iStock_000004330022_ExtraSmall[1]Children and teens in foster care may not make up a large proportion of the population, however they are a group that are faced with challenges others are not. As parents, you may have the opportunity to play a role in the life of a foster child. This role may be in the form of a foster parent, or could be as a mentor or positive adult role model (even if it’s just because they came over to visit your teen). We asked a colleague, Dr. Kym Ahrens, whose research is specific to the lives of foster kids about this topic.

1. What risks to do teens in foster care face that other youth may not?

Teens in foster care are at higher risk for many health problems and risk behaviors.  This includes mental health problems (around 1/3rd of adolescents in foster care fit criteria for one or more mental health or substance-related problems), physical health problems, including and especially sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.  They are also significantly more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system than other youth.

2.  How can parents or other adults in a teen’s life help minimize these risks?

Foster parents and other adults surrounding these youth are extremely important!  Regardless of whom you are, if you are involved in the life of a youth in the foster system you can help by doing the following:

a)    Making sure that you are talking to these youth and giving them a chance to be heard.  This does not mean you shouldn’t set limits with them, or encourage them to be responsible just like any other teen. But these youth often feel they have to test other people in their lives (especially adults) before they are ready to trust them. Hang in there even if you are initially rejected and you may be rewarded with a genuine connection!

b)    Always be honest with them.  Youth who have been in foster care can frequently detect dishonesty or in-authenticity a mile away.  A young person involved in the foster system will be more likely to respect and trust you faster if you are straightforward in your approach.

c)    Do what you can to try to minimize changes in placements and schools.  If you have a connection to a foster youth, with some advocacy and a phone call to his or her social worker you may be able stay involved even if the youth does change placements and/or schools.  It can be difficult to do so, but the efforts will not go unnoticed by the teen.  These youth need and crave long term relationships, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.

d)  Urge them to consider staying in foster care until age 21.  Research show that youth who remain in care beyond the age of 18 years have better outcomes across a variety of domains, including health and education. This option is now available to many more youth in Washington State, due to some amazing legislation passed in the past year.

e)  Make sure they have access to a health care provider that they trust.  It can be difficult for these youth to find providers with whom they feel comfortable, but doing so can help significantly to minimize health issues.

3. Do youth in foster care have strengths that other teens may not have?

Of course each teen in the foster system is unique.  However, I have done a lot of work for my research performing qualitative interviews with youth in foster care, and I can tell you that the answer is most definitely yes!  The youth I have interviewed often pride themselves on having learned some very tough lessons “the hard way” and having learned to be resilient through many hardships.   Many of them create new “families” as adults by forming strong, long-lasting connections to mentors, former foster parents, and other youth as they age into adulthood, which is not always easy. Also, they have insights into systems/experiences that other children do not have: the court system, what it’s like to work with a lawyer, DSHS, life on the streets, etc.  They can be a fount of amazing knowledge and insights if they know you are interested.

4.  What resources are available for parents who may be interested in becoming a foster family?

There are many fantastic resources for prospective foster parents in the Seattle area.  Here are a few.  The first four focus more on programs to foster adolescents than the others:

a)              Washington State DSHS: www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/fosterparents/

b)             The YMCA: www.yfamilyservices.org/recruitment

c)              Ryther Child Center: www.ryther.org/foster-parent/

d)             Casey Family Programs: www.casey.org/Locations/Washington/Seattle/foster.htm

e)         Lutheran Family Services: www.lcsnw.org/seattle/

f)          Amara: www.amaraparenting.org/

g)         Bethany Christian Services: www.bethany.org/seattle

There are also some organizations that do incredible service/advocacy for foster youth as well that I absolutely have to note.  All are co-located at the “2100 Building” (2100 24th Avenue South in Seattle):

a)             The Mockingbird Society: www.mockingbirdsociety.org/

b)            The YMCA Center for Young Adult Services: www.ymcayas.org/

c)              Treehouse: www.treehouseforkids.org/

In addition, Girl Scouts of Western Washington has a troup for foster youth: www.girlscoutsww.org/what-we-do/Reaching-All-Girls/ and Washington State Mentors and Big Brothers, Big Sisters can both refer interested youth to appropriate mentoring programs, if desired: www.wamentors.org/ and www.bbbsps.org/.  It is important to note, though, that these youth can be sensitive to rejection/failed relationships, so making sure the mentor is a good fit and that all persons involved (including the youth, the mentor and other adults in the youth’s life including his/her foster parents) is very important.

