Foster Care & The Holidays

Foster Care & The Holidays

The stockings are hung, by the chimney with care, in hopes that…In hopes of what? For many children who have been placed into the foster care system, they have come from homes where there was no Christmas, there was no hope. They have come from families that did not celebrate a holiday. They have come from environments where there were no presents, no tree. They have come from homes where there was not holiday joy or love.

The Holiday season is upon us. Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, Kwanzaa; these are times that can be extremely difficult for many foster children. During this time of Holiday Cheer, many foster children are faced with the realization that they will not be “home for the holidays,” so to speak, with their biological family members. When they wake up Christmas morning, and are surrounded by people who just may be strangers to them, strangers who are laughing and having fun, it can be a very difficult time for them, indeed. To be sure, it is a day that is a stark reminder to these children that they are not with their own family. It is during the holidays when families are supposed to be together, yet these children in care are not. They are not with their families, and they may not know when they will see them next.

Along with this, foster children also struggle with trying to remain loyal to their birth parents while enjoying the holiday season with their foster family. There are those moments when a child from foster care may feel guilty for experiencing joy and laughter with their foster family, they may feel that they are not only letting their birth mother or father down, they might even be betraying their birth parents and member of their biological family, causing even more grief, guilt, and anxiety within the child during this season of holiday joy. Indeed, this can be a very emotionally stressful time for all involved.

As one who has fostered many children, myself, during the holiday time, I have found that it is important to address these issues beforehand. Before Thanksgiving, before Christmas, before Hanukah; even before family members and friends come to visit, foster parents need to prepare their foster child ahead of time.

To begin with, foster parents can best help their foster child by spending some time and talking about the holiday. Perhaps the holiday being celebrated in their new home is one that their birth family never celebrated, or is a holiday that is unfamiliar with them. Let the foster child know how your family celebrates the holiday, what traditions your family celebrate, and include the child in it.

Ask your foster child about some of the traditions that his family had, and try to include some of them into your own home during the holiday. This will help him not only feel more comfortable in your own home during this time, but also remind him that he is important, and that his birth family is important, as well. Even if his traditions are ones that you do not celebrate in your own home, try to include some of his into your own holiday celebration, in some way and some fashion.

Far too many children have come to my own home and have never celebrated their birthday, have never sung a Christmas carol, have never opened up a present. Perhaps you have had similar experiences, as well. Sadly, this is not uncommon for children in foster care. It is important to keep in mind that many foster children may come from a home where they did not celebrate a particular season, nor have any traditions in their own home. What might be common in your own home may be completely new and even strange to your foster child. This often includes religious meanings for the holiday you celebrate. Again, take time to discuss the meaning about your beliefs to your foster child beforehand.

More than likely, your foster child will have feelings of sadness and grief, as he is separated from his own family during this time of family celebration.

After all, he is separated from his family during a time that is supposed to be centered AROUND family. However much you provide for him, however much love you give to him, you are still not his family.

Like so many children in foster care, they want to go home, to live with their family members, despite the abuse and trauma they may have suffered from them, and despite all that you can and do offer and provide for him. Therefore, this time of holiday joy is especially difficult.

You can help him by allowing him to talk about his feelings during the holidays. Ask him how he is doing, and recognize that he may not be happy, nor enjoy this special time.

Look for signs of depression, sadness, and other emotions related to these. Allow him space to privately grieve, if he needs to, and be prepared if he reverts back to some behavior difficulties he had when he first arrived into your home. You may find that he becomes upset, rebellious, or complains a lot. Along with this, he may simply act younger than he is during this time. After all, he is trying to cope with not being with his own family during this time when families get together. These feelings and these actions are normal, and should be expected. You can also help your foster child by sending some cards and/or small gifts and presents to their own parents and birth family members. A card or small gift to his family members can provide hope and healing for both child and parent, and help spread some of the holiday cheer that is supposed to be shared with all.

Each family has that crazy old Aunt Ethel, loud and obnoxious Uncle Fred, and the ever hard of hearing and over whelming Grandma Lucy.

Your family is used to these relatives and their personalities, your child in foster care is not.

If you have family members visit your home, prepare your foster child for this beforehand. Let him know that the normal routine in your home may become a little “crazy” during this time, that it may become loud, and describe some of the “characters” from your own family that may be coming over to visit. Remind him of the importance of using good behavior and manners throughout this period. Along with this, remind your own family members that your foster child is a member of your family, and should be treated as such.

Remind them that he is to be treated as a member of the family, and not to judge him or his biological family members, or fire questions at him. This also includes gift giving. If your own children should be receiving gifts from some of your family members, your foster child should, as well. Otherwise, your foster child is going to feel left out, and his sadness and grief will only increase.

