BY: KRISTEN TURSO The Possibilities Project Case Manager
The experience of a child or teen in the foster care system is anything but normal. They are removed from their caretakers due to abuse or neglect and placed in a foster home or in a group home. They may only get to see their parents and siblings on a monthly basis, and sometimes even less frequently than that. In cases where the child or teen have behavioral or mental health issues are deemed “too difficult” for a foster home to manage, they are placed in locked residential treatment centers, which are sometimes hours from home or in another states. These children and teens may need to change schools and lose all of their friends. Their social worker becomes their legal guardian instead of their parents or previous caregivers. Nothing about that experience is normal, even in the best of circumstances. Virginia is one of the states that has begun implementing “normalcy”, which resulted from the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. Among other things, this act “allows caregivers to make parental decisions based on a reasonable and prudent parent standard to maintain health, safety and best interest of the child and also decisions that support normalcy for children in foster care.’”
Think about something as normal as a teenager sleeping at a friend’s house or a child participating in extracurricular activities after school. If you’re a child or teen in foster care, the procedure could look like this: the child asks their foster parent permission to participate in the activity, the foster parent then has to contact the social worker who likely has a caseload of at least 15-20 children. That social worker must then grant permission and more than likely obtain the permission of at least one supervisor. As you can imagine, by the time all of these procedures are followed, the sleepover has come and gone and the deadline to register for sports or girl scouts could very well have passed. Yet again, there is another ‘normal’ missed experience. With more and more states bringing ‘normalcy’ to their foster care practices, this process can now be as simple as the child asking their foster parents’ permission and the foster parents making the same judgement calls they would for their own biological children. ‘Normalcy’ allows foster parents to sign off on extra circular activities, school trips, make decisions around overnight visits, and choose their own babysitters. Essentially, families are allowed to act like families and kids are allowed to act like kids.
While rigid policies for children and teens in foster care have historically been put in place due to concerns around liability or safety, states that have adapted normalcy practices years ago, such as Florida, consistently report that there have been no lawsuits or safety issues that have come from these changes. There has been no harm stemming from a child or teen in foster care being allowed to participate in age appropriate activities. Of course we want our children and teens in foster care to be protected above all else. As much as these children and teens need protection, they need normal childhood experiences. They need to feel they can fit in, laugh, have a bad day without over analyzation, and do what their friends are doing. We often get so caught up in the idea of protection, we forget there’s more to being a child. The same way I need to let my two year old son fall in order for him to learn to get back up, we need to do the same for our children and teens in foster care. We need to be realistic and fair as to not stifle their development and make them feel they can’t be themselves or be “normal.”
Most foster parents, become foster parents because they have love and good intentions in their hearts. They go through hours of training, long and intensive home studies, and open their homes to children who have been traumatized, abused, and neglected. It’s encouraging as a 10 year advocate of children, teens and young adults who have experienced foster care, to see more and more states recognizing that if we trust parents to foster these children and bring them into their homes, then we need to be able to trust them to make decisions about those children without so many obstacles and hurdles. At a recent event hosted by The Virginia Department of Social Services, United Methodist Family Services and Project Life that focused on ‘Normalcy, a group of 5 youth who have experienced foster care talked about their time in the system. When asked how many of them felt they had even one normal experience during their time in foster care, only 1 said yes. If, on average, only 20% of children and teens experiencing foster care can think of a time they felt normal while in the state’s custody, that leaves the remaining 80% missing out on some of the most basic and deserved experiences one can have as a kid. How can we wonder then, how it is that the majority children and teens experiencing foster care suffer from depression, anxiety, and behavioral difficulties?
At this same event, longtime champion for foster youth in Virginia, and an alumni of foster care himself, Chauncey Strong, made a beautiful point about bringing about ‘normalcy’ for these children and teens through language. He pointed out that when we call someone a “foster child” or “foster youth,” we are labeling them with all of the stigma and perceptions attached to foster care. None of these children and teens chose to be in foster care, nor did they do something wrong. Being in foster care should never define a child or be the first thing people know about them. Instead of “foster child,” changing our language to “child experiencing foster care” puts them as a child first. Their status in foster care then becomes secondary instead of defining. Similarly, why not just call “foster parents” “parents?” I encourage anyone who reads this to take Chauncey’s advice, because it can make all the difference in the world to the kids and parents who might be listening.