For many of us, holidays are associated with joy, giving, and spending precious time with family…now imagine if instead, we associated holidays with fear, pain, and loneliness. Unfortunately, for many youth in the foster care system, this is what they must endure during the holiday season. Per a recent report from Children’s Bureau, 427,910 children are currently in foster care. Being placed in a different home and expected to acclimate to this new environment can be especially difficult during the holidays. As a former foster and homeless youth myself, I can attest to the tremendous stress I endured during the holidays. Having to acclimate to a new family, not having a place to call home during college breaks, and the possibility of not being allowed to travel out of state with a foster family are all realities that both current and former foster children face during the holidays.
Firstly, acclimating to a new environment, especially a new home is very difficult-even traumatizing. As stated in PARENTMAP.COM, “25% of foster youth switch homes five or more times before their 18th birthday.” Foster children are expected to quickly adjust to new rules, meal times, and parents. With family festivities during the holidays, comes meeting new “family” members even though the youth may barely know their own foster parents. Feelings of loneliness or missing one’s own family easily arise during this time because it’s a grim reminder that they are away from their own. As summarized in a personal interview with a former foster youth and counselor for the Counseling Alliance of Virginia, Mr. Winfrey stated he felt alone during the holidays because “The people I was with I hadn’t yet created a relationship with and it felt like I was always viewed as an outsider.” As we can see, entrusting other adults and forcing a relationship with a foster family during the holidays can be followed by feelings of not belonging.
Another item to consider is that most college students look forward to the opportunity to catch up on work; spend time with family; or just enjoy the festivities are some of the few things college students look forward to during the holiday breaks. Still, not all students anticipate these breaks because, sadly, they do not have a place to call “home”. In most states, foster-youth “age-out” of care when they turn 18 or finish high school. According to McNair Scholars Research Journal “FAFSA estimated that 58,000 students are homeless on campuses”. Some of these students fall under the category of homeless once they age out of foster care or are discharged. This means, they are no longer able to receive the services they were provided while in care, including a home to go back to. If they are lucky, they are welcomed to stay with their former foster family, but the foster family is under no obligation to allow them to, since they are no longer in their care. Furthermore, because housing isn’t covered under college tuition, they are not required to remain open. While this is unfortunate-there is hope. Some colleges like Western Michigan University launched an outreach program in 2008 allowing homeless students to stay on campus at no cost during breaks to provide services such as: One hot meal provided daily; coordinated activities and emergency after-hours support is available. It is anticipated that more colleges will follow with similar policies to fill this void for these disadvantaged college students.
Lastly, even though a foster child may have a foster family during the holidays, there is still the possibility that they may have to be temporarily taken out of that home during the holidays. Lamentably, I had to experience this aspect first-hand. It was my second year in foster care and I was pretty content with the family I was living with, however, my foster mother had to go out of state during the holidays. I remember asking my caseworker “Where will I go then…can I go to my biological mother’s house?” only to be told I would have to temporarily be placed with another foster family for that time. I cannot recall whether that experience was more traumatic, or dealing with the anger and resentment I had when I found out my case worker was ill-informed and I was, in fact, allowed to stay with my biological mother but the message wasn’t “passed through”. It was the worst Christmas I ever experienced. I was dropped off at a random foster parent’s house, given a small room to stay in, and forgotten for a few weeks. This is called respite foster care or “short-term” foster care, in which another foster family temporarily cares for the child. Because a foster parent(s) must get a social workers approval or even a judge’s approval to travel out of state with the child, respite care could be more convenient for the parent, but traumatic for the child.
All things considered, the holidays are a time to be grateful for the people in your life. While we may take for granted the time off, our family, and having a home, other may not be so lucky. Whatever reason you may have to celebrate the holidays, we must not forget about others that face difficulties during this time of the year. We can help out current or former foster youth by volunteering with CASA, donating supplies to foster youth or being involved with many other organizations to help them during this difficult time.