With summer vacation over, it’s back to school for thousands of excited and enthusiastic students. Most children are fortunate enough to remain in one school throughout elementary, middle or high school. But, thousands of other children have been shuttled from one family to another because of no fault of their own.
When parents are no longer able to care for their children, state social service caseworkers might place a child in a foster home. Foster parents are our state’s unsung heroes as they open their homes and hearts to traumatized children and serve as our community’s safety net.
Sarah is an example of a child in a Community Youth Services foster home.
Of all the bad things in her childhood, Sarah said the worst was being unwanted.
Most young people in foster care will tell you that their lives are incredibly unstable.
“Moving sucked,” is how Sarah, 16, put it. Being a foster youth meant that she could be moved at any time — for any reason. Moving meant living with a new family, learning new rules, enrolling in a new school, living in a new community and having to make new friends.
Sarah always worried about when and where she would be moved. Regardless of how hard she tried, she came to understand that moving and instability were inevitable when you live in foster care.
Moving meant having to explain why she was in foster care to everyone she met. She felt she had already addressed the trauma of a birth family that abused and neglected her. Explaining her life was most difficult with peers.
Sarah became discouraged and angry that she had to move 13 times in foster care. She said moving felt worse than what she experienced in her birth family. She had to worry about a lot of what-ifs that most adolescents never have to think about. What if her family relocates? What if they ask her to leave if she misbehaves? What if they don’t like her?
“My anger was huge,” Sarah said. Therapy and medications didn’t help. “They made me feel like something was wrong with me.”
But she was angry, not mentally ill. She was just confused about why she could not have a normal childhood like her friends.
Sarah directed her anger at anyone who tried to get close to her ... especially new foster parents. Her anger was in knowing that it was useless to bond to a family because eventually “they would give up on me.”
But then CYS threw Sarah a lifeline. She entered into the agency’s foster program and moved in with a foster family that was willing to accept her like she was their own.
Initially, Sarah tried hard to get them to reject her as she was too afraid to trust any adult. She ran away, was defiant, skipped school, and her anger was intense. “I didn’t want to be there.”
When Sarah’s behavior escalated, her new foster parents told her you’re “not going anywhere.” They also listened to her without judgment and gave her time to feel safe and stable.
She recalled a day she got angry at her foster mom and flew into her room in a rage. When she came out, “Mom asked if I wanted some brownies.” She learned that her parents “loved me even though I didn’t deserve it.” That was the day she “realized that the best person in my life was standing right next to me, my foster mom.”
Sarah’s foster parents encouraged her to find her spark, which was sports and music. Through those fun activities, she found adults and friends who became positive influences her life. She became a high school athlete and excelled by winning state in track.
Several months ago, she graduated from high school and moved into her own apartment close to the college she attends. Like any 18-year-old, she is excited and nervous. She knows she has the support of her new lifetime family. She has a home to return to for meals, holidays and laundry. She knows who will be there for her during the inevitable stress ahead.
Washington state is critically low on families available for foster youth. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, please call Karina at CYS at 360-918-7862 or Niki at Fostering Together at 253-219-3355.
Charles Shelan, who retired after 36 as chief executive of Community Youth Services, is a member of the 2015 Olympian Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.