Be prepared, though, for some in your family not to have presents and gifts for him. Have some extra ones already wrapped, and hidden away somewhere, ready to be brought out, just in case.

With a little preparation beforehand from you, this season of joy can be a wonderful time for your foster child, one that may last in his memory for a life time, as well as in your memory, too. After all, the gift of love is one that can be shared, not only during the holidays, but all year long.

Originally posted as Foster Care & The Holidays by Dr. John N. DeGarmo, Ed.D

6 Festive Christmas Activities For Foster Families

The holidays can be difficult for many foster children, but they can also be a great opportunity for foster parents to bond with their foster child and create joyful, life-long memories. If your foster child celebrates Christmas, help them get into the holiday spirit with these six festive Christmas activities for foster families.

Handmade Ornaments

Making handmade ornaments together is a fun and creative activity that helps foster children feel at home. Consider following an easy salt dough recipe that includes flour, salt and warm water, so that your foster child can create their own handprint ornaments to hang on the tree. Children can also use cookie cutters to cut out holiday shapes, such as stars and snowmen. Once baked and cooled, decorate your salt dough ornaments with kid-friendly acrylic paint.

Deck The Halls

Once you and your foster children have created handmade ornaments together, show them how to hang them on the Christmas tree. Inviting them to hang their own creations will help them to feel included in the family tradition. Invite them to enjoy the process of trimming the tree and decorating around the house.

New Pajamas

Keep your foster child warm this holiday season with new pajamas. Consider a fun flannel print with characters your foster child enjoys. They will love wearing their new PJs on Christmas Eve. You can also consider getting matching PJ sets with your foster child, for an adorable family photo on Christmas morning.


Consider inviting neighbors to join in on a caroling journey throughout your neighborhood. Gathering some friends to visit a nursing home is another nice idea. Choosing to spread the joy of the holidays at Christmastime is contagious — through warming the hearts of others, you will find your own hearts warmed, as well.

Gingerbread Houses

Whether you purchase a kit or decide to create a gingerbread house from scratch, the experience can be a fun bonding experience this holiday season. Foster parents can help set up the house by using frosting as “glue” to keep pieces together. Invite your foster child to pick out candy of their choice to decorate the gingerbread house with. While they may need help with the initial structure, allow children the freedom to show their own creativity when decorating.

Holiday Movie Marathon

One of the best ways to celebrate the season is by watching family holiday movies. Depending on your streaming service, you may have access to more Christmas movies than you could imagine! Don’t have any streaming services? Check your local television guide for when holiday movies will air, or stop by your library or local Redbox to see what is available.

Other fun activities to enjoy with your foster child include baking cookies to leave out for Santa or reading classic holiday stories together, such as “The Night Before Christmas.” While there are many ways to spend the holidays together, your foster child will walk away with more than you realize. Foster parenting at Christmas does not have to be difficult; by taking the time to celebrate together, you will create memories that will last for a lifetime.

Originally posted on the Camelot Care Centers blog, 2019.

The Holidays & Foster Care: Why Things Might Get Rough

During the holidays, we are inundated with messages from a number of sources (movies, music, TV, social media, commercials) about how we should be feeling joyful, happy, and thankful. Surrounded by loving (and attractive) family, laughter, fancy food served at perfectly set tables, and loads of expensive gifts, these images rarely reflect the truth for the majority of people. For children in foster care, conflicting loyalties and lost dreams can make the holidays an even more especially difficult time. They often report feeling especially vulnerable, lonely, and sad, at a time when they are expected to feel exactly the opposite.

What can those of us caring for these children and youth do or say to ease the pain?

Here are some things you might do:

1. Prepare the foster youth in your care for the holidays in your home

Have a discussion with the young person about your family’s holiday customs. Do you celebrate over multiple days, or is there one “main” celebration? Are there religious customs? Will gifts be exchanged? What should they wear? Who will they meet? What preparations need to be done in advance? Will there be visitors to the home? Will they be taken on visits to the homes of other family or friends? And in all of these events, will your youth be expected to participate? Knowing what to expect will help to decrease anxiety around the holidays. Avoid surprises and you will decrease seasonal tensions.

Of equal importance is to help them talk about their memories of the holidays. Be prepared for anything from fantasies to reports of no memories of anything at all. Give them space to talk and be prepared to validate any feelings they may share with you. Find ways to incorporate any traditions they remember into your family’s celebration.

2. Prepare friends and family before you visit

Let people know in advance about new family members in your home. Surprising a host or hostess at the door with a “new” foster youth may set up an awkward situation — such as a scramble to set an extra place at the table — making the young person feel like an imposition right from the start of the visit. Your preparation of friends should help cut down on awkward, but reasonable questions such as “who are you?” or “where did you come from?”

