I just read a story written by Ms. Helen Ramaglia for the Chronicle of Social Change opinion blog on the Healing Effects of Alumni in the Lives of Foster Children. In her post, Ms. Ramaglia, a foster care alumna, talks about her almost painful need to help her brothers and sisters still in care. She holds a workshop at a foster care success conference, and finds that the youth do not want to engage with her, and do not respect her. They were asking her questions about her life, but unwilling to speak about their own pain and hopes. After the session, she asked the kids what she should have done differently.
Their response – be more real.
Why share their pain with me if I wasn’t willing to share my pain with them? They said I had to earn their trust, their respect. They used the word “raw” and I started to get a little scared.
They were demanding I deliver the goods. They needed to know that I was going to be able to ‘understand’ their pain before they shared.
I remember that when I was in foster care, none of the adults seemed to understand me. I was expected to open up to therapists, social workers, and day staff, but it was hard to trust them. Even when I did develop trust with a person, there was a level of disconnect. The pain of being a forgotten child, a societal misfit, is so real, so acute, and it deepens when you feel that the people paid to care for you will never understand. If they did understand, maybe there would be less foster youth in juvenile detention centers, less youth in psych wards. More hugs, more love.
Now that I am outside of the system, I’ve learned that many people come back to work with foster youth after leaving care themselves. Two of the staff at my last group home were former foster youth. There might have been – probably were – many more former fosters that I came into contact with during my time in care. These people, if their hearts are in the right place, are the greatest asset to the system. There are also plenty of people with really big hearts and really bright smiles who may not have had personal experience in care, but I could tell fought with their own demons. Those are the people who I could have looked up to. Those are the people I would have loved to learn more about.
But wait, isn’t there a rule in place that says staff and therapists can’t share their personal stories with youth? Why is that? Supposedly it’s to keep the focus on the “client”, but I think it’s a shame. Healing and sharing.. those aren’t one-way streets. If you have a friend, and she was only interested in your problems, but refused to talk about anything below the surface with you — would you want to share your pain with that person? I wouldn’t.
“But Phoenix,” I hear them say, “Social workers, therapists, and staff are not supposed to be friends. They’re supposed to support the kids they serve.”
For many of us, especially kids in group homes, the staff invested in our care are some of our only connection to the “outside world”. Hearing about your experiences out there can help us prepare for what’s in store for us. If you’ve survived foster care or immense emotional pain, your story can give us hope in our futures – after all, you’re holding down a job. I’m not saying that the Trained Adults in our lives should be divulging all their issues, but it would be lovely if there was an avenue open for more real, two-way discussions. A lot of learning can happen following this question – “How did you deal with it?”
Little Phoenix: I’m such a freak, everybody stares at me at school and nobody talks to me. Everyone talks about me behind my back, I’ve heard them.
Nice Staff: You’re not a freak, Phoenix.
Li’l P: But everybody TREATS ME LIKE ONE!!
NS: It doesn’t matter what people think of you. It only matters what you think of yourself.
L’il P: (Wait, she has purple hair and a bunch of piercings and maybe she got made fun of too.) Did you ever get made fun of in middle school?
That conversation abruptly ended with, “Let’s not talk about me.” But wouldn’t it be awesome if this happened instead?
Nice Staff: Actually, I did get made fun of. A lot. I won’t tell you some of the names they called me behind my back, but I will tell you I was very depressed for a long time! I dyed my hair crazy colors and wore thrift store clothes and read books at lunch, and some people think that’s a perfectly good reason to judge somebody and be mean. It really got me down for a while, but I realized that I like who I am, I like what I like, and I wouldn’t want to be friends with somebody who can’t accept me for me. It’s okay to feel bad, but don’t worry. You’ll learn to accept yourself in time.
Li’l P: Well, I think you’re awesome! You’re actually my favorite staff. I want to learn to be proud of who I am too.
Basically, we need role models. We need adults to look up to. We crave wisdom. There’s a lot of dry, impersonal advice for foster youth – “Apply for Financial Aid! College opens doors! Build a support network! Don’t get pregnant!” – But there’s not a lot of, “Hey, I’ve been there, and this is how I dealt with it.” Or, even “I haven’t experienced that, but I can relate to feeling lost/confused.” I turned eighteen and I had no role models, no words of wisdom from caring adults to help me as I blindly fumbled through the world. I wish I did.
Ms. Helen’s story ended with a lesson. She opened up to those kids, even though she was afraid to. They laughed together, they cried together, and at the end of the session, everyone in the room came up to give her a hug.
I heard, “I’m sorry you had to go through that, thank you for sharing, now I know I can be someone special, thank you for getting real, I want to be you someday, I needed that, I promise you I will be that leader someday, you give me hope and the list goes on and on.”
So, whether you’ve been in foster care or not, whether you work directly with foster youth or are a supportive ally, please do not underestimate the value of your story to us. We’re still new to the world, some newer than others, and if we ask you for your story, we probably want to learn from you.