Let me first explain why I am so passionate about youth in foster care. I went to undergraduate school at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) and my last semester I started a required internship. This provided me with my first experiences working with teenagers and then I volunteered to work a summer camp held for kids who have been adopted. It was an eye opener for me because they allowed youth in foster care who were placed in homes with someone who had been adopted to attend as well. That was my first introduction. When I graduated from grad school I worked for an agency that provided Therapeutic Foster Care(TFC) and assessment foster homes for kids and teens who were no longer in the custody of their biological parents and/or guardians and were in the custody of the Department of Human Resources.
My assignment was to provide in home services to the kids and their foster parents through case management and some counseling when needed. It was a lot of transporting to doctors appointments, school and what not, which is a whole different conversation. I enjoyed my kids, I just had a hard time adjusting to the bad attitudes, mistreatment and disrespect of some of the foster parents. In the midst of all of this I volunteered for another camp specifically for youth in foster care who were between the ages of 14-20 years old and it changed my life! They were telling stories about not seeing their social workers for months at a time, not being able to see their siblings, being in placements that were unfit and/or inappropriate, but at the same time I am talking to them and they are well spoken and respectful, just great kids overall. I just couldn't figure out how anyone would be okay with mistreating them. So I changed jobs and ended up at a residential facility working as a therapist, which just put me in the crossfires of mistreatment of power, adults with power trips and no respect for anyone, poorly trained staff and an overall miserable environment for staff and the teens. The only thing that kept me there for as long as I was, I had a hard time leaving my "babies" there without someone to advocate for them.
So now.....now I am dedicated to educating the public and most of all helping professionals about my experiences. Very early on in my career I realized my education and the things I learned in my internships were simply a foundation. The information I had to memorize for my licensing exam were simply a standardized way of weeding people out of the profession. I had to utilize my interactions and relationships with my clients, teens in foster care to help guide me and what I learned most of all was that listening is the best tool in my social worker belt I have.
So anyways, that is the background on why advocating for youth in foster care is so important to me. I will do another blog about why I started this blog. But here are three things I learned this weekend that will educate you about working with teens and help you gain a better understanding of what is most important.
1. We as helping professionals have a tendency to get caught up in the most personal experiences of our clients
It is so easy to do because teenagers are so doggone dramatic and they will talk about their drama for literally days. Sometimes, however we just get so enmeshed in their personal lives that we forget we are the professionals. I once had a professional unintentionally inform me I need to have a conversation with two young ladies about their relationship and how it was going to affect the leadership group. I simply said no, because their personal life was irrelevant for me to be discussing with them in regards to what we were trying to accomplish as a group. They were aware of the rules on dating from the beginning and that was enough and that was that. Honestly that never even came up as an issue for them. Ever. We just have to remind ourselves what is our purpose in the lives of young people and not get distracted.
2 Adults are barriers.......okay only sometimes
So I have never wanted to work with adults, ya'll get on my nerves with your
"I have been doing this for 20 years" or
" Well the way I do it is" and
" I know what's best ALL THE TIME."
Boy if I could get 100 dollars for how many adults I have come across too busy trying to prove a point instead of humbling themselves to help a young person, maybe this generation wouldn't be so doggone lost! In all seriousness though this weekend I watched the adults in the presence of our young people and they were snotty and self righteous, not understanding and sometime disrespectful. I will give an example. We give our young people the opportunity to speak their minds and share their stories with us before they leave and to do this we ask all of the adults to leave the room. It provides them with a sense of security where they can share openly and not feel like they are going to be told on or reprimanded. I watched about 5 adults wandering around during this time period and I couldn't help but think to myself, now if this were youth doing this they would be in so much trouble! We owe youth some kind of respect, but I digress and will discuss this again in a later post.
3. Our youth are so unique and different
You won't find me talking too much about the young people I currently work with because I want to respect their privacy, but working with them is similar to my clients in the past. They go through so much on an everyday basis, things you couldn't even imagine having to cope with: being abandoned by their parents, physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, separation from their siblings, being berated and abused by those paid to care for them, feelings of hopelessness, diagnoses and medications, so so much everyday, but each one has their own story. I was reminded this weekend and had to remind one of my coworkers, we cannot approach situations with our young people the same way. How I interact with one of my kids, doesn't mean I will treat the other the same, I see each and every one of them as an individual. There are currently over 1,800 youth in foster care in Alabama ages 14-20 years old that face the possibility of being out on the streets with no one in their corner. I feel obligated to ensure they have what they need but I am not going to tell all of them they have to go to college or they have to get a 9-5 job. We have business owners, entertainers, poets and artists, doctor, lawyers and teachers too. They can do and be anything they want, but we have to individualize their process. Will you be that person today?