Also prepare the youth for what to expect. Talk about upcoming events and the people who will be there. If they have not met before, introduce them with old photos or stories about them. Prepare them for the “characters” in your family. Tell them if the celebration will be formal or informal, what to wear, what they will do there, if is a quiet or loud affair, and how long you will stay. If “please” and “thank you” will be expected, role play with the youth until they are comfortable with such expressions.

3. Remember confidentiality

You may receive well-intended but prying questions from those you visit with over the holidays. If your young person is new to your home, it is natural that family members ask questions about your youth’s background. As much as possible, have these conversations ahead of time, without the youth present. Understand that questions are generally not meant to be insensitive or rude, but simply come from a place of not knowing much about foster care. Think in advance about how to answer these questions while maintaining your youth’s confidentiality. Use the opportunity to educate interested family and friends. Pre-establish the boundaries for information sharing.

Discuss with your young person how they would like to be introduced and what is appropriate to share about their history with your family and friends. (Remember, they have no obligation to reveal their past.) Help them to set boundaries and consider a private “signal” to use if they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.

4. Arrange meeting your family in advance, if possible

The hustle and bustle of the holidays can make it particularly chaotic for your young person to participate in your family traditions. Anxiety may run high for young people already, and the stress of meeting your relatives may be a lot to deal with. If possible, you can arrange a casual “meeting” in advance of “main events.” If it is not possible or practical to meet beforehand, make a list of names of some of the people they’ll meet and their connection to you. You can also encourage a quick call from relatives you plan to visit to deliver a personal message of “we are excited to meet you” so that your youth knows they will be welcome. Consider making a “hostess” gift with the youth to present to the host of the party. Homemade gifts are always welcome!

5. Have extra presents ready to help offset differences

It should not be expected that all relatives purchase presents for your youth. Be prepared with other small gifts and for those family members that express concern over not having brought a gift, offer one of your “backups” for them to place under the tree. Extra presents may be addressed “from Santa”, even for older youth, to help offset a larger number of gifts other children may receive at the same time. Children often keep count of the number of gifts received (right or wrong) and use it to compare with other kids, so sometimes quantity is important.

At times, foster youth receive gifts from people they do not know. Asking a child to identify gift(s) for their wish list is often met with confusion, resistance or other equally charged emotions. We have to remind ourselves that our excitement and enthusiasm for these types of gifts may not be their experience. In some circumstances, these youth may not have celebrated Christmas before or they are not used to asking for a “gift” but rather for some basic need (i.e., toiletries or food). When encouraged to think “bigger”—beyond just what they need and ask for something that they want—foster children often struggle. Intense thoughts and fears arise: Am I disloyal to my birth parents by requesting/accepting gifts? Does this mean I won’t be home by Christmas?

It’s often our role to help foster youth understand that the community’s desire to give them gifts means only that they are loved. You may need to guard against well-meaning people’s desire to “give a happy holiday for such a deprived, abused little child,” protecting the children from such toxic sentiments.

6. Facilitate visits with loved ones

The holidays can be a busy time for everyone including foster parents and caseworkers. But it is especially important during this time of year to help your young person arrange for visits with loved ones. Don’t allow busy schedules to mean the postponement of these important visits. Try to get permission for your youth to make phone calls to relatives. A youth may wish to extend holiday wishes to relatives and friends from an old neighborhood, but may need your help getting phone numbers together. Use the opportunity to help the youth develop their own address book. If the youth cannot visit, consider including their birth families in your thoughts and prayers. If you are making homemade gifts, consider making ones for the birth family, even if they cannot be delivered immediately.

This is a time when many foster youth feel deeply conflicted about their birth families and worry about them. It is a good time to let them know it is okay for them to be safe and cared for even if their birth family is struggling. Reassure them, if you can, about the safety and care of those they are missing.

7. Help them make sure their loved ones are okay

Young people may worry that their family members are struggling through the holidays. If homelessness has been a regular issue, the winter season may bring cold weather and extreme hardship. Your youth may experience guilt if they feel a loved one is struggling while they, the youth, are living in comfort. Knowing that a biological parent or sibling has shelter from the cold or has their other basic needs met may ease a young person’s mind through the always emotional holidays.

8. Extend an invitation

If it is safe and allowed by your foster care agency, consider extending an invitation to siblings or birth parents through the holidays. It need not be an invitation to your “main” holiday event, consider a “special” dinner for your youth to celebrate with their loved ones. If this not a possibility to do within your home, consider arranging a visit at a local restaurant (ask the caseworker is it would be appropriate for the visit to be unsupervised or if your supervision would suffice). Extending an invitation to their loved ones need not signal to a young person that you support their birth family’s lifestyle or choices — rather it tells a young person that you respect their wish to stay connected to family. You will also send a message to the youth that they aren’t being put in a position to “choose” your family over their bio-family and that it is possible to have a relationship with all the people they care about.

