Children in foster care get stuck with labels

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When children move to new homes in foster care, they often arrive with few possessions. Most of their personal items can usually fit into a single black garbage bag. For many, this is the result of moving around too often to ever have roots in a single place. They are transient youth who never have the opportunity to have family photos or prized possessions. While these children have a limited number of things to call their own, they typically have a long list of labels and behaviors that follow them every-where in foster care.

The longer a child is in the foster care system, the longer the list they carry with them. Designed to inform caseworkers and foster parents, the documentation often resembles a rap sheet more than a helpful outline for how to care for a child in the system. From outbursts to lies, every incident is captured. And with each incident, children are often labeled and behaviors assigned to them. Caught cheating on a test in school? Deceptive behavior. Quiet and unwilling to talk at dinner? Withdrawn. Prone to yelling and throwing things? Textbook aggression. Found a lighter? Fire starter.
 

 
 
Once you get these labels, there’s no escaping them, and they scare off families who may want to adopt kids. It is a vicious cycle with children losing in the end.
 
 

 

For Christopher Webb, it is easy to recall the labels that were attached to him. Deceptive, angry and withdrawn all showed up in his casefile. He remembers being 11 and yelling at one of his foster parents. He was eventually labeled as being prone to aggression. “Foster children are more than meets the eye,” he said. “You really need to peel back the layers of trauma, abuse and neglect before making any judgement calls.”  Often, the behaviors children in foster care display are a product of their environment.

Children who shuffle from home to home in foster care often feel like they don’t have control over their own life. They lose trust in adults because so many adults have exited their lives. Their sense of self and sense of belonging dissipates with every move. They lose themselves. This type of environment causes children to become frustrated about their situation, angry they can’t control what is happening to them and confused about what the future holds. Compounded over years in the system, it makes sense that a child looks so bad on paper. They mirror their experiences and the way they have been treated. They don't feel like they belong anywhere. Once you get these labels, there’s no escaping them.

Jennifer Porter, who bounced between foster homes and shelter facilities in her teenage years said it was the foster placements that caused her outbursts. Finding happiness and feeling like she belonged at a placement in Corbett, Oregon, Jennifer was removed because she no longer fit the requirements of the placement. From there, she moved between two foster homes in Salem and Forest Grove in less than a year. “After being placed in these foster homes, my grades slipped, I dropped out of sports, and I lost my hope of a workable future or any sense of belonging,” Jennifer said.With what she was going through, it was no surprise that Jennifer was later labeled as withdrawn and angry.

 
 
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Royce Markley remembers a similar experience. He had bounced between foster homes and been promised an adoptive placement that eventually fell through. He felt a lot of anger over his situation and would often act out. This lead to multiple labels that included being listed as angry and manipulative on paper. “My reputation as an angry kid lead to me pretty much never getting the benefit of the doubt in situations,” he said. “I was often suspended or given consequences for things that I didn't deserve.”The worst part is that these labels and behaviors are why children in foster care stay in the system.

The labels and behaviors assigned to them scare off families who may want to adopt them. It is a vicious cycle with children losing in the end. Christopher, Jennifer and Royce all aged out of the foster care system when they turned 18.Today, Christopher owns his own company and is married with two children. Jennifer works for the state of Oregon in habitat restoration and spends her free time creating art and flying planes. Royce is a student at the University of Oregon. He will be graduating this spring with a degree in psychology.

As an organization serving some of the highest needs children in Oregon, Boys & Girls Aid encounters youth with many different labels and behaviors. They look like Christopher, Jennifer and Royce where they may seem troublesome and scary on paper. We know through experience children are products of a system that has offered very few opportunities for stability, guidance and love.

The more than 8,000 children in Oregon’s foster care system have not been given the tools to succeed. At Boys & Girls Aid, we see the full potential of each and every child. We believe children are more than labels. In the right family, children can grow and thrive. Our goal as an organization is to see their value and to never give up on getting them out of foster care. Children with lifelong connections mean never being labeled and always having a parent to support, guide and love them.The labels and behaviors assigned to children scare off families who may want to adopt them.

 

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From 15 foster homes to 1 forever family

Ryan Imondi