Thought Provoking Perspective

Foster Youth Don’t Need Parents, They Need Supportive Allies

Now, before you begin to condemn the entire article because of the title, let me explain. Children that are removed from their biological families and placed in foster care do not suddenly forget their parents when they cross the threshold of a foster parent’s home. They do not miraculously associate the new and strange place they have been forced to call home with happiness and completion. They do not forget their siblings and eagerly embrace the children of their new foster parent as replacements.

You’ve most certainly wanted to trade your parents and siblings in at one point or another but you wouldn’t actually do it. No matter how strange or annoying they are, they are yours. They’re your lovely bag of dysfunction. Although it is healthy to have different types of connections with different people in your life for balance, you would not for one moment allow those people to believe that they have the ability to fill the shoes of the people whom you have forged, what seems to you as a child, as an unbreakable bond.

One of the many struggles children in foster care and even those that have been adopted face is the guilt associated with “leaving their families behind” or replacing them with another family. If it isn’t a guilt that is self-imposed, it is one that is placed upon them by biological family members. Even in cases where the child’s biological parents have passed away or have otherwise been removed from their lives (incarceration, chosen to be absent, etc.), they cannot be replaced. They are not looking for parents; they are looking for love, acceptance and nurturing from supportive people.

The number of teenagers entering the foster care system has increased tremendously in the past few years. These teenagers are more difficult to reach and there isn’t much time to do so given in many states foster children still leave foster care at the age of eighteen. Taking the approach of an all-knowing parent will only push them further away. They are not looking for parents; they already have parents. They are looking for genuine, consistent and caring supportive allies. These caring and supportive allies can take many forms. They can even be in their mid to late twenties. Yes, they can. No need to gasp! I know what you’re thinking, “Oh! No way can someone in their mid to late twenties be mature enough to foster a teenager!” Well, I beg to differ.

There is a shortage of foster parents nationwide. Some states are moving away from Group Care (Group Homes) and focusing more on placing children in foster families. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough foster families to meet this need. It is imperative that states reconsider their definition of a fit foster parent (and while they’re at it drop the “parent” from the foster/resource parent title but that is a discussion for another time). There’s an untapped market of potential Supportive Allies (see what I did there) that could truly appeal to older youth in the foster care system: young professionals 25-40 and better yet, young professionals 25-40 that have personal foster care experience. Not another gasp!

Yes, there’s a large number of young professionals that are alumni/adoptees of the foster care system that are doing well personally and professionally and would consider fostering and/or adopting a child/teenager from the foster care system! I know quite a few of them. What they have that others do not is instant credibility. They are living, breathing examples that success is possible after foster care. They drive home the message that being in and from foster care does not mean you are a lost cause. To a teenager, they possess the road map out of the maze that is foster care.

Would you ask for financial advice from someone that just filed for bankruptcy or from a millionaire? Would you take marriage advice from someone who has never been married or from someone who has been happily married for 25 years? Exactly! You would follow the advice of the person with the experience. They don’t have to convince you that they know what they’re talking about, you can see it from their actions. They have led by example. They are where you want to be.

The same goes for older youth in foster care. In their minds anyone that has not been in their shoes cannot possibly understand them nor do they have the right to try to tell them what to do ESPECIALLY since they have been fending for themselves for the better half of their lives. This is not to say that people without foster care experience cannot be successful foster parents; that would not be a true statement. I will say that it could take more time for that foster parent to connect in a meaningful way, however.

To truly ensure a child’s time is well spent in foster care, we must revisit the true purpose of the “foster parent” and how we are expecting them to connect with the children in their care, especially older foster youth. Is it just about providing food and shelter or is their purpose to prepare the child in their care for the real word in a nurturing and supportive way? If the latter is true, how are we holding foster parents accountable? How are we supporting them so they can provide the best care and experiences for their foster children? Are they supposed to guard the child in a way that keeps them from being a liability for the child welfare agency until they are no longer the child welfare agency’s (or foster parent’s) responsibility?

There’s power in words and labels. We need to make sure we are more careful if we want to reach our children before the streets do.