9. Understand and encourage your youth’s own traditions and beliefs

Encourage discussion about the holiday traditions your young person experienced prior to being in foster care, or even celebrations they liked while living with other foster families. Incorporate the traditions the youth cherishes into your own family celebration, if possible. Use the opportunity to investigate the youth’s culture and research customary traditions. If the young person holds a religious belief different from yours, or if their family did, check into the traditions customarily surrounding those beliefs.

10. Assist in purchasing or making holiday gifts or in sending cards to their family and friends

Allow young people to purchase small gifts for their relatives, or help them craft homemade gifts. Help send holiday cards to those that they want to stay connected with. The list of people that your youth wishes to send cards and gifts to should be left completely to the youth, although precautions may be taken to ensure safety (for example, a return address may be left off the package, or use the address of the foster care agency) and compliance with any court orders.

11. Understand if they pull away

Despite your best efforts, a young person may simply withdraw during the holidays. Understand that this detachment most likely is not intended to be an insult or a reflection of how they feel about you, but rather is their own coping mechanism. Allow for “downtime” during the holidays that will allow the youth some time to themselves if they need it (although some youth would prefer to stay busy to keep their mind off other things — you will need to make a decision based on your knowledge of the young person). Be sure to fit in one-on-one time, personal time for your youth and you to talk through what they are feeling during this emotional and often confusing time of year.

12. Call youth who formerly lived with you

The holidays can be a particularly tough time for youth who have recently aged out of foster care. They may not have people to visit or a place to go for the holidays. In addition, young people commonly struggle financially when they first leave foster care. A single phone call may lift their spirits and signal that you continue to care for them and treasure their friendship. Be sure to include these youth on your own holiday card list. A small token gift or gift basket of homemade holiday goodies may be especially appreciated. Most importantly, it is essential to let adoptees, foster children, and those who have aged out of the system know that they are not alone and they are not to blame for their losses.

Understandable behavioral reactions:

Be prepared for the sadness and grief. Talk about your child’s feelings throughout the season.

Give your children time and space to grieve. Grief takes many forms and may be exhibited in lots of ways, including:

  • Reverting back to younger behaviors developmentally
  • Soiling themselves or bedwetting
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated
  • Having temper tantrums
  • Being rebellious
  • Complaining more than usual
  • Needing to be extra busy to avoid feeling

Try to remember the developmental age of the children you foster. It will also help you to stay patient if you keep in mind the challenges of the season for your child before you react.

Expressions of gratitude don’t often come readily from kids in foster care. Not because they aren’t grateful, but more often because they are in survival mode, especially during the holidays. Amazingly, more kids than not want to know who they can thank for their gifts. Help them to write thank you notes or make “thank you” phone calls to those who made their day extra special.

Religious Differences & the Holidays

The holidays can be tough for foster families. Children in care miss their families and their traditions, while at the same time they may want to be part of the activities of the foster family. When there’s a religious difference between the child’s family and the foster family, things can become even more complicated.

Religion can be a sensitive issue. Legally, birth parents have the right to choose their children’s religion or lack of religion. Placement of their child in foster care does not take away this right.

Of course, most foster parents try to respect the culture and religious customs of the children in their care. But what does this mean when it comes to religion?

The answer lies in establishing open lines of communication among foster parents, DSS, and the birth family. If your agency knows how you feel about religious issues (for example, if prayer makes you feel uncomfortable, or if you feel compelled to convert children and their families), it will make informed placement decisions.

This communication works both ways. The more you know about the religion, traditions, and preferences of birth families, the easier it will be for you to act in a way that honors their beliefs.

Originally posted by

Helping Children with Trauma at Halloween

Understanding a child’s need to feel safe with a Foster parent

Fear is a normal and natural part of childhood development for children. Children who are in Foster Care who have suffered trauma are often scared of the dark, frightened by thunderstorms, loud voices, or even monsters under their bed. Childhood fears may be incredibly powerful this time of year, when scary Halloween decorations, masks, and costumes seem to be everywhere. As children grow and try to figure out the world around them, they are not entirely sure of what’s fantasy and reality. They may have experienced any trauma added to their already incredible imagination; Halloween can be a scary time for them. ​Foster parents working with children impacted by trauma need to be intentional with Halloween. 

Halloween can be a day full of triggers for those children who’ve been impacted by trauma. There are a lot of transitions and tons of sugar. All of the colors, sounds, and costumes can create stimuli overload, and we often come in contact with more strangers than on a typical day. All of these things can be a trigger for a child of trauma. Triggers can send them right to survival, and once in survival, they often go to FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FREEZE.

