompt you to make additional observation or to seek out an assessment by a physician or development specialist.

You’ll want to spend time holding the little one and making eye contact...this is a great indicator of a child’s comfort with relationships.  How comfortable are they with this type of contact? Do they seek out eye contact or avoid it?  As the child gets older and more mobile, do they exhibit a preference for playing with others or alone?  Do they care when they’re left alone in a room or the caregiver leaves the room/line of sight?  Do they get excited to see people enter a room?  Does this differ from one setting to another (daycare, foster home, visit with parents and siblings)?

You’ll also want to observe how they interact with their birth parent during visitations and with resource parents in the placement, but take care not to let the differences, if any, cloud your objectivity...these relationships are likely to be instinctively different.    Smaller children typically love human contact, but this can be negatively impacted by trauma and attachment issues, so these are critical observations. You may also want to schedule check-ins with the child’s pediatrician so you can report any medical concerns or progress to the Court.  

Visiting with Preschoolers (ages 3-6 years) 

Preschoolers love to play! They’re often energetic and excited to have someone or something new to play with.  So, play with your preschool age kiddos!  Do you have a stock pile of small toys, puzzles, books, crayons, etc. you can bring with you to your visits?  (Don’t leave them with the child; they’re not gifts, they’re tools.) Balls are a great toy to take outside in the back yard and practice tossing or kicking around with your little one.  Playing tea party with stuffed animals, rolling and cutting play dough, puzzles, arts and crafts, and coloring are all great activities to do with the preschooler. 

The one thing you don't want to try is to sit at the kitchen table and just talk to them.  You won’t hold their attention for very long and you likely will not get the answers you want.  Ask the preschooler to tell you how their day was and you’re likely to get a 5 minute run-down with no time to breathe and random details of several of the day’s activities. Allow them some time to freely talk about what is on their mind (which may have nothing at all to do with your questions or the case, and likely will not) but also try to structure some activities or questions to prompt them to discuss certain issues. Remember, it is critically important to take advantage of the preschooler’s preoccupation with play. 

Ask them to color/draw you a picture of their family, a person, their favorite activity.  While your tossing the ball, ask them what they did with their parent or sibling during the last visit or when they lived in the same house.  While you’re playing tea party, ask them about their favorite thing to do with members of the foster family or their siblings.  Casually ask them their favorite thing about their current home, or things they wish were different.  Play, in these instances, is a great distraction and they often won’t realize they’re being “interviewed”.

Play is typically not intimidating for preschoolers, but having an adult ask you questions one after another, especially for children who have experienced an investigation and therapy, can be very scary. Using play can decrease the “assessment of the situation” the preschooler is doing over your visit.  It will also make your visits different from the other adults who come to see them regularly.

Visiting with School-Aged Children (ages 7-12 years)

School aged kiddos have a lot going on.  They have friends at school, teachers, they’re learning new things every day and are discovering areas of strength and struggle. School aged children have active memories and active imaginations.  When they’re in foster care, they’ve got extra appointments and they’re working through confusion and fear and anger every day.  Children in this age range are also pretty energetic, especially right after school and the early evening hours, when they’re letting it all hang out after a full day of structure. 

So, when you’re visiting with these children, keep these things in mind and use them to your advantage.  Ask the child about his friends, what he likes about school and what he doesn’t like about school.  Have him describe for you what’s different about his current school from his previous schools and allow him to talk about the things he misses.  Give him an opportunity to talk about memories and dreams, encourage him to dream big!  Often times, children from dysfunctional situations don’t dream because they don’t believe dreams can come true. 

You can use play, art, and board games to engage school aged children.  They’ll feel less vulnerable and on-the-spot when you interact with them through activity.  For these kids, make your visit time focused on them rather than your conversation or check-in with the resource family or caregivers.  You can always speak with them by phone...spend your visit interacting with the child.  Another advantage to this is that you can talk more freely about the child when you’re talking with the caregiver while the child is at school than you can when he’s in the next room.  A child of this age who hears a lot of negative reports will internalize these comments a great deal and that may significantly hurt relationships and trust.

