- May 2015
- Vol. 16, No. 4
Associate Commissioner's Page
The following is the monthly message from JooYeun Chang, the Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau. Each message focuses on the current Children's Bureau Express Spotlight theme and highlights the Bureau's work on the topic.
This year's National Foster Care Month theme encourages us all to "Get to Know the Many Faces of Foster Care." The 2015 initiative speaks to the many different children and youth in foster care, the diverse needs of families receiving foster care services, and the different people that can help children and youth in care achieve positive outcomes. This year's National Foster Care Month also places particular emphasis on the many possible paths to permanence and the different things "permanence" can mean.
In this month's "Associate Commissioner's Page," I would like to share the first half of my interview with Athena, a young woman formerly in foster care. Athena first entered care at the age of 8 and again at 14. She was later placed with a foster family at age 18 who would go on to adopt her a year later. The second half of our conversation, to be featured in CBX's June 2015 issue, will share her experiences as an older youth in care preparing for adulthood. This month, Athena, currently a Young Adult Consultant with the National Resource Center for Youth Services (http://www.nrcys.ou.edu/), shares with us her journey through foster care and search for permanence. Athena's story speaks to the importance of never giving up on the idea of a loving, permanent home.
Joo: How did you come into contact with foster care?
Athena: My mom passed away when I was about 7 years old, and I was placed in foster care for the first time when I was 8 because my father couldn't take care of my siblings and me. I was afraid and didn't understand why I was being taken away. In my first foster home, I felt very isolated—no one told me what was going on or answered my questions. I didn't like the experience, but I appreciated knowing that foster care was a good option to stay safe. While I was still 8 years old, I was able to go back and live with my father, and I stayed with him until I was 14, but it was not a good environment. I remembered my time in foster care and how I felt safer and protected in care. So, instead of running away, I requested, through my school and social workers, to be placed back in foster care. When child welfare services saw that my situation was dire, they found me my next foster home.
Joo: What was your experience like when you entered foster care again? Were you able to stay in contact with your siblings?
Athena: I went through lots of foster homes, about 10 total from the time I was 14 years old until I turned 21. I never spent more than 18 months in the same home. I was separated from my little brother, who was born with cerebral palsy, during our first experience with foster care when I was 8. He was placed in a foster home for children with disabilities, and I never got to live with him again, though he continued to be in my life. My little sister and I lived together with my dad until we were both placed back in care when I was 14. I became more like a mother figure to my siblings. My sister and I eventually ended up in separate homes, but I talked to our caseworker about placing my sister in my brother's home, so they at least could stay together. They've been in the same foster home for more than 4 years now, and we're all still very close.
Joo: Did your caseworker consult you about your wishes as far as case plan goals or a permanency plan? Did anyone ever talk to you about adoption as part of a permanency plan?
Athena: No. I was always very vocal about what I needed and wanted, so caseworkers didn't hold my hand or push me in any direction. But they never asked questions like "what are your goals?" or "what do you want?" It just seemed to be a fact that I was going to have to age out of foster care. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be adopted. I was surprised to find out that my adoptive mom was told I didn't want to be adopted; I never said that. It was a shock that the opportunity came to me at such a late age. The whole adoption thing fell into place unintentionally.
Joo: Do you know if anyone has talked to your siblings about permanence?
Athena: No. My little brother and sister have been in the same foster home for more than 4 years. When I got adopted, I saw how emotional it was for them. My little sister cried so much on my adoption day. I told her she has that option, too, and that I could help her reach out to get that option for herself if she wanted it. She was very receptive to that. I asked their caseworker if she had asked them about adoption. She said she hadn't, and she didn't know they wanted that option. I said, "How do you know if you don't ask?" It's a disservice to them to not ask.
Joo: What does permanence mean to you?
Athena: Permanence is such a broad word; lots of youth haven't heard it or know what it means. It can mean different things to different people. For me, permanence meant adoption, relief, long-term stability. For others, it can mean emancipation but with stable relationships. My 20-year-old brother isn't ready to emancipate yet, so he would benefit from care until at least age 24. For my sister, permanence is on the fence—she wants to be adopted, but she's afraid of losing the stability she has in her current foster home.
Joo: How is your relationship with your siblings? How do you stay connected with them?
Athena: It's great. I consider them like my own kids—we're very close. I see them once a month, and they come for the whole weekend. In between, I call and text them a lot, or I'll go pick them up for a visit. My little sister reminds me of a young me. She never had a mother figure, but she knows she missed out on it. I learned after I got adopted what I was missing in not having a parent figure.
Joo: Do you have any advice for youth in care, or for the caseworkers working with them?
Athena: I would tell kids in care that it's hard to know exactly what you want at a young age. I thought I knew what I wanted before I got adopted, but I didn't. I was lost, and it wasn't until I resolved a lot of emotional issues that I knew I wanted to be adopted.
Caseworkers should ask kids "What would you like to happen?" None of the caseworkers I met ever asked what I wanted. Don't force kids in any direction; but by communicating with them, you can enable a smoother plan to get kids where they want to be.