This is not a place we want to send our children. We want them to feel safe and secure so that they can enjoy this holiday with their peers. One way to start to ease some of your child’s fear around the holiday is to allow them to help in the Halloween preparations, such as carving the pumpkin or picking out the goodies. ​Try to prepare with your child ahead of time to help put their minds at ease. Allow children to put their costumes on and off in the weeks leading up to Halloween. This will help make the elements surrounding Halloween more understandable and understand that costumes are another way of pretending and that the holiday is meant to be fun. You know your child best. Some children can work through manageable anxiety alongside a caregiver they trust. Others may need more time to adjust.

If your child is not quite ready to trick or treating and ​feels a sense of safety and security in your home, you may want to have a child help hand out candy or goodies. ​Try to limit who you celebrate with, such a close family and friend or a church group that only allows fun costumes, no scary costumes at all. Try to keep decorations and activities centered on pumpkins instead of spooky stuff such as cobwebs, spiders, and monsters. Talk to them about routine and try to keep some regular routines throughout the day and prepare them to be back to regular schedules the following day. Of course, limit the amount of sugar and offer small goodies instead. ​It is also important to provide age-appropriate activities for children who are frightened by Halloween. This will help distract from the scary aspects of the holiday. Make sure you are sensitive to past traumatic events and avoid all dismissive comments such as, “Oh, that’s not scary.” 

Halloween is fun and can be for your child too. There are often several spirited activities to do with young children to ensure you have a fun October and Halloween that won’t include spookiness. 

Look for community activities and fun things that can be done at home, such as baking Halloween cookies, painting pumpkins, and so much more! 

Originally posted on

Black Parents Who Adopt White Kids Face Unique Challenges

The Jones-Baldwin Family

Keia Jones-Baldwin’s family became a viral sensation last year when they posted an adoption announcement video, one that landed them on Kelly Clarkson’s talk show. Keia is a therapist, her husband Richardro is a police officer, and they have four children. Their youngest, Princeton Jones-Baldwin, is white. The family shares their foster care, guardianship, adoption, and race on their platform Raising Cultures.

Jones-Baldwin told Scary Mommy that they’ve faced their fair share of obstacles. They’ve been stopped in stores and even had the cops called on them, being accused of kidnapping Princeton. They’ve faced rude questions like, “Why didn’t you adopt a black child?” or, “Why would you not allow him to live a better life with white parents?” Her clapback is perfect. She is unashamed of her multiracial family and professes that “love in colorful,” the theme of her social media platforms. She firmly believes that “differences should be celebrated and appreciated.”

The Mutabazi Family

Peter Mutabazi is a black, single, foster and adoptive dad. He has adopted his 13-year-old white son, and he’s currently fostering a seven-year-old white boy. Mutabazi left his family home when he was young, spent some time living on the streets, and eventually befriended a couple who took him under their wings. They helped him get an education, their kindness completely changing the course of his life. Mutabazi told Scary Mommy he always knew he wanted to pay the kindness that was shown to him forward, eventually becoming a foster parent.

Sometimes he encounters people asking why he didn’t stick with fostering black and brown kids. His response is that these individuals don’t see the full picture, noting, “I became a foster parent to be there for all children. [. . .] I didn’t consider color. I only considered the child.” He added, “Abuse or neglect does not see the color of the child. Kids are vulnerable and need our love and safe homes.” When he notices resistance to his multiracial family, his response is simple, yet powerful. “I choose to show love, so others will see love.”

The Wilder Family

Jeena Wilder has no shame in her family game. Jeena is black, her husband is white, and they have four children, three of whom are biological and biracial and one of whom is white and was adopted. The child came to them through kinship adoption and is the couple’s niece-now-daughter.

Like the Jones-Baldwin family, the Wilders have had their fair share of challenges. Wilder told Scary Mommy that people are curious and even worried when they see an African American mom with a white child. They sometimes assume she’s the nanny. She shared, “The worst part is when they start to question why I’m with my daughter in front of her.” She’s also had fellow black people question why she didn’t adopt a black child instead of a white child. She believes, “In the end, adoption shouldn’t be about righting some wrong or looking like saviors. It should be about giving a child a loving home.”

The Farmer Family

Barry Farmer grew up in foster care himself, living under the care of a relative (kinship care). At the age of 22, he adopted his first son, a white boy, from foster care. Four years later, he adopted two more white sons from foster care. He told Scary Mommy that when he completed his foster parent application, he was open to caring for a child of any race, though he never suspected they’d place him with a white child. However, he decided, “I couldn’t see myself turning away a child because they do not look like me.

He’s adamant that adopting outside of one’s race is a big deal and it’s never okay to deprive a child of their cultural norms. He’s sought advice from his white friends for help for his sons’ haircare, skincare, and clothing, stepping outside of his comfort zone. In 2014, his family’s story went viral, and he faced a lot of criticism from the black community, catching him off guard. He was told he must hate his own blackness and that he didn’t care about people of his own race. Despite all the naysayers, Farmer said  that he is proud of himself and his family, and despite all the highs and lows, he has chosen to stick by his sons.