Visiting with Adolescents (ages 13-15 years)

Adolescents in this age group are stuck in the nasty middle.  They’re still energetic and secretly want to run and play outside but they’re concerned that they’re “too old” for this type of behavior.  They’re confused about whether to continue to be friends with their elementary school buddies or make attachments to new, older, and “better” middle school friends.  This is also a time when they meet a lot of new peers because of the merging of several elementary schools in middle school. They begin to assert their own likes and dislikes with more certainty in things like music, clothing, activities, movies, etc., which differentiates them from their families while identifying them with their peers.  It’s a confusing time and a frustrating time, but they have absolutely no idea how to identify those feelings nor do they have any desire to really talk about it...that would be un-cool.

So, here’s the big tip...don’t interrogate them.  Don’t ask them 20 questions about their day, their friends, their classes, their likes, their dislikes, etc.  You’ll only frustrate them and this may lead to an attitude you’ve never seen before.  You’ll want to just “hang out” with these youth and give them freedom to experiment with new activities.  You may want to consider how you can vary the location of your visits with these youth...a park, an ice cream shop, a bowling alley, the mall for some window-shopping (Remember—you should not purchase more than a token gift for the youth and you don’t want to do paid activities on each visit. This creates opportunities for blurred boundaries and confusion over your role for the youth, as well as, potentially creates an expectation that you will always buy things for him/her.)  The variety will lend itself to free expression and non-intimidating conversation.  Even bowling can often times allow the youth the freedom to drop their guard and share with you exactly what you’re hoping to discover.  Also, allow them to talk to you about the “normal” stuff in their lives—don’t focus every visit on the circumstances of the case.  Adolescents need to feel normal, as much as possible...being in care makes them stand out.

Working with Older Youth (ages 16-18 years)

Older adolescence is all about transition...childhood to adulthood, underclassmen to upperclassmen, living in the here and now to planning for the future, etc.  Older adolescents are searching for independence and freedom at a time when there are still huge benefits to structure.  They still want a safety net, but often will not admit it, and for a teen in foster care, this safety net and soft place to fall may not exist.  All of this makes looking forward even scarier for teens in care.  “Normal” teens have parents against whom they must struggle.  Our teens have a whole “team” of adults making decisions for/about them, watching their every move, planning futures for them, pushing them to make major life decisions, etc. They may feel a little like a guppy in a shark-tank.  The last thing you want to do is be another shark!

Encouragement and Support are the tools you’ll need to pack in your tool belt when visiting with an older youth.  You want to encourage them to explore all their options, even if you don’t see the potential value of the option. Let’s say you really hope he goes to college, but he’d rather just work or go to trade school. Help him gather job applications, prepare and practice for interviews, visit the trade schools, talk to an advisor, shadow someone in the field of his interest, etc.  Don’t be the one to say ‘That’s not a good idea, let’s look at this.”  Allow him to explore, freely, and he’ll feel empowered to make a decision.  At the same time, though, he’ll sense a safety net in you.  He’ll be much more likely to bounce things off of you and seek your input.  Don’t push. Go along for the ride and let him lead. After all, these kids will be on their own soon and they must learn to make big decisions.  Often times, kids in care don’t learn to make decisions because so many people have done that for them for so long. 

Visits should focus on connecting them with the community. Take them out to explore life skills...but be subtle!  Trips to grocery stores, perusing the classified ads or car lots to talk about car possibilities and budgeting, learning about credit, learning to cook, clean or do laundry, apartment hunting, etc. are all great ways to spend time with and help the transition less scary for your teen.


Its Time to Come Out of the Box

Almost two years ago, I was giving a presentation to a group about the messages that fill the heads of children and youth in foster care.  You'd be surprised just how many mixed messages fed to our children in care. One day, we're saying "It's not your fault." The next day, we're sending the message "You were bad and need to move. You're too much for us to handle."  Another day, we say "We know you can do it. You have potential and strengths." The next day, they hear "the odds are surely stacked against you and you'll really never be any better." 

