Monday, January 4, 2010

Teens in Foster Care

Teenagers in foster care... what a mixed bag they can present to everyone they come into contact with during these years! I admit that I am not an expert on teens in care - my agencies have had more of a focus on 'school aged' children. But, in light of reading some blog posts about the ups and downs of parenting (or considering parenting) a teenager in care, I have been thinking about the conundrum.

My first thought about teenagers in foster care is how desperately sad it is - to be in those years where one is struggling to figure out how to be an adult while still being treated as a child, without much say so in your life. And to be going through it in foster care - where the people who are making the decisions may or may not really even know you!

And then, I begin to think about what I was like at 14... 16... 18... even 20 years old. I can tell you assuredly that I was not an adult no matter what I believed back then. I still lived at home at 18 - still had to follow all my parents rules, had to ask to borrow the car, and was pretty dependent on them for most things (even though I did have a PT job). Even in my early 20's, I'm not sure I can say I was much of an "adult" - I lived away at college, had to get myself out of bed every day for class and paid my own cell phone bill. But, other than that - I was still very much dependent on other "adults". I went to a small school with extra rules that prevented some of the "party" behavior that my state-school attending friends engaged in. I had good family friends who lived nearby and often found myself at their house for the weekend when I needed some "mothering". And even now, as I near 30 (eep!) I sometimes don't feel completely "grown up" - which I attribute to the fact that I am still single and don't have dependant children. So, when I think about someone trying to navigate their way through these years without the support that I have had - well, I just don't know how it could be done!

I am sure it is that kind of thinking that, naturally, spurs the panic that we sometimes feel about older children in foster care. "We must hurry and get them into adoptive homes as fast as we can! They don't have much time left!" We assume that if a child is not in a pre-adoptive home by the time they are 11 or 12 years old - that they likely won't ever have one. And, we assume that a child who grows up and "ages out" of the system is doomed. We've all read the statistics about the increased chances of that child becoming homeless, substance abusing, or spending time in prison. And to be sure, those are very real and terrible consequences of growing up without the support that a family generally provides.

When I first starting working in child welfare, I thought that "we" (social workers, etc) had a responsibility to prove to these teens that living in a family was better - something they should want and work towards. Obviously, some of teens already developed some horrific behavior problems - but by this age those kids had generally been placed in group homes with the intention of moving them towards independent living programs. The more frustrating ones were kids who were generally doing well, either in their temporary homes or in their group home placements. We kept putting them in homes with well meaning people who really wanted to parent. (And people who WANT to parent teenagers are a special brand of heroes in a social worker's eyes!) But time and time again, I saw that teenager sabotage, resist, and disrupt. Sometimes before they were even officially placed. These were the kids that we believed could be successful in a family - and we were determined to give them one! But they were just as determined not to let it succeed for a variety of reasons. They were comfortable with what they already "knew" in the system and what they "know" about families had not been positive. They have lived within the system for a long time and have figured out how to make it work for them. For example: A very real concern that one of my kids brought up is that in foster care he knew that no one was allowed to use any kind of physical punishment - but he knew that once he was adopted, that it was completely legal. Despite being told over and over again by both myself and his foster parents that they would never use that type of discipline - the safety of staying in care and knowing he was "protected" was a powerful pull for him.

Over time, I have begun to feel differently - I have known children who have grown up in the system and have still managed to go on, live productive adult lives, and have positive relationships. It has not been easy, but nothing in their life has been easy - so they took those challenges in stride better than I (from my sheltered background) ever would have.

In my experience, even kids who have found families in their teenage years, like Zari, have tended to be a bit more independent and relied less on their adoptive families. During a recent conversation with her, she lamented that her mother complains that "you [Zari] never talk to me [her mom]" all the time. Now, I know that Zari loves and respects her parents - but I also know that she isn't the most open person either. (Remember those long Saturdays??) She needs to think things through first, get her own mind wrapped around her choices and feelings about them. And then she'll talk to her parents - once she's pretty much run out of options and/or already made the decision. While I call my mom once a day - Zari confesses that she has to set her phone to remind her to call home once a week. Some might argue that its a sign of an undiagnosed attachment disorder, and they may be right - but I know plenty of people who react that way who were all raised in loving families. Heck, my own sister has an average 2 week turn around on returning my mom's phone calls and they have a perfectly fine relationship. So, how much is nature and how much nurture will forever remain a mystery.

But the one thing that I will say is that ALL of those "kids" that I have seen grow up in care and succeed had one thing in common. They had SOMEONE who was invested in their lives. It might have been a teacher, or a friend's parent, or a worker at their group home - but they had an adult that they knew cared about them and that they felt comfortable going to if they needed them. And generally speaking, it was someone who understood that it had to be on the child's terms.

In the placements that failed, I think that the foster parents were often trying too hard to "parent" the child. Laying down rules, trying to bond, etc - and while those things are well intentioned, and completely natural reactions, they are sometimes the kiss of death for a child who is not in a place to accept them. Adolescence is a time for pulling away and finding autonomy - so in truth it goes against the grain of nearly every teenager to want to spend quality time with their family or pour out their feelings to their parent. How much more so if that parent is a virtual stranger? The successful placements tended to be with parents who were willing to step back and fulfill the role "mentor" or even risked leaning towards the dreaded "friend" role - with some healthy boundaries and general household rules to ensure everyone's safety and well being.