5.  What tips do you have for current foster parents?

Hmm.  All of the things that I said in number 2 apply.  Here are a few more:

a)      Work well with the youth’s team (i.e. their social worker, CASA, and therapist), and advocate for the youth when you need to!  Sometimes it can be difficult to do this, but you have a unique perspective and it is worth sharing!

b)      Be willing to stay involved with a youth, even in if he/she moves placements.  Sometimes a home doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still potentially valuable to a youth. Noticing a theme here?  These youth have, by definition, had disruptions in their relationships with caregivers. Because of this history, sometimes the people that end up being important to them are not always those you would guess at the outset. This is particularly true for adolescents in foster care.  For these youth, be willing to think outside the box and support them in the way that is right for them.  Sometimes this means being their foster parent, sometimes it means being the person they call when they are ticked off at their current foster caregiver or a friend. Both roles are important.

c)   Find a way to support activities the youth is interested, whether it is sports, art, music, volunteering, or advocacy.  These activities can keep these (frequently disconnected) youth connected, and also can give them a sense of identity outside the one they have as a foster child as well as goals for the future.  The above noted service/advocacy organizations can help support these activities financially and logistically.

6.  What should a potential foster family know before they agree to take in a foster child?

I have been a foster parent myself, and I can tell you that just like having a biological child, it can be a very rewarding experience albeit one that you can’t completely prepare for before doing.  Some pearls of wisdom for those who are thinking of becoming foster parents:

a) Talk/connect with as many foster parents you can before, during, and after you take on a placement. It will help you get a realistic sense of what it will look/feel like to have a foster youth in your home, and having support once you do have a placement helps a TON!  The Mockingbird Society has created a model called the “Mockingbird Family Model” home, where foster parents in a geographical cluster have a built in support person who is a foster parent themselves, but whom can provide general support and advocacy, respite care, and who plans regular social activities for foster youth and their families.  I am a huge fan, and I think this model helps to support both foster youth and foster families and make them successful. It not only helps the caregivers, but the children usually connect with each other because they know they’ve all gone through similar experiences.

b)      Make sure that you are truly willing to put in the time commitment.  Being a foster parent can be difficult.  Make sure that you have enough time to devote to a child to make the placement successful.  This can mean different things for different families. In particular, make sure you also have enough time to take care of yourself and your partner, if you have one!  This is HUGE.  It can be daunting taking care of a child whom you have not raised since birth and it is important to acknowledge your limits and make sure you have supports in place to get time to refresh and stay healthy!

c)       Consider carefully the ages and types of kiddos you would do well with.  In the application to become a foster parent, there are typically a lot of questions about what kinds of behavioral or developmental issues you can handle.  Be honest with yourself and on your application. If you’ve never parents a child of a certain age, it’s important to have a good understanding of what to expect developmentally so you can try to sort out whether you are dealing with “normal” kid behavior or remnants of old trauma, for example. If you have biological children, consider taking placements that are younger than your youngest child so that the birth order is maintained.  I don’t have research to support this, but in my personal experience it seems to help the adjustment process for all.

d)      Consider carefully the types of foster care you want to do: Will you foster-to-adopt?  Will you do emergency or respite care?  What fits with your needs/interests the best? What would be best for the children already in your family?

e)      When you are called to consider taking a certain placement, don’t be afraid to say no if it doesn’t feel like a good fit.  Saying yes to a child that you suspect won’t be a good fit in your home will not help anyone in the long run, though there can sometimes be a lot of pressure to do so. Social workers do their best to find good placements for foster youth, and they have a very tough job. But you also have a job to do, which involves knowing your limits so that a child doesn’t suffer because you weren’t ready for them.

f)       Talk with as many foster parents as you can.  This one is so important that is merits repeating.