Nearly 20 years ago, I embarked on what would be a fascinating career serving some of our nation’s most troubled youth. A remarkable career considering that when I started, I didn’t know anything about kids. I was a Political Science major in need of a job post-college when one of the nation’s most respected youth services organizations was looking for a few good men. I use that term figuratively and literally as I was also a United States Marine, and I think the agency was looking for a little muscle to help out with the older troubled youth at a campus. Unfortunately for them, I’m much smaller than my deep voice on the phone would lead you to believe. I didn’t have kids of my own, and I honestly can’t say that I even volunteered with youth. I was just a guy with student loan bills coming due. Fast forward to today and what that career taught me, along now having kids of my own, and my heart is absolutely breaking for what foster youth must be experiencing in the wake of COVID-19. If you have ever considered becoming a foster parent, I’d like to submit that now is the time to do it. If I can borrow a few minutes of your time, I think I can convince you to act.
A COVID-19 Dose of Reality
When the COVID-19 shutdowns came to fruition, I knew that there seemed something oddly familiar with all of the weeping and gnashing of teeth that came about. “Where will my kids go to school” or “my child is missing graduation, prom, and all their youthful milestones” were the pleas coming from parents from sea to shining sea. Loss of income put stress on households, and families wondered if they would have a place to live next month or even next week.
Mental health came into the focus as the chronic toxic stress exacerbated issues like substance abuse and trauma coming from life in frequent fear. “I’m going to lose everything I’ve ever known in an instant” is the lamentation coming from business owners who don’t understand the decisions being made against their will and supposedly on their behalf by the government. That’s when it hit me. “Oh, America has turned into a nation of foster children,” I said to myself.
A Day in the Life of Foster Care
All of the anxiety and uncertainty that you and your family are facing right now is but a shadow image of what our foster children face every single day in the child welfare system. You may not know where your child is going to school or what that school environment will look like? Neither does a foster child who has moved from the only home they have ever known. Did your child miss milestones like prom and graduation? So do foster children as they often have to move from home to home and school placement to another.
You may not know if you are going to be able to make rent and if you will be able to keep your home and many foster children have no idea if “the new placement” will keep them any longer than the last. If you are struggling with trauma or substance abuse that is triggered by the stress of the unknown, well, kids who live daily in the unknown are not any different. Finally, if you have lost everything you have even known or worked for, then I am genuinely sorry. Just know that when a DCS worker shows up to a child’s home with a black plastic garbage bag, aka the luggage of foster care, they too have lost it all. They are also told it is for their own good, and the fact that it may be true doesn’t lessen the sting or the pain.
Empathy is the First Step Towards Action
I told you the story about unpreparedness for the career that laid ahead of me for a reason. As a young supervisor working on a residential campus where youth came to live temporarily, I didn’t get it. I did well by the kids and always treated them fairly and with care, but I didn’t have the empathy to fully understand what I was seeing. I can remember a youth crying profusely on his first night there, and I had nothing to offer or console.
Fast forward about seven years later into that career, and I was married with my first daughter. During that time, I received a tour of our new residential treatment center for girls when a young teen girl was being restrained for self-harm. She began sobbing, and then, just then, it finally hit me. Behind those tears, I could finally hear the pleas of “I shouldn’t be here” or “why did this happen to me” that rang out in the halls. It took having my daughter to finally gain the proper empathy, and for the first time in my career, tears came to me. I fully understood, and that moment informed the rest of my career.
Empathy is the first step towards taking action and truly transforming a youth’s life. If COVID-19 has stressed you and your family, I plead with you to search for empathy for youth who experience those stresses every day.
I’m no longer in child welfare services, but I’m confident that front line workers are working harder than ever to support those youth. However, those youth need a family - If you have ever considered answering the call, those youth need you right now. COVID-19 be damned, let empathy carry you forward to action and create change in the child welfare system, one family at a time.