The Taylor Family

Courtesy of The Taylor Family

Mik Taylor and her husband are black. They have four children — a biological daughter, two sons adopted through foster care, and they are currently fostering-to-adopt their fourth child. When preparing to adopt their white son, the Taylor family faced discriminatory delays compared to when they adopted their black son. Taylor told Scary Mommy, they had to jump through extra hoops including enduring more searches for a biological family member, unnecessary deadline extensions, and unfinished (but racially-biased implied) comments from officials who were supposed to have the child’s best interest in mind.

Taylor shared that being a multiracial family has helped attract attention in a way that opens doors to converse with others about the need for foster parents and the adoption process. They’ve been able to use their family’s obvious racial differences to open others’ eyes, spread awareness, and promote love and unity. Yes, some people have assumed she’s her white son’s babysitter, nanny, or stepmother. She’s even been viewed as a mammy. However, despite the challenges, she wants others to know that foster care and adoption is ultimately about meeting a need, a need to “help a child of any color” find a forever family.

In the United States, there are over 400,000 children in the foster care system, and over 100,000 of them are waiting to be adopted. Each year 20,000 children age out of the system without being adopted into a family. There continues to be a desperate need for foster parents, those who will love and support children, working to help reunify them with their biological family and for families to adopt children who are legally free for adoption. As these five multiracial families can attest, there are absolute challenges when fostering and adopting transracially. However, there are joys, too. At the heart of each of these families is love that doesn’t allow racial differences to define what family can and cannot be.

Originally posted on

Foster parents needed as opioid crisis lands more children in foster care…

Ashley Shollenberger, center, adopted all three of her kids after fostering them. Pictured are Andres Torres-Shollenberger, back, Jaylie Shollenberger, 8, right, and Jordan Shollenberger, 5

The crisis…

When foster mother Ashley L. Shollenberger picked up her youngest son at the hospital, he was just 3 days old and suffering withdrawal symptoms.

“My little guy had some maternal use passed onto him at birth,” the Reading mother said.

Shollenberger, 37, adopted Jordan, now 5, last year. She also has two older adopted children, son Andres Torres-Shollenberger, 19, and daughter Jaylie, 8.

Parental drug use, she said, was a consideration when all three of the children she fostered before adopting were removed from their birth families.

Shollenberger’s children are among those known as the hidden victims of the opioid crisis — children removed from their homes due to substance abuse by one or both parents.

About one in three children enter foster care due to parental substance abuse.

And their numbers are growing.

“The opioid crisis caused an increase in the number of kids in foster care,” said Kathleen Roach, executive director of foster care and permanency for Diakon Adoption and Foster Care, Topton.

The numbers, she said, steadily climbed from 2007 through 2017, and the spike was directly linked to an increase in parental substance abuse or addiction, with heroin and other narcotics being the drugs of choice.

“Basically,” she said, “prior to 2007 the rate of children in foster care was declining in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”

The decade-long influx brought the total number of children in the system nationwide to an estimated 443,000, she said, and is responsible for what has been called the foster care crisis.

Pennsylvania had 25,441 children in foster care in 2018, according to the most recent report of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which works to improve the health, education and well-being of children and youth in the state. Since 2014, the report said, the rate of children served in foster care has increased by 13%.

Children can wind up in foster care for several reasons, including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment and parental incarceration, illness or death, Roach said, and drug abuse often is a factor in all of these.

When parents are using drugs, Roach said, there is a lack of judgment and their children can be neglected or abused. An addicted parent might use his or her money for drugs and neglect to pay bills, buy food or be unable hold a job, she said. Medical and nutritional needs of their children might not be met, and older siblings might end up raising younger brothers and sisters because the parent is intoxicated or out on a bender.

“Really,” Roach said, “the kids are the victims of this whole opioid epidemic.”

More kids than parents

At the same time the need for foster families is growing, the number of foster parents is decreasing.

“It is a dual crisis,” Roach said.

Diakon places fewer than 30% of the children referred to the agency each month, she said. And while the goal is to increase that number, the agency is hampered by a drop in available foster families.

The shortage of foster families means 1 in 6 children placed in Pennsylvania’s foster care system are placed in group homes or residential treatment facilities, said Jill Troutman, vice president of marketing and development for the Children’s Home of Reading.

The need is not exclusive to CHOR or Diakon; other Berks County agencies are facing a similar shortage of available foster parents.

“We definitely have more kids waiting for placement than there are foster parents available,” said Gordon May, president and CEO of Concern.

The Fleetwood nonprofit provides foster care and other child welfare services.

