• July/August 2018
  • Vol. 19, No. 6

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Let's Commit to Ensuring Emotional and Psychological Well-Being for Children in Foster Care

Written by Jerry Milner.

All too often in child welfare we focus on the physical safety of children and youth to the exclusion of their psychological and emotional well-being. Law makes clear that safety is paramount, and it is absolutely critical, but ensuring safety should not impede seeing that children in foster care have their other health and well-being needs met. It is a "yes-and" situation. We must ensure both.

A letter I recently received made this point more eloquently than I ever can. The letter was written by an 8th-grade student. Her insight and words are quite moving. The young author wrote to express her concerns about the mental health of teens in foster care. She articulated that while there are benefits to foster care, such as a place to stay and food to eat, there are many conditions that leave foster youth quite vulnerable to mental health challenges. She spoke to feelings of aloneness that come with multiple placements and school moves, disconnection from birth parents, the struggle and conflict youth feel when living with a foster parent while still loving and worrying about their birth parents, difficulty learning how to make and maintain healthy relationships, and loss of independence. She cautions that all of these factors leave foster youth susceptible to bullying, and worse.

She continues by drawing a very powerful analogy comparing youth in foster care to "broken crayons" but pointing out that even broken crayons can still color. She warns that when not properly attended to, crayons can become dull or dusty, but that when properly maintained they are capable of brining great brightness and creativity in the world. She asks which type of crayon we prefer to see in the world. The letter ends with a simple, poignant statement: The choice, Mr. Milner, is yours.

I've made my choice and urge all who may read this article to do the same. At the federal level we will do everything we can to ensure that well-being is regarded as essential in our work with children and their families. These efforts of course include making sure all clinical services a child or youth may need are properly identified and addressed in an ongoing fashion. In addition to that, we must not lose sight of the fact that parent-child separation is in and of itself very traumatic, even in situations where it is the only way to keep children safe. This trauma can be very serious and last a lifetime.

Experiences in foster care can also add more trauma. Each move within foster care adds to the losses a child has experienced. We must not forget that, even when essential, removing children from their families can be incredibly disruptive, difficult, and confusing to all children and youth. In fact, there is no normality in those situations for children.

Yet, there are ways to make such removals and placements less traumatic, such as helping children maintain connections to family, friends, their schools, and other events. There are ways to help promote healthy development, ensure that children and youth feel cared for and supported, meet social and emotional needs, and provide as close to a "normal" childhood experience as possible under the circumstances. In many situations, I believe that we have the know-how to do these things, and taking these types of approaches need not cost systems more money. The investment should come from our vision, our commitment to practice, and an expectation that our work will support the well-being of children and families.

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