Now, my opinions are just that - person and professional observances from someone who has watched placements succeed and fail. And someone who would really like to figure out the magic formula that would achieve the former! Alas, I doubt there is a perfect equation - no two children, parents, or placements are ever the same. But if you are considering having a teenager placed in your home (or currently have one!) I'd encourage you to check out these posts from some bloggers who have at least some of the answers!

Claudia - one of the hardest thing for some foster/adoptive parents (or any parent I'd imagine!) to deal with is when the child makes a decision that goes completely against all that the parent hoped to instill or encourage. But Claudia makes some awesome connections in her post here - about coming to terms with her daughter's choices and their effects, and how it has been working out in the long run. This line, "We began to wonder if maybe this next generation was one of the reasons we were called to parent the first" brings up an important point that I hope other foster parents can embrace. (Gratuitous adorable pictures of her first granddaughter included!)

Thorn - who I am sure doesn't feel like she has many "answers" right now. But I think she has been doing a marvelous job being self aware and processing her emotions after a challenging weekend with a teen that she'd hoped might be placed with them. Seeing the behavior for what it is (usually fear) instead of what it looks like (personal rejection) is a quality that any and every foster/adoptive parent needs - and for sure, Thorn has it.

And Yondalla - not only has she had to sort out her own feelings about wanting to adopt the teenager in her home, she's having to help the various "helping professionals" understand it too. And all the while supporting the teen in processing what adoption might mean for him - both now or in the future.


  1. Claudia always amazes me. Thorn has truly impressed me with her capabilities. Not that I didn't think that she could do it. Far from that. I knew she could but she was thrown into the muck very quickly and handled everything with such grace.

    Yondalla....well I hope I can be her when I grow up. I hardly ever comment because of an intimidation factor that even I don't understand but I do read faithfully. Her profound insight moves me consistently.

    When I first started looking into adoption from foster care I honestly thought I would be parenting teenagers because I thought I would be much better at it and I had experience in that arena. Little kids....I had no idea what to do with them. It wasn't how it worked out these past two times but there will come a time that I will adopt or foster teenagers. I just know it.

  2. I'm impressed with this post.... and heartened, because mentoring (or being more like a caring auntie) has been the relationship that has seemed to fall into place with the teen in my life.

    The thing he most resents, and I most resented and still do, are the "workers"! In his case he has two families ready and willing to watch out for him and give him the same experiences and upbringing that the other kids in his upscale Catholic HS experience. But the Independent Living people are operating on a parallel and much different track, appropriate for the child coming out of an RTC or living with a family who is really not invested in him.

    Neither our family (who fostered him) or the family where he is now living (who will perhaps adopt him) feel he should work more than just a little bit - he is ESL and in a very rigorous school, involved in sports and needs time to do all that. THEY have this obsession with him having a job. I feel their obsession ought to be with getting him tutoring, or athletic camps so he can get a college scholarship - but they are not seeing what is there; they are seeing what the usually see. Or trying to "cross things off their list" so they can wash their hands of him and not be sued at some moment in the future.

    It IS exasperating! And whenever they come - which is far too often - it is a slap in the face reminder to him that he is DIFFERENT; though he can feel like other kids most of the time, the "workers" seem to relish showing up at school, embarrassing him. I hate them as much as he does. And, they make us adults feel "different" too - inadequate, stupid, incapable - though between us we've raised six capable and successful adult children. The workers won't see that either! Or, even seen to acknowledge the idea that the two families working together is a strong backdrop for this boy.

  3. Thanks for this post. A lot of the youth who come for services at my agency are former foster youth, and this gave me a little more perspective.

  4. LOL Lisa, I actually never intended to adopt teens and was looking for kids the ages of your daughters because I had lots of experience with young kids. Don't worry, your daughters will be teens soon enough, and my experience with toddlers actually comes in handy with my teens! *grin*

    One group of teens in foster care that wasn't mentioned here are the ones that shouldn't be in families. The ones that are so severely RAD that they cannot handle living in a home with people actually trying to love them.

    An issue that we ran across is that while physically and chronologically my children are teens, developmentally they are MUCH younger. This is extremely common for kids with traumatic backgrounds (like just being in foster care).

    It is so hard to parent kids that are in this weird mixed state. I often feel torn because I know my kids really do need the structure and restrictions of younger kids because they don't feel safe and aren't mature enough to handle anything else, while at the same time everyone says they're almost adults and you have to treat them that way.

    Mary in TX
    Mom to biokids Ponito(10) and his sister Bob(13)
    Sibling pair adoptive placement from NE 11/06
    Finally finalized on Kitty(14) on 3/08 - 2 weeks before her 13th birthday!
    Finalized on her brother Bear(16) 7/08. He turned 15 the next day.

    "Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference."

  5. teenagers are the most difficult to place but then again finding good homes for teens is difficult as well. no one really wants to adopt a teenager,because of a host of issues. the homes I lived in unfortunately only saw us as additional income, personal babysitters and extra hands to do their chores. the one home that loved us and treated us with respect was only a temporary home. as far as independent living, child welfare agencies need to do a lot more to help youth. living in a halfway house or shelter doesnt help, having no education doesnt help, and knowing when you hit the age of majority your going on welfare is sad. teenagers are the most unwanted and yet they still havent reached adulthood.there is still time to mentor them,befriend them and help them live a better quality of life.


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