Who Am I & Where Do I Belong? is an inspiring and informative training program that will offer professionals involved with kids in the foster care system hope, stamina and the courage to improve the system.
Who Am I & Where Do I Belong has evolved from the trenches; a sharing of knowledge and experiences from motivational and inspirational speaker Derek Clark and Shelly Bonnah, a foster parent who is also a counselor working for the children in the Canadian system.
Child Welfare Training: An intimate view into the thoughts, emotions and actions of Derek Clark’s journey through childhood and foster care will answer questions that many professionals working with kids in care may not have the opportunity to ask. Although he grew up angry, violent, and rejecting of most adults in his life—Derek speaks openly about the fundamental elements that made a difference to his success. He is now an inspiring motivational speaker to both youth and adult audiences, the inspirational author of Never Limit Your Life and the award winning I Will Never Give Up book series, and he is also a successful singer/songwriter. Throughout this book and training, Derek will share an honest perspective regarding his 13 years in the San Francisco bay area foster care system and how connection verses correction helped him to become a success.
As professionals in the social service sector, we will explore how Who Am I & Where Do I Belong? has been grappled with by kids of all ages who are navigating the foster care system in search of a sense of belonging. We will also describe how children and youth are viewed through the eyes of adults who often know them only through a short window of time. With the introduction of a Response-Based Approach, we are contesting many commonly adopted orientations that pathologize, minimize, and ultimately harm children and youth. Best practices—ethical practices—must include the heightened awareness of our language customs in the social service field and must have a solid foundation rooted in our knowledge of grief, loss and traumatic experiences.
Our Motivation and Orientation
As caregivers and professionals working for youth in the foster care system, we frequently gather in living rooms, classrooms, and boardrooms to review our practices and strive toward improving the lives of kids in foster care. Similarly, foster kids are gathered disproportionately inside the justice system and are taking psychotropic medication at rates approximately 60% higher than that of kids in the general population (Lambe, 2009). These challenges are not revelations and this book will not hold all of the answers. What is offered instead is an honest view of a child’s experience growing up in the foster care system through his adult perspective, and a framework for professionals to view those experiences. Our belief is that when the adults who touch the lives of children in the child welfare system collectively respond to them differently, the system itself will profoundly change.
A Response-Based Approach
[Shelly] Mishandled separations are commonplace with youth who are removed from their homes, sometimes numerous times once they are in the foster system. “Consequently, youth living in this type of transient lifestyle over sustained periods of time are pre-conditioned to guard themselves with an understandable unwillingness to interact, integrate, or become emotionally connected to peers and caregivers” (Lambe, 2009, p. 12). Those involved with youth in care have frequent choice-points when responding to youth behavior, as child and youth behavior tends to vary quite radically depending on the environment and how they are responding the individuals around them. Psychiatric interventions, such as physical and chemical restraints may be recommended and employed as treatment strategies for a DSM-IV diagnosis such as ADHD, depression, and attachment disorder. Through the application of a Response-Based approach to the experiences of youth in care, an evolved understanding of the internal experience of these children becomes possible. This new understanding can begin to challenge both social responses and the accepted professional discourse that pathologizes behavior with labels, disorders and chemical ‘treatment’. Response-Based therapy, described by Allan Wade, is:
…the development of a specific interviewing practice and the modification of practices developed in the brief, systemic, solution-focused, narrative and feminist approaches. We focus not on treating effects but on elucidating individuals’ physical, emotional, mental and spiritual responses to specific acts of violence and other forms of oppression and adversity. Certain responses – often the very problem itself – become intelligible as forms of resistance that point to ‘symptoms of chronic mental wellness’ (Wade, 2007, pp. 8-9).
The details of responses, including resistance, consist of the physical, emotional, mental, relational and spiritual processes that run parallel to that which is easily observable. A progressive understanding is gained through eliciting the often-concealed yet ever-present resistance that serves to preserve the dignity of a young person who may be faced with dignity-stripping circumstances.
Working to Make a Difference: How We Are Doing
Our primary goal is to create a useful resource for professionals working for children and youth in the foster care system. With the possibility of understanding the behavior(s) shown by children and youth differently, there is opportunity to respond to them in ways that will create more positive outcomes. We can be both practical and ambitious: this book may not change the system or the government’s way of providing care to kids in our society but it is imminently critical that we collectively find solutions to how we are caring for our most vulnerable youth. The kids in the system overwhelmingly require the adults who work for the system to change because youth in care are twice as likely to:
- Drop out of high school
- Enter the Adult Welfare System
- Be underemployed
(Youth in Care Canada, 2012)
Furthermore, statistics clearly indicate that the outcomes for youth in the foster care system are not meeting the objectives of the professionals who are commissioned to care for them. The facts, as below, are clear: neither the kids are safe nor are the professionals satisfied.
Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics
How does the United States Fare in its treatment of children?
Although the U.S is ranked 1st in gross domestic product globally, it is:
- 20th of 21 among developed nations based on overall child well-being, and
- 25th of 27 among developed nations based on the rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect.
How many children are abused and neglected in the U.S.?
- 6.0 million children were referred to Child Protective Services (CPS).
- 3.3. Million children were investigated for maltreatment by CPS,
- 825,000 children were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.
What type of maltreatment did these children suffer?
- 78.3% were victims of neglect.
- 17.8% were victims of physical abuse.
- 9.5% were victims of sexual abuse
- 7.6% were victims of psychological abuse.
How many children in the U.S. died from abuse and neglect?
- There are an estimated 1,770 child fatality victims per year due to maltreatment in the U.S., and average of 34 children per week.
- More than 80% of children killed were 0-4 years old.
What happens to former foster children?
- Approximately 408,425 children were in the foster care system
- 27,854 of those children aged out of foster care.
- Percentage of the general population that have a bachelor’s degree: 27.5%
- Percentage of former foster children that have a bachelor’s degree:
- Percentage of former foster children in jail or prison after aging out:
Males: 44.6% Females: 16.4%
- Percentage of the general population who experience homelessness over the course of a year: 1%
- Percentage of former foster children who experience homelessness after aging out of the system: 24.3%
- Percentage of former foster children who report being unemployed 1 year after aging out: 47%
- Percentage of former foster children who reported living on food stamps 2-3 years after aging out: 45.4%
(First Star, 2012)
Creating New Statistics
It is primarily through the story of Derek Clark’s personal experiences of being rejected by his biological family and growing up in foster care that we will begin to recognize and address the responses and the resistance to adversity, past and present, that are displayed by youth in care. The utilization of a Response-Based Approach to the experience of family separations and foster care experiences is intended to provide an alternative view to a systemic perception of deviance, pathology, and defiance. A review of grief and loss literature suggests that family separation, regardless of the justification(s), creates an experience of loss that is under-acknowledged in terms of positive social responses within the system of foster care. Grief can become complicated and confused when it is layered upon the existing ambivalent feelings from previous traumatic experiences, neglect or abandonment. Further to this, we know that the ways in which children and youth respond to and resist these experiences of adversity often receives a pathologizing social response from involved professionals, many times creating further harm. Some examples of harmful social responses may be assessing, diagnosing, and medicating kids for ‘behaviors’ that could otherwise be understood as responses to grief, loss, and/or trauma. This book is limited to the joining of ideas from the lived experience of Derek Clark as well as other former youth in care, and the combination of foster parenting and clinical experience of Shelly Bonnah. Beyond our own experiences, we draw from the richness of understanding that we have been invited to witness by youth and colleagues who join in solidarity to create change.