Can you imagine what that life must feel like?  How in the world does anyone develop a healthy sense of self-identity, self-awareness, or self-confidence in a world that has them flip-flopping in a manner that would show up any of the world's most skilled politicians?

Now, consider that these same youth are adults.  Consider the lenses through which they look at the world.  On one hand, they may be saying "I am better and I will do better than (fill in the blank)."  On the other hand, they see and hear messages of all the awful things a former foster care kid may do, or they see yet another news story about the downfalls of growing up poor, abused, neglected, exposed to drugs too early, etc.  Its a constant barrage of negativity and yet, we want to see people do well in life, in spite of their circumstances.

I believe we need to do more to create a world of opportunity and encouragement and consistency for these young people.  Just over the past few weeks, I have recognized how easy it is for my brothers & sisters from care to trap themselves in the box that says "victim".  I see the feedback on social networking sites that says "I have a right to say what I think, to share my story, to tell you how awful my world was!" 

What my brothers & sisters from care are forgetting is that we also have the right to scream at the world "Let me out!"  We do not have to stay in that box forever. We can share out stories and we should tell people how awful life was for us, but we can also do it in a way that inspires others, that encourages others to step up and make a difference.  We can be an example of the young person who truly overcomes their experience to find greater things on the other side.  There is no reason that we have to be a perpetual victim.  There is no reason that we should lay down and let our past experiences, no matter how awful they were, to completely overcome us and to take us down. 

I know life is hard, and yes, we absolutely do struggle to find the high-points.  We have to look a little harder, and maybe get stronger lenses to see those positive opportunities that come our way.  Perhaps we need to double up our climbing ropes to get over those mountains in our lives and yes, we even need to admit that we need someone to spot us on our climb.  We must support one another. We must build one another up.  We must be an example not of the broken and sad little child, bruised and battered, but we can be an example of the person who healed from the physical bruises, brushed ourselves off and can now stand up tall, proud of the person we've become. 

If, today, you needed someone to tell you that you're awesome.  Here I am! You are awesome!!!  You are a survivor simply because you are here to read this message.  You are a survivor because you woke up another day.  Even if you're still struggling to climb your mountain, you can absolutely do it.  You do not have to wear that victim label forever!!!  It is far too heavy a burden to carry, my family.  Lay it down. 

I mean it.

I want you to go grab a sheet of paper right now...go ahead, I'll wait.

Now, I want you to actually write the word "victim" on a piece of paper.  Underline it.

Underneath that word, I want to write down all the ways that people have described you (negatively) over the years.  Write down all the ways the world has told you that you'll struggle and fail.  Write down all the messages you heard along your path to today that added obstacles in your life.

Go ahead...write them hard as it may be...write them down.

Now, I want to you set that paper and pen down. Look at that list and say "This is not who I am. This is not who I have to be. This is not who I am meant to become."

Take that list and physically tear it to shreds.  Get angry at that list!!!! IT DOES NOT DEFINE YOU!!!! YOU ARE AWESOME!

Walk that list to the nearest dumpster, outdoor trash bin, or fireplace you see and get rid of it.  You do not have to own that list any more!  Those are things other people have laid upon your shoulders and you do not have to carry that burden anymore.  Today, it can be gone.

Now, grab another sheet of paper...go ahead, I'll wait.

On this sheet of paper, write the word, in big bold letters "AWESOME" across the top.  Underline it.  Under this word, I want you to re-define who you are, who you can be, and who you want to become.  Use strong, powerful, and successful words because that is the opportunity in front of you.

When you're finished, tape this sheet of paper to your bathroom mirror or refrigerator door - someplace you will see it every single day. 

