By Elyse Heidlebaugh
Imagine going through this as a child or teen: Through no fault of your own, you’re being taken away from your parents – and, quite possibly, separated from your siblings. You’ve got nothing but the clothes on your back and possibly a hastily-packed trash bag with a few of your things. And a strange adult, whom you may or may not even know well, tells you that you’re going into foster care.
But what does that mean? Where are you going, and who will you live with? Just what does “foster care” mean for the Michigan children and teens who are effectively being raised by the state?
Children and teens being placed in foster care aren’t the only ones with questions – a lot of us adults aren’t clear about what’s involved either.
So let’s take a look at the four kinds of foster care placement. And then talk about what we
A bed or crib can be the difference between living with your family or a stranger while in foster care!
can do to support the best possible option – family placements.
1. “Traditional” Foster Families
For most people, the term “foster care” invokes images of strangers opening up their homes to kids in need, or “non-relative foster family placement.” However, only 32% of Michigan’s foster kids enter into this form of care.
This may seem like a great outcome. After all, the people who sign up to be foster parents must really love children, right? Well, of course – but the fact is, the situation is complicated:
First, imagine being sent to live with strangers and told that you need to follow their rules.
These people, no matter how kind, may not live in the same neighborhood as your birth parent/s – so everything is strange to you.
Your foster parents may or may not be the best “fit” for you. You may be a tomboy and be sent to live with adults who have strict ideas about gender roles, for example. Or maybe they don’t practice the same religion, or hate the foods you’re used to, or any number of other factors that leave you feeling very much like a total outsider.
Finally, your first placement will almost certainly not be your last. In other words, you’re going to have to get used to new adults, new rules, and new everything else over and over again.
Sound depressing? Wait – because, if you go into foster care at age 16 or older, you may well be one of the sixteen percent of Michigan foster teens (Thirty-six percent nationally) who end up being placed in a group home with anywhere from seven-twelve other children.
While the vast majority of adults who own, manage, and operate group homes for foster children and teens are wonderful people, the fact remains that such a placement is about as far from a family upbringing as a child can get.
Try to imagine this setting: You’re a teenager who’s been taken away from your family and sent to live, not with another family, but with an ever-changing group of strange adults and children in an institutional setting. Not only does living this way make you really different from the other kids at school — it also means that when you “age out” you’re even less likely to have any kind of supportive safety net.
And what happens if you decide you’re tired of living with different foster families or in an institution? In Michigan, that means you’re likely to end up as one of the seventeen percent of foster children/teens living in what’s called “other” placements.
On the scariest end of the scale, you may have run away and are couch-surfing or worse, living on the street. Or, you may be relatively lucky and have an independent living situation; meaning that you’re on your own but receive some financial support from the state.
If you haven’t run away from foster care and aren’t in an independent living situation, chances are you’ve found the best possible world – you’re living with a family that’s eager to adopt you.
In other words, most of the scenarios faced by Michigan’s foster children, and particularly teens in foster care, are challenging to say the least! They involve a revolving-door of strange care-givers and all too often grow up to face the outcomes we’ve all heard about – an inability to complete school or find a decent job, homelessness, and incarceration.
Now, let’s imaging something drastically different:
The Best Foster Care Option – ‘Kinship-Relative’ Foster Care
In this scenario you’re still being taken away from your home by a social worker. But now, the social worker is driving you somewhere that’s already familiar to you.
And when you arrive, a loving family member is there to greet you.
Yes, you’re still in foster care – but your family identity is intact. You feel safe because you know your new “parent/s” already know and love you. Best yet, while they may live differently than you’re used to, you probably already have an idea of what they expect of you.
When you age out, you’re also far more likely to receive ongoing support from your foster family — because, after all, you’re family.
Currently Michigan finds family placements for just thirty-six percent of our children and teens in foster care. We can and must do better.
And that’s where you and I come in.
By donating the items that families need when they get that last-minute call saying that one of their youngest members needs a new place to stay.
Specifically, I’m talking about children’s and teens’ beds, and cribs.
For one thing, a bed or crib can determine whether a foster child or teen ends up with a family or complete strangers. And for another, ask yourself what would make you feel most secure – sleeping on a couch or air mattress, or having a bed of your own?
The challenge is that beds and cribs are expensive. Few families can afford to go out and purchase one or more of them on the last-minute notice that is so frequently the case when a child or teen is taken into foster care.
For The Seventh Generation faces ongoing, urgent requests for beds and cribs from foster care workers who desperately want to place foster children and teens with loving family members. I am among the many people and institutions who have come together to provide our most vulnerable children with a place to sleep, but we need your help to continue to filling this essential need!
Elyse, Shirley Roseman, and the new children’s beds that Elyse donated last summer. Thank you, Elyse!
Please consider visiting the “current needs” link on For The Seventh Generation’s website. I guarantee you’ll see several requests for beds and/or cribs! Ask yourself if you can provide a bed, crib, mattress, or bedding for a child or teen in foster care today.
And if the entire cost of a bed or crib is too much, please make a financial contribution that FTSG can use to purchase these and other essential items.
After all, home is where the heart is – not where the bed is. With your help, we can make sure metro Detroit’s foster children get to keep all three together. Let’s follow their hearts so that in what every way possible, we can get and keep “our” kids at home.
Source: acef.org “data snapshot on foster care placement” (2011)
Elyse Heidlebaugh is a long-time FTSG supporter who is definitely walking her talk –among other things, she has personally purchased several brand-new beds and cribs for foster children! We’re very grateful for everything Elyse has done for “our” kids, including her wonderful blog posts.