Guest Blog by Felecia Neil
Felecia Neil is a foster care alumni who has 12 years of experience working within residential settings and has served as a foster parent for the past 5 years.
The Back Story
After giving the matter some consideration I decided that before I really get deep into some blog topics I would introduce myself. I feel that it will be helpful to understand the perspective from which I am writing as it is rather multifaceted.
To be direct, I am a former foster youth, as is my foster dad. I was never adopted and willingly aged out of the system (naive to what that entailed) as I came to be with my family 19 months shy of my 18th birthday and with plans for college in mind it was beneficial for my financial aid to let life play out that way; besides paperwork has no bearing on matters of the heart, at least not in our minds. For those out there who harbor such thoughts as “they are not really your kids unless it is in writing,” I assure that it is… inked onto my foster dad’s arm right along with the names of his other children, biological and adopted alike.
Part way through my freshmen year, my foster family had to relocate for work from Virginia to Iowa. My foster mom implored me to join them (14 years later still does) and I know it broke her heart as well to leave me behind when I chose to stay put. I already felt worlds away from my siblings, especially my twin, and just could not see myself so far from the east coast. This meant that I was homeless. I had my dorm room for the most part however, when campus was closed for holidays and summers I lived in my van. That is until midsummer between my sophomore and junior years when the Dean of Student Affairs was made aware of my plight by the Director of the Community Service Office and my Sociology Professor (my campus moms) and made me a deal that if I worked for the college then I could remain on campus when it was closed. Compared to most I had it easy and was thankful for such blessings.
During this time a friend connected me to employment as a Day Support Staff member for individuals with autism by giving me a reference and telling the employer that I had experience as my youngest brother is autistic. This act of kindness, that I was unaware of until I received a call offering me a job, lead to a decade of working in Residential Facilities with at risk and foster youth. Through this work I would find it heart breaking to see the children who would have to grow up within the confines of those bare white cinder block walls due to a lack of trauma informed and determined foster parents. Wonderful kids who just needed someone to LISTEN to their behaviors and not “deal” with them. After much earned stability, my husband and I decided to continue what I hope will become a family legacy of foster child turned foster parent and were certified as a therapeutic foster home. We have served around a dozen youth within the past four years.
Foster Care – Broken Machine or Living Organism
This brings me current in my synopsis of my journey and to the need to share a piece of my perspective on the foster care system from the multiple vantage points that I have experienced it. This mindset has recently evolved and will make the understanding of potential future blog posts easier.
I had become accustomed to viewing the foster care system as a poorly oiled and broken down machine with damaged parts haphazardly duct taped back together here and there, if they had been attended to at all. In the midst of painful placement loss, I realized this is the wrong perspective as the foster care system is different than other systems because it has heart and therefore needs to be looked upon as a living organism and not a machine. While parts of it are broken they don’t need to be fixed they need to be nurtured and given time and attention to heal. Like a body, very injury the system sustains and bears require specific treatment. It is wasteful to be stitching up papercuts and ineffective to put a Band-Aid on an avulsion.
I had this epiphany after a placement review when reflecting upon the words, attitudes, and reactions of the three individuals at the table who were part of three different departments of the LCPA that we fostered through at the time. Despite my disagreement with their collective stance on our situation, as it appeared to me that given the deed was done in their minds there was no turning back, I was able to see that two of those three were respectable in their best practice ideologies. The third was an accomplice to the removal of an adoption in process with differing (and dangerous) ideologies on how work with foster families and what constituted adequate support. In proceeding weeks, my bitterness toward the case management department, that stemmed from my disappointment with their unwillingness to engage in some form of repair addressing why they made a unilateral decision to re-home a child and how they had gone about doing so, had extended to the agency as a whole and further into the foster care system. However, my interactions with these two individuals restored some of my faith in humanity and hope for the system. Therefore to generalize that the foster care system is entirely a broken down machine is inaccurate as it is more akin to an injured body.
” Therefore to generalize that the foster care system is entirely a broken down machine is inaccurate as it is more akin to an injured body.”
Each individual involved makes up a cell within the body of the foster care system. Cells operating with misguided ideologies are most unhealthy as they can spread like a malignant cancer throughout the system, influencing every cell they come in contact with, whereas poor practice is confined to a local area and can be contained while it is treated. This treatment should be proactive and can be accomplished through training/support services, leading by example, and supervision/follow-up. The system cannot afford to lose a single one of its white blood cells who are comprised of foster families, CASA volunteers, Guardian Ad Litems, social workers, case managers, and any other individual willing to advocate for the betterment of the lives of foster children.
The foster care system should listen to the cells within its body and act accordingly when showing symptoms of an illness or injury. It is not superhuman or self regenerative and needs to cease acting invincible or, at times depending upon the cells involved, as if it’s nose (and subsequent blood loss) is expendable when slighted. Furthermore, it should probably conduct a mental health check up and develop some humility while exploring its arrogance issues or at least why it compensates at times with such behavior.
Criticism With Hope For The Future
Though I am critical of the foster care system, it is important to note that I am in no way bashing it. While it is unfortunate, it is true that society will forever be in need of a foster care system. We are human and humans perish or make mistakes requiring support and guidance. When those mistakes have consequences for children we need a healthy functioning system to connect vulnerable youth with compatible loving and supportive caregivers while corrections are being made. When those mistakes evolve into bad choices then those children will need to be connected with families who will choose to do right by them.
“While it is unfortunate, it is true that society will forever be in need of a foster care system.”
It is also important to note that nothing I share should be viewed discouragingly as every unfortunate circumstance should be motivation to get involved and make a difference. Yes, to be completely honest fostering is hard work and it is painfully beautiful. Those who encourage foster parenting by emphasizing all of the beautiful warm fuzzies contribute to the high foster parent turnover rate. I feel it is important to be aware of what is real and the reality is that this calling requires heart, trauma informed training, and commitment. We cannot all serve in the same capacities therefore, inability to foster or adopt that does not negate what you can do!
Each community’s DSS and LCPA’s should be aware of viruses in their milieu and not dismiss a sniffle as benign as that is how pneumonia begins. The deeper inflictions will take lengthy intensive treatment to heal but that does not make them futile. As long as there is hope there will be change.