This is your new message box.  Look for the chances to make your story one of overcoming adversity, overcoming struggle, and finding success, stability, and your inner awesomeness!!! Your story is just the first few chapters. When you share it, use it as the launching pad to a fantastic Oscar-worthy ending.  You've hit the turning point in your story - today!  You can choose another path.

Oh, and you won't be on that path alone.  You have a family of THOUSANDS of people right there behind you.  Don't let others tear you down and don't take the chances you'll see to tear others down.  Be awesome. Its time to redefine yourself based on your new list...the AWESOME you that you are meant to be!

Its time to come out of the box, my brothers & sisters.  We're here waiting for you.  We're here to lift you up and to help you find the real you.

**originally posted January 21, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

From the Bottom of My Heart

One of the most memorable moments in my life occurred about 12-14years ago, now. I was telling my story to about 250 child welfare professionals from our state agency, private agencies, and the Courts in the county where I was now working in child welfare, so these people were my colleagues. This was also the exact same county where I'd grown up in foster care, so many of the people in that room had actually been involved with my own case, at one point or another. As I spoke, I had no idea how many people from my case were in that room and I definitely did not know that the Judge who had oversight over my case was in the room! As I told my story, I talked about the decisions that were made that continued to impact me, as an adult, and were also impacting my children. I talked about how the decisions made when I was 12 years old continued to play a huge role in my life. While I've never been super, uber angry with the system and, for the most part, recognize the huge opportunities that came my way to change my family tree, I will admit that some of these things continue to bug me. And, then, the moment happened...

The Judge from my case, who I was now working with regularly, because I was working for our local CASA program, came up to the stage and took the microphone. He looked at me, and in front of all those 250 people, APOLOGIZED to me! He looked me dead in the eye and said "I'm sorry for the decisions we didn't make for you. I'm sorry we didn't do better for you. I'm sorry."

As you can imagine, I was brought to tears and I felt a rush of emotion in that moment. Even though I was never angry at this person, or really angry at the system, I felt so incredibly honored that this man, whom I had admired my whole life because I knew the difficult decisions he was forced to make, would humble himself before me and apologize, in front of all our shared colleagues.

For all those social work students, foster families, and other professionals who may be in this group: I promised myself, at that moment, that I would never take for granted the incredible responsibility of my position, as a social worker. I would never forget the power that was attached to my position, in terms of how much I could truly impact the life of another human being, in terms of how much I could personally impact entire family trees and future generations. The decisions we make TODAY do not stop impacting the children & families we serve when they leave our systems, when the cases close, or when they grow up. We impact EVERY SINGLE DAY of their lives, which means we MUST approach every single thing we do with care & attention to the responsibility we have. I encourage you to remember the levity of your positions, in every moment of your days, as well.

For those alums who are from this system, or those of my brothers & sisters still in care, if you would allow me the chance to put on my social worker hat for a moment (knowing that I am your sister because I've lived this journey with you, in some small ways). I want to apologize to each of you, on behalf of all those people who made decisions over your lives at one point or another. I know not one single worker who will say the system is perfect or who will not admit we've made mistakes. We, typically, do the best we can, in the moment, but I know we don't always get it right. Sometimes, we fail you miserably! For those failings, I am sorry - truly & deeply sorry.

I want you to know that we, as a system, are doing the best we can to improve how we do things. It's slow coming and the changes are requiring a gigantic shift in the way we think about things, but I really believe we are learning. We are seeing more and more of our clients and former clients speak up to tell us the mistakes we've made and it is making a difference!

It will happen slowly, one worker at a time, but change is coming!!! I know because I have 10 students in my child welfare class this semester and I've seen the change in each of them over the course of this semester. Yes, it's only 10, but each of those 10 will share what they've learned with how many different people? These 10 will be better advocates for the children & families they serve. These 10 will inspire change in their co-workers and agencies!!! These 10 will spread the message!!!

**I originally posted this message in a facebook group dedicated to a dialogue between social work students and foster care alumni on April 17, 2014.