Inequality is a pre-existing condition
By Dr. Marina Vaserman DSW
To my children's new adults, new school, and new community,
As we close out Foster Care Month this May, I reflect on the intersection of child welfare and educational practices. I went into foster parenting with a clear vision of what I felt capable of providing for specific children’s ages and needs. Then the phone rang and all logic, reason, and parameters fell to the background. I had no idea how little we would be told, how much would be expected of us, and how much we would gain and lose in the process of fostering love in our home. Mostly, I learned that navigating the school system for foster youth is almost as difficult as navigating the social service system.
The Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) expects foster families and schools to serve the traumatized by ignoring the trauma. There are over 425,000 youth in the dependency system in the US. 59,000 children are in foster care in California, with approximately 33,500 enrolled in the state's K-12 schools. School and home stability play a large role in long-term outcomes for children beyond the school ages.
I visited a school before the COVID-19 pandemic where the program director proudly shared their trauma-informed teacher training and then showed me examples of behavior strategies including discipline trackers, sticker charts, time-outs, and seclusion rooms. Research suggests that disciplinary actions are linked to lower self-esteem, higher drop-out rates, and reduced academic achievement. Nevertheless, these disciplinary measures are taken to respond to the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students. Experiences of trauma and chronic stressors impact neurology. Inequality is a pre-existing condition and foster youth are set up to fail in K-12 education.
It is devastating to see schools still leveraging a power differential to increase compliance. Foster youth who come into my care are victims of power and control through years of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, violence, and trauma. Unfortunately, while school should be a safe haven, traditional school discipline revolves around rewarding students when little children do what an adult wants them to do and denying them privileges when they don’t do what the adult says. Punitive school disciplinary strategies are trauma-inducing. Youth in foster care face significant barriers to positive educational experiences and healthy social relationships.
To my foster children’s many schools throughout their K-12 journey-
Teach them to stand strong on their own two feet.
My children don’t need you to kiss their boo-boos and they don't need you to send them to timeout for being too upset; they need the people who are going to teach them strength, and confidence.
Please don't tell them it's going to be okay, because you don't know anything about what happens next and there's too much in this system that's ever-changing and hidden.
Importantly please don't pity my children. Their lives were hard, their lives are still hard. They had obstacles to overcome that seemed impossible…sometimes those obstacles still feel impossible.
My child is not "disruptive", he is hurting and he is seeking understanding in a world that feels too big and too lonely all at once.
Please stop trying to save my children. They need to be challenged and they need to be supported, but they do not need to be saved or controlled.
Remember that interventions don’t change lives, meaningful relationships transform individuals.
I appreciate and understand that their story breaks your heart. There are times, even still, that it breaks mine too. I used to coddle my children, but then I learned that there is a better way to love them. If I do not require my children to practice patience and self-control, I am telling them they are not capable. If I do not stand strong in my convictions of best practice in therapy, in school, and in life, then I am telling my children it's okay to let the system tell your story instead of writing your own narrative. I will not allow my children to be defined by the tough places they have come from but I expect the community to join in setting up environments that support children thriving not just surviving.
Even on the day I pack their bags, the week they move to the next phase of their reunification journey, and the years of ups and downs that K-12 education has in store for them. They are capable. They can do it. Please don't get in the way. One day soon I will be court-ordered, again, to step back and hope for the best. What I learned over time is that it takes more strength to let go with grace than it does to hold on with fear. I learned from another foster parent that there is a difference between letting go and giving up. My children deserve a foster mom who does not give up, even if she does one day have to legally let them go. My children deserve a family to walk with them through the hard. They deserve a parent whose heart will ache when they leave and who will fight foster care and fight K-12 to make things better. Foster care, the only relationship where your heart breaks to allow you to love more deeply the next time around. But this isn’t my battle to fight alone, foster care and equity in education should be led by a community of concerned citizens.
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