Among Foster Youth, A Need for Normalcy

by Lexie Gruber

Simply by virtue of their state involvement, thousands of foster children are deprived the right to a normal life. A myriad of bizarre restrictions are instated in policy under the guise of protecting children. Often, youth are barred from participating in “normal” life activities such as field trips, joining a school sports team, helping with yard work, going on family vacations or just hanging out with friends.

While social workers and foster parents acknowledge the importance of age-appropriate enrichment, they fear that they will be held liable if something occurs to the child under their watch. The adults in the lives of foster children feel compelled to act “on the safe side”, resulting in a risk-averse culture that neglects to give weight to the child’s best interest or wishes. As a result, children and adolescents are treated more like a liability than a human.

I was one of those children.

When I entered foster care, I was traumatized from losing the only family and home I had ever known. To make matters worse, the little bit of normalcy in my life was replaced by a set of stringent policies that robbed me of a normal teenage experience. Due to my old age and the difficulties in finding a foster home, I was warehoused in emergency shelters and group homes until deadlines forced social workers to move me to another temporary placement.

Congregate care lacked normalcy more so than family foster care. The walls were adorned with informational posters like those in doctors’ offices, rather than the familial photos and memorabilia that decorated my friends’ houses. Above an industrial hand- washing sink in the kitchen hung a licensing certificate from the municipal health department, making our kitchen look like a fast food restaurant. Health regulations prevented residents from preparing their own food or entering the fridge without gloves, and the cabinets were locked to prevent us from stealing snacks when the budget limited the availability of food.

We were allotted two phone calls a day to friends on a pre-approved contact list and all phone numbers written down, presumably to be used to help them find a girl if she ran away. Social media was completely off limits. I was like a wrongly accused offender, locked away without having committed a crime.

My high school years did not include the quintessential milestones that so many of my peers got to experience. Extracurriculars allowed me to spend more time outside of the group homes and shelters, but finding a ride was difficult as the Department of Children and Families needed a criminal background check on anyone who transported me. If I wanted to go to a friend’s house, each member of my friend’s family would have to undergo a criminal background check.

It was hard enough to deal with the stigma of being a foster kid in suburban Connecticut, and I feared that my friends and their parents would think I was a delinquent if I told them they needed a background check so I could come for dinner. Making friends was pointless without being able to sustain the bond outside of the classroom, so I quit trying to make friends and built emotional walls.

When I went out to college at the age of 18, I was determined to make up for lost time. The staffs at the group home were the only adults I knew, and I was left with no dedicated adults to support me as I struggled to acclimate to a college campus. As a result, my freshman year was spent making bad decisions with a poor choice of friends as I sought after “normal” college life depicted in the media.

Far too often, social activities and non-familial relationships are left out of the discussion when considering a foster child’s well being. Amidst placement instability and emerging crises, a part-time job or outings with friends may seem trite. But their impact is much more powerful than believed.

During adolescence, the brain is undergoing profound rewiring as it is primed for adulthood. Age-appropriate activity and positive development opportunities are essential for healthy neurological maturation during this time. Encouraging young people to participate in normative risk means they are less likely to behave in dangerous risks such as substance abuse.

Normalcy also allows youth to build their social capital. Simply put, social capital is the quantity and quality of an individual’s social relations. Our social capital is built in communities in which we meet and associate with others such as the home, school, or in friend groups. When youth enter foster care they often become disconnected from their family, school, friends, and community, losing the only social network they have.

Far too often, child welfare policies and practices focus solely on the physical well being of a youth and neglect to acknowledge the importance of relationships. There must be deliberate efforts made to ensure that youth are able to preserve the positive relationships established before they entered care.

Additionally, policies must reflect the importance of building healthy social relationships and networks outside of the foster home. Allowing youth to participate fully in community activities, school events, and outings with friends will allow them to develop healthy relationships. This is especially important for youth who are at risk of aging out, as robust social capital is often the difference between succeeding or sinking upon emancipation.

Congress has recognized the importance of normalcy and recently including a normalcy provision in H.R.4980, the Protecting Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. As part of the provision, states need to establish an oversight system that ensures foster youth are permitted to participate in age-appropriate activities in both foster homes and congregate care. This legislation will undoubtedly normalize the experience of thousands of foster youth, and hopefully serve as the impetus to state legislation on this matter.

There are interminable arguments to make in favor of normalcy, but it should not take wonky jargon and neuroscience to treat foster children right. The universal golden standard of child welfare is to serve children in their best interest, and it is undoubtedly wrong to deny youth their right to a normal life.

Lexie Gruber is a press assistant for Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and a policy intern with First Focus.

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