“We are looking for parents all the time,” May said.

Recruiting foster parents has become more challenging, Roach said, since fewer younger adults are stepping forward, older foster parents are retiring and established foster parents are adopting or have full houses.

While recruitment is challenging, she said, retaining foster parents is another part of the equation. Ongoing training and support by an agency or a case manager are essential for retention and success, she said.

The support she received from the Children’s Home’s caseworkers, Shollenberger said, “has been fantastic.”

Shollenberger maintains her state-issued foster care license by taking required continuing education courses offered by CHOR, she said, but with three adopted children, she has no room to spare.

May said the training and support offered by Concern are “top notch,” and the agency works with foster and birth families on case-by-case goals. These might be reunification of the foster child with the birth family or adoption.

“Intensive family reunification services are offered,” he said, “if that is the goal.”

Close to half the children in foster care are reunited with their birth families, according to the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network.

“Foster care is intended to be temporary,” said Deb Schoener, director of community-based programs for CHOR. “Reunion is always our first goal.”

Schoener said various area agencies work with children and parents by providing support for those struggling with mental health, substance abuse, housing, employment and other barriers to reunification, she said.

But funding for addiction treatment programs is limited, Roach said.

“If there was more funding we would have more resources to help parents conquer addiction and be reunited with kids,” she said.

The greatest need

The Berks-Lehigh foster care system has more than 600 children in need of homes, Troutman said. The greatest need is homes for older children and sibling groups. Homes also are needed for Spanish-speaking children.

While children under age 11 primarily make up the foster care population, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children reported one-third of the kids in foster care are 13 and older. While rates of older youth entering care have decreased, they make up almost49% of re-entry cases, which means they return home and re-enter the system within one year.

Further, Troutman said, the average length of stay in foster care is just under a year, but when it comes to older youth, 33% of those over age 14 spend two or more years in care, compared to just 15% of younger children. Children 13 and older are the most difficult to place in a family setting, she said, and when homes are available, they are often a distance from the children’s home communities.

Troutman said less than 1 in 4 older youths leave the care system with a permanent family to rely on.

“When youth age out without a positive adult connection,” she said, “we know their outcomes will be poor.”

They are twice as likely as other students to drop out of high school and nearly half will not graduate. Those without diplomas have difficulty securing a job and struggle to pay for food, rent and utilities. They are more likely than their peers to be homeless, and about a quarter are arrested after leaving care.

Schoener said CHOR offers programs to help young people prepare for independent living and adulthood. Kids learn about healthy relationships, conflict resolution and other skills to help them to live harmoniously with others.

“The most important thing we do for our kids,” she said, “is help them identify those who are important in their lives — the key people they can rely on — and making sure those people are on board as the kids age out.”

‘One caring adult’

There does not have to be a custodial arrangement or adoption for a responsible adult to make a commitment to a young person, Troutman said.

“Research and practice,” she said, “show that having ongoing support from just one caring adult can make an enormous difference in the life of vulnerable youth.”

Sibling relationships also are emotionally powerful and critically important to preserve, Troutman said.

Since children in foster care tend to experience more losses of significant relationships, she said, sibling relationships can help maintain a sense of identity and belonging.

Shollenberger said her daughter and younger son are biologically sister and brother and are two of nine siblings. Her oldest son is the middle child of six biological siblings. All of her children keep in touch with their birth mothers and some of their siblings.

Sometimes relationships with birth families can be strained, she said, and it takes work to maintain healthy relationships.

Challenges and rewards

Most foster children enter the system with a degree of trauma or post-traumatic stress, Roach said. Traumatic events can include the sudden death of a loved one, witnessing or experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, and parental drug addiction, overdose and neglect.

“All of it adds up,” Shollenberger said. “There is trauma simply in being removed from a home and living with strangers. Imagine hearing ‘This lady is going to take care of you.’ That’s hard for a child to understand.”

Part of the challenge of being a foster parent, she said, is understanding and accepting that some of a child’s behaviors result from traumatic experiences.

The Children’s Home, Concern, Diakon and other area foster care and adoption agencies offer what is known as “trauma-informed care,” to help mitigate the effects of trauma.

“Kids are so resilient,” Shollenberger said. “It is amazing how they are able to overcome what they have been through.”

Shollenberger, a single mother, said she began fostering children while married. She continued caring for the children after her marriage ended and later adopted them on her own.

All types of parents are needed, Troutman said, including empty nesters, single parents and LGBTQ or other nontraditional families.

“We have all kinds of kids that need all kinds of families,” she said. “And, we are just waiting for your call.”

Adults over 21 are eligible to become foster parents, she said, noting that a series of screenings and training sessions are required before a potential foster parent is approved.

Shollenberger’s advice to those considering becoming foster parents is talk to others with experience and build a support system first.

