How we help youth in foster care overcome abusive pasts

 

A boy moves homes for the fifth time in a single year. A girl is removed from her family because her parents have not been home in days. Siblings are separated because they are too hard to parent.

These are the individual events marking the lives of children growing up in the foster care system. Thousands of children in Oregon can relate to one or all of these traumatic things happening to them. Their adolescence is defined by one negative experience after another.

Growing up in foster care is not easy. The events that lead to a child entering the foster care system are often horrifying. A child is abused or neglected and their overall health is deemed to be in danger. 

As a result, they enter foster care where consistency and support are difficult to find. Children first go to an emergency foster placement that will last only a few days before they are transferred to a longer-term foster home. Longer-term is relative as many foster homes are designed to house children for only a few months. The hope is that a few months is enough time for the biological family to resolve the issues that caused their child to enter foster care initially.

A few months is usually not enough time. Finding a solution for substance abuse issues, mental health challenges or anger management problems rarely occurs over a few months. Children experiencing abuse or neglect tied to these struggles typically stay in the system for multiple years before returning home. Many children will bounce between their biological family’s home and foster homes as their parents relapse or repeat dangerous mistakes. Some children will never be able to return home because their biological family never resolve their problems. 

By the time they come to us, they are angry. Their anger is tied to confusion and frustration over living with an uncertain future and having so many adults enter and exit their lives.

We understand these children do not act out or rebel because they are inherently bad kids. They act out because they have been thrust into a situation beyond their control. It is our responsibility to rebuild their trust with adults and connect them with their forever family.

One activity we do to help rebuild trust is to have each kid create a Life River. A Life River is a visual representation of the major events in their lives. We find that kids have so much anger and frustration, but do not understand why they feel this way. Drawing out their experiences allows them to open up and talk through these challenges. It allows us to have the right conversations with them as we help them heal. The Life River is an informative experience for both us and the youth.

For children who grow up in a stable, permanent family, their Life River may have things like their first trip to Disneyland or winning first place at the science fair. They also have disappointments like breaking a bone or losing a grandparent.

The Life River of children growing up in foster care is almost too hard to believe. We see Life Rivers with events like the first time they were abused by their dad, attending their 15th school in five years, or leaving all of their stuff behind because their mom was fleeing from the police. These are the realities of the kids served at Boys & Girls Aid. It is heartbreaking to see just how much these kids have gone through.

The Life Rivers allow us to show the children what they went through can be difficult to process. We want to show them that it is okay to get frustrated or angry. We also want to show them the abuse and neglect they experienced is not going to define their life. Their futures are in their control.

 

The kids we serve are not broken. They have the ability to do amazing things if they can be connected with the right family and learn how to trust again. When we help children understand their past, they are able to heal. Only then are they able to begin trusting adults again and move beyond their past abuse and neglect.

For the children we serve, we want each of them to exit our service to an important new life event. That moment is being connected with their forever family. We are ready to do this for the thousands of children in Oregon who still need to find their lifelong connection.

 
Ryan Imondi