By Joshua Christian
When I was growing up as a foster child it was hard to feel normal when I was adapting to new schools, parents, siblings, friends, etc. For example, I remember when I was around 11 years old, I was placed in a new foster home. I went to bed in the new placement, and when I woke up, I was terrified because I forgot that once again, I had moved. Of course, this is not normal. When children go into the child welfare system many challenges come their way and oftentimes prevent them from experiencing the same normalcy as kids not in the child welfare system.
In many states foster children aren’t allowed to spend the night at a friend’s house without a background check. This is embarrassing for the child because nobody wants to ask their friend, “Will you ask your parents to get a background check, so I can come to your birthday sleepover?” It is very important to promote normalcy because young people do not want to be treated differently because they are in foster care through no fault of their own.
There are times when it is almost impossible to achieve normalcy in simple settings, even during introductions. It is not normal to be introduced by your new foster parent as their child or even as their foster child. Sometimes foster parents will introduce their kids in their care as “my foster child” leaving the young person in a vulnerable spot. When situations like these arise, foster parents should ask each child how they feel because everyone is different.
Foster parents have a really good chance at helping many young people because they hold a lot of power in troubling times, especially when the foster child is so young and cannot advocate for themselves and express what needs they may have. Growing up in foster care was harsh when I moved from one home to another. Unfortunately, I moved several times throughout my time in care and I packed all my belongings in a trash bag over and over.
I highly suggest foster parents use the per diem they receive for being a foster parent to buy young people suitcases, containers, anything that is more humane than a trash bag. Foster parents should have conversations around normalcy with the young people in their house and see how they can make sure they are living a lifestyle that is similar to their peers. Foster parents can help out a lot in a young person’s life.
When they are having these conversations about normalcy they should always attempt to teach the young person a skill. I wish someone would have taught me how to tie a tie before I was 18, change a tire, or even how to cook a meal. I remember when I was getting ready for prom in high school and I didn’t know how to tie a tie. When I went into my 18 placement I found my forever home and the dad of the home taught me how to tie a tie along with taking a breath and watching the sunset, changing a tire, creating a file system and much more.
You may have a foster child in your home for five days or five months — either way, it would be helpful if you could teach them a skill such as cooking, changing a tire, doing taxes, advocate for personal needs, and anything they may need to live an independent normal life if the young person ends up aging out of foster care.
I have traveled all over the country meeting other foster care advocates who have aged out. Often, I meet people who have aged out and do not have any support depending on what state they live in. When a young person is taught a simple skill that a traditional parent would teach their child, it allows one who has been in care to have similar skills as their peers.
These are all things that are discussed at the annual Normalcy Conference every year. Case managers, CASA workers, basically anyone who is trying to learn how to increase normalcy among their foster youth can learn from the youth themselves. This is a time when an adult can learn firsthand from young foster advocates what they wished their worker had done for them. During the conference youth facilitate breakout sessions around legislative bills that affect their personal lives, transitional aftercare services, college options (private vs. public), and ensure they are never alone.
I have attended two of these conferences and helped lead them. This is truly a remarkable conference because youth make all the decisions around planning it, flying in speakers and running the show. A colleague once told me, “they may have a degree in social work, but we are the only ones who have a degree in foster care.”
Normalcy is important to me because growing up I often felt the opposite of normal. Peers all around me would talk about events, sports, driving, independent skills, etc. A lot of these objectives are things most children experience growing up and will also be topics throughout school, work and everyday life. Relating to others can be challenging but when communities come together and truly push for normalcy we can take one more step closer to our goal.
Joshua Christian is a foster alumni who has spent about 18 years of his life in foster care. He aged out of foster care last year. For a few months Christian has served on the Indiana Youth Advisory Board and as a Jim Casey Young Fellow. Christian advocates for young people in foster care. One of the projects we do every year is host an annual Normalcy Conference. The goal of the conference is to promote normalcy throughout the lives of young people in the child welfare system. During the conference, foster care advocates come together and teach others what normalcy means as experts who have been directly impacted by the child welfare system. For more information about the conference, visit www.fostersuccess.org.