Watching her children grow and mature as individuals is her reward, she said.

Daughter Jaylie is a blossoming athlete, who plays softball, runs on her school track team and is a cheerleader. She also is learning to train dogs through the 4-H Club.

“It is exciting seeing her talents emerge and sharing that with her,” Shollenberger said.

Jordan is developing into a confident and loving little boy, she said, and Andres recently got his driver’s license and graduated high school.

“I am so proud of him,” Shollenberger said. “He is managing the difficulties of his family of origin with such grace and love.”

[Original story here.]

Finally, Vouchers Approved for Housing After Foster Care

HUD Secretary Ben Carson met with a coalition of advocates and former foster youths about a new plan for public housing support after foster care.

Earlier this year, we reported on the case made by current and former foster youths to use existing authority at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to connect youth aging out of care with housing supports.

The Chronicle of Social Change has learned that, after a thorough review of the policy by HUD’s general counsel, the agency is set this week to approve this and notify thousands of public housing authorities.

HUD has yet to publicly comment on these developments. But an event is being planned for this week where Secretary Ben Carson will announce the Foster Youth to Independence initiative.

“I truly believe that in order to improve outcomes for our youth, our people who make the decisions have to be willing and able to listen to the population they are serving,” said Jamole Callahan, one of the former foster youths who helped campaign for the policy. “This solution … was a simple fix. This is another step towards ending youth homelessness.”

The plan was pitched to HUD by Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities (FSHO) Coalition, whose members met in early March with HUD Secretary Ben Carson to lay out a plan for a $20 million voucher program. Under that plan, HUD would use an existing pot of money – a federal rental assistance account – to pay for the vouchers.

“We see kids attempt post-secondary and fail just because they don’t have housing,” said Callahan, who helps lead Foster Action Ohio, in an April interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “They have to work to maintain an apartment, then school becomes the background. And it becomes all about survival.”

Click here for much more detail on the plan, but in a nutshell: A child welfare agency would file paperwork with HUD for what’s called a Family Unification Voucher in the months before a youth aged out. That youth would be tied into HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency Support program as well, which means the voucher could last up to five years.

After a youth’s voucher is up, it is then “recycled” back to HUD to be used for another youth.

HUD, after reviewing the argument, agreed it is allowable under existing authority and is moving forward on it. The agency did not cap the voucher availability either, which means the total spending on foster youths could exceed $20 million.

The need for housing supports for foster youth is critical. Anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 youth age out of care each year in America, and 28 percent experience homelessness by age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition Database. In some states, it’s above 40 percent.

In a recent study based on interviews with 215 young adults who experienced unaccompanied homelessness as youths, foster care was identified as a major factor. Ninety-four out of the 215 interviewees had a history in foster care; of that group of 94, nearly half said entrance into foster care was the “beginning of their housing instability.”

Advocates for the plan are still pursuing federal legislation to codify it into law. The FSHO Act would guarantee a housing voucher starting from emancipation through age 25 for any youth aging out of foster care who could demonstrate the need for a subsidy.

[Original Article Here]

9-year-old girl publishes book to bring awareness to children in foster care

A 9-year-old Midlands girl published a book with a vision to bring awareness to children in foster care.

‘The Krystal Kingdom’ is a fictional, biblical based story, that holds a special place in the Butler family’s heart.

Since Audreuna Butler was a little girl, her parents have opened their homes as foster parents; which makes her a foster sister.

That experience inspired her to write ‘The Krystal Kingdom,’ with hopes it’ll influence people to open their homes and hearts to fostering.

She started writing the book when she was 5-years-old. Four years later, with the help of her father, it is now a published book. The book was published on May 18, 2019.

“I’m a foster sister and I just wanted to let my foster sisters know that I love them and they are still in my heart,” Audreuna said. “I hope that more parents could become foster parents and I think that we can make a difference in the world if we have more people taking care of these kids cause not all kids have a home.”

The book honors three foster sisters that stayed with her family the longest.

Crystal Butler, Audreuna’s mom said, “They’re coming in with a lot of issues and they’re coming in with trust issues most of all because they have been taken away from their parents.”

The book highlights an issue common for children during their time in foster care.

“One of the characters that is in the book is the dragon. His name is Willow, and it kind of symbolizes the issues that drives these children out of their homes.” Andrew Butler, Audreuna’s dad said, “There is three different characters but usually the same problem, same type of spirit that drives these babies out of their homes. So for us when she [Audreuna] brought this to us, and the thought process of using this one character or this one darkness behind this whole issue kind of sold everything together for this.”

Andrew Butler says more than 100 copies of the book have been sold.

A portion of the proceeds made from the book will be donated to The Bair Foundation, which is a Christian based foster organization.

To learn more about how to start the process of fostering a child, click here.

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