May is National Foster Care month, a 31-day period set aside to recognize the many individuals, families, agencies and communities that support the 427,000 children in foster care nationally.
In Northern Virginia, approximately 5,000 children and adolescents are involved in the child welfare system at any given moment. These youth range in age from birth to age 18, represent every racial and ethnic demographic and have varied economic backgrounds.
The individuals who provide a continuum of care for foster youth by becoming a resource parent, volunteering, or making donations, can be just as diverse:
Resource Parents Of the 5,000 foster youth in Northern Virginia, 63% are placed in a non-relative foster home. These placements represent community members who have undergone background checks and extensive trainings in order to open their home to a child in need. In providing consistent physical safety and emotional support to youth with a history of trauma, resource parents are champions for youth in care. Being a resource parent is not reserved for one type of family. Resource parents are married couples and single parents, home owners and apartment renters, and have varied incomes. The common thread is their desire and ability to provide foster youth with a safe, stable, loving environment so they can pursue the promising future every child deserves.
Volunteers are another way individuals make a difference in the lives of foster youth. Many volunteers elect to serve in local chapters of the nationally recognized Court Appointed Special Advocate program (SCAN runs the CASA Program in Alexandria and Arlington), but long-term advocacy is just one of countless ways to support children in foster care. Volunteering at a local child welfare organization can provide necessary help for case workers, children and families. Do you paint in your spare time? Imagine creating a mural in a childcare room. Are you a certified yoga teacher? This skill could easily translate to teaching emotional regulation. Everyone can play a role in supporting agencies, foster youth and families.
Many agencies across the country–including agencies in Northern Virginia–accept in-kind donations. Gently used clothing and supplies can help foster youth feel confident when starting at a new school, walking into job interviews, or sharing in the prom experience Individuals can even grant a foster youth’s specific wish through online platforms or send care packages to youth in college.
There is a way for everyone to advance the lives of local foster youth–how will you help?
Volunteers in our CASA Program are one of the most powerful examples of a positive adult connection in a child’s life we can think of. Our Kids Need Connections campaign celebrates the nurturing, transformative power of positive adult relationships in the lives of children. For abused and neglected children who already find themselves in the system, a CASA volunteer might be one of the last few positive adult connections a child still has. Foster parents fall into this same category. May is Foster Care Awareness Month, an opportunity to think about these critical connections for at-risk children. National CASA CEO Michael Piraino recently offered an excellent perspective on how foster care and positive connections can affect real change on a larger scale:
A glaring hole in the foster care data on well-being is information on the number, quality, and consistency of adult relationships for children. For years, it has been understood that a consistent and appropriate adult presence is a key factor in a child’s well-being. More recently, research has added to the understanding of what such a relationship should look like, how it can affect healthy development, and why children should be surrounded by multiple relationships that contribute to his or her healthy development. The Search Institute, well-known for its excellent work in identifying the key developmental assets in a child’s life, is now looking into the importance of what it calls “developmental relationships” for children. These are relationships that are caring, supportive, inspire growth, share power and expand possibilities for children and young people. For foster youth, these characteristics can typically be found among CASA and volunteer guardian ad litem programs, and in well-designed mentoring programs.
Research elsewhere has begun to confirm that children’s well-being may be dramatically improved if the adults who have these developmental relationships with children also help them develop a “mindset” that is oriented toward growth and success. The key point is this: mindsets can be changed. Developing a growth mindset can allow you to move beyond adverse experiences and help you follow strategies that are in your best interest according to Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
We also know that when young people, particularly adolescents, develop a balanced understanding of the positive and negative futures they might face, they are much more likely to be able to work around the negative and back to the positive. These “balanced possible selves” can lead to improvements in academic success, behavior, and rates of depression.
What is particularly exciting about this research is the potential it has for positively affecting the educational success and mental health of foster youth, even in the absence of large scale system reforms. By strengthening relationships that protect foster youth from the effects of adverse childhood experiences, we can help them build on their own strengths so that the trauma they have experienced does not become a permanent barrier in their lives.
Every abused or neglected child in the nation’s foster care systems should have a well-trained, caring adult to speak up for them and help assure their healthy development and well-being.
This week’s guest blogger is Dan Fleig, a member of SCAN’s Public Education Committee and 2011 recipient of the Allies in Prevention Award. Dan is President of We-R-Safe, an all-inclusive program providing tools to make sure volunteers are checked and trained before being given the responsibility of being around youth. He is also a foster parent, but we’ll let him tell you about that now…
May is National Foster Care Month, and as such is intended to draw attention to the efforts and needs of foster care programs throughout the country. But one needn’t look any further than our own neighborhoods in Northern Virginia to see the crucial role these programs play in making a difference in the welfare of children.
As a foster care family in Fairfax County, VA, we’ve witnessed first-hand how these programs benefit children. When their lives have been turned upside down, foster care programs and foster parents (or “resource parents” as we’re sometimes referred to today) provide hope and a chance those children might not otherwise have been given.
Children in foster care are those who, through no fault of their own, have experienced some form of abuse or neglect, or have been subject to some life-altering circumstances which put them at risk. As a result, many different parties such as the child’s family members, local child welfare and legal advocates, and in some instances the child (if he or she is old enough) each offer their perspectives regarding the child’s current home environment and caregiver(s) to a judge who ultimately makes the decision about whether or not a child will be placed in foster care.
Amazingly enough, all many of these children need is love, support and a renewed sense of safety. Which is exactly what foster care families are enabled to provide, and the very same conditions most of us take for granted.
While the ultimate goal of foster care is to reunite children in care with their families, it can’t always happen. In my family’s case, it resulted in the adoption of a beautiful and loving boy who now calls me dad. (In Fairfax County, VA, more than 70 percent of adoptive families begin as foster parents, then commit to adopting the child in their care. Source: Fairfax County DFS)
It never ceases to amaze me when someone (usually a neighbor) discovers we are a foster family. The typical response is one of unnecessary praise: “How wonderful,” or “You are such special people.” The reality is that we are a family who has many of the same resources as any other family in our neighborhood: an extra bed and a warm place in our hearts for children. We’ve just decided to use those to make a tangible difference in the life of a child and family in need.
If you have ever entertained the prospect of becoming a foster care family, I implore you to contact your local agency and attend a no-obligation orientation meeting. Becoming a foster family will require training, background checks, an in-home study and much more! Fairfax County has an informational brochure available online. Please check it out for yourself. Like me, I’m sure you will be amazed at the incredible resources available to foster care families and most importantly, the families of children in need.
– Dan Fleig
SCAN Public Education Committee Member