Answering a Child’s Questions About Out of Home Placement

Recently, a colleague of mine came to me for advice on addressing a very tough question from a child: Why don’t I live with mommy anymore? With roughly 400,000 children in out of home placements in the United States, this is a question that gets asked by hundreds of thousands of children every year. If you’re a foster parent, you’ve probably answered this question many times. However, if you’re a relative taking custody of a child, this question may not be one you’ve prepared for. Instead of anxiously awaiting the child’s question, I recommend being proactive and facilitating a meaningful discussion with the child about the move.

The first step is to figure out what the child already knows (and feels) about the situation. This can be done by creating an opportunity for the child to talk openly about the situation with you. Ask the child why they think they came to live with you. Let the child’s response be your guide, it will reveal a lot about their current perceptions of the move. If the child responds that they “don’t know” or “don’t want to talk about it”, do not push for a response.

Instead, let the child know that you’re there when they are ready to talk or ask questions. You may say something like “This move must be so confusing for you. I understand that you might not want to talk about it right now, but I want you to know that I am here for you when you would like to talk.” Children who have been removed from their parents can be cautious about trusting others, so allowing the child the space to talk about the situation on their own terms creates an opportunity for them to build trust with you.

However, if the child is ready to talk when you ask them, pay attention to what they say about the situation. Are they angry at mom/day? Are they scared or confused? Are they feeling guilty? Really hearing what the child is telling you will likely reveal the answers to these questions, without them explicitly having to tell you. Recognize and validate whatever feelings the child may be having. This shows the child that you care and are genuinely interested in them. If younger children are having a hard time verbalizing their feelings, try having them draw a picture of what they are feeling.

Talking about the reality of the situation is an important part of the conversation. I’m a firm believer in what I call “age-appropriate honesty”. This means telling the child the truth in a way that is both understandable and tolerable for the child. When the child asks the inevitable questions: why did I have to leave mom/dad, when will I be able to go home, when will I see mom/dad again – provide an answer that is both genuine and appropriate for the child’s age. “Mommy loves you very much and wants to be the best mommy she can be to you. But sometimes, parents need a little help to be the best parents they can be. While mommy is doing this, you’re going to stay with me.” If there will be visitation, tell the child how often they will visit the parent(s) and where these visits will be.

The most important part of this conversation is to make sure the child knows they are not part of the problem. Because the move can be so confusing and emotional for children, they may feel like the move is their fault or they are being punished for something they did. Most children won’t verbalize these feelings to you, but it doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. Be proactive and remind the child of this if you notice any self-blaming.

And remember, the child’s case worker and/or social worker can help you through these important conversations. You don’t have to go through it alone.

For more tips on answering questions of children in out-of-home placements, click here.

References

Kids Matter, Inc. “Talking to children about foster care